The Emperor Of Ice-Cream

Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month's newspapers.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

Take from the dresser of deal.
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
Let the lamp affix its beam.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

by Wallace Stevens

Comments (16)

: Let be be finale of seem...............? ? a curious? 2nd stanza, to say the LEAST! !
I wish I was a member of this site back in 2007 or so- -I have learned so much reading these people's comments below! So much more informative than beautiful and I like this kind of remarks that flood the comments these days. I think these comments below say more and say it better and clearer than I so I shall just comment on the commentators that they are a brilliant group and obviously love the written word. We who love poetry salute you wherever you are.
I should have added to my comment that if the poem was written around the date of publication (1923) then it would have been during prohibition. Perhaps ice cream was the best hospitality that could be legally offered in those times.
To my mind, this is a series of commands or orders issued by the principle female and elderly mourner - perhaps a grief stricken relation unfamiliar with the friends and acquaintances of the deceased - at the wake of a recently dead female. Perhaps Stevens witnessed this incident in his youth. Poor folks are turning up in their ordinary street clothes to pay their respects, and some clutch cheap bunches of flowers. These informalities are acquiesced to. The roller of big cigars is referred to in those terms because the mistress of ceremonies knows only his trade but not his name, as is so often the case with neighbours. Someone is directed to find a specific sheet to partly shroud the corpse, and its whereabouts are described. The worthiness of the sheet for this role being that it had been embroidered by the deceased herself. And if too short for purpose, it reminds all beholders that they are in the presence of death. 'Let be' be finale of seem. Allow things to take their course; this is life and death in the raw. Seem, in this context meaning 'conduct'. As in unseemly behaviour. The only emperor is the ice cream that will offer some small comfort to all those present. Nothing else can.
Whether or not ice-cream is served at Key West funerals has been disputed but I have seen ice-cream and cake served at funerals in the south. There is also discussion as to whether this is a funeral or a wake. I want to say, what difference does that make. The poem is about so much more that its details but here we go. IMO the roller of big cigars does remind me of Florida and cigar makers and this particular guy is strong, which is the man you need to turn the crank on an ice-cream maker. I believe that this is a wake and it is for a very poor woman who has died very recently. She was a plain woman who would not mind the girls coming in their everyday cloths and flowers cut from gardens and wrapped in newspaper would have been fine with her. Her life is over, it is what it is and it is what it seems - she's dead and there is noting more to do other than this modest celebration of her life. Now yes, it is unusual, if this is a wake, that the body has not been placed in a coffin yet. But it may be the case in some culture, I don't know. I believe this event was witnessed by Stevens as he could have placed her in a coffin at no expense if he wished. At any rate, this body is not in a coffin, there are hints that she may still be in her bedroom, near the dresser where her linens are kept. The narrator comments that it makes no difference if her feet stick out, she is after all cold, and mute - she will not object. Lastly, turn on the lamp so people can come in and pay their respects because this is it for this lady - there is no emperor where she goes, only this service and it's lights out. So what is the point Stevens is making? All argument aside that is what seems so simple about this poem. We live our lives, there is really not much dignity to life for in the end only a few common folk will gather round to say goodby and there is no emperor of ice-cream in the sky but only here on the earth.
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