“The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.” – Wallace Stevens

Though he’s been gone for years, Stevens seems more contemporary and “with it” with every passing year.  That’s the mark of a great poet, IMHO, whose work is bound to endure because it is essentially timeless.

Ever since he began publishing, Stevens has been considered a difficult, somewhat obscure poet. And if you think his verse is somewhat opaque, you should read his prose. You need to sleep with it under your pillow,  recite it in the shower, take it outside and read it aloud to the birds to get it.  But his lush imagery and merry undertone to poems rendering life’s  brevity and beauty have seduced readers in spite of themselves.

He distances himself from, actually rejects outright, the conventional answers and spiritual comforts offered by the world’s religious traditions and places his faith in life itself instead.

He faces death with his own article of faith: “Death is the mother of beauty.”

For Stevens, death, our common fate, when fully faced without the “crutch” of faith and accepted as final, as the inescapable common mortal end to our selves and consciousness, has the uncanny ability to transmute and intensify our joy and our appreciation of the sheer lusciousness of life, rather than diminishing it. For Stephens, this notion dispelled the fear of death, the most basic human anxiety.

This credo was his mode of transcendence. It is most clearly articulated and demonstrated in his poem “Sunday Morning.”

People have misinterpreted the following poem as a celebration of something as superficial as the pleasure of a delicious cone of ice cream in the summertime.  The imagery and meter are joyous, lilting, uplifting. Seductive.  But what Stevens is in fact celebrating is the pleasurable carnality, the physical and psychological zing, that life can give us, in spite of the absolute inevitability of our own eventual death, and without the baggage and apparatus of “religion” and its reputed consolations and comforts.  It’s a radical, revolutionary, highly unconventional approach, but nevertheless interesting and seductive in the hands of a masterful poet.

In this poem, the discerning reader discovers in the second stanza that an unnamed woman lies dead, cold and stiffening with rigor mortis. Stevens’ narrator advises those standing by to place something over her face which she has made, “that sheet on which she had embroidered fantails once.” Salvation (order, joy) was for Stevens found in making, in creating a new thing, for each new thing could potentially outlast us and immediately re-order our lives–and the universe. Homo Faber, man the maker, was his one big thing.  By creating, man defied and trumped death, and in a sense survived it.

Always in his verse, Stevens draws us back to the gorgeous, sensual unbridled pleasures of life:  “The only emperor is the emperor of ice cream.”

And “Death is the mother of beauty.” Haha, whatever you make of this, like it or not, it sure does focus the mind, like a noose around all of our necks.

Terrific poem, defiant original poet!

The Emperor of Ice-Cream

Wallace Stevens, 18791955
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.

About Margaret Jean Langstaff

A lifelong critical reader with literary tastes, a novelist, short story writer, essayist, book critic, and professional book editor for many years. A consultant to publishers and authors, providing manuscript critiques and a full range of editorial services. A friend and supporter of all other readers and writers. A collector of signed modern first editions. Animal lover and tree hugger. Follow me on Twitter @LangstaffEditor
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2 Responses to “The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.” – Wallace Stevens

  1. Thanks for this post. I have to admit that I found this poem to be difficult when I read it a while back, and it kind of turned me off to Stevens. But I really liked your interpretation. It makes me open to trying Stevens again, though maybe not his prose. 😉



  2. I confess I myself hated Stevens’ work when I first read it in undergraduate school. I thought it was some kind of over-intellectualized “act” he was performing for the professorial pointy head crowd in academia. But “Sunday Morning” unlocked the body of his work for me, eventually, and I began to casually re-read all of it after that. I really caught the Stevens bug when I discovered the attitudes and impulse behind his verse, and began to understand the premises on which his work was based. His talent, so towering, finally carried the day for me, won me over.


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