I recently read The Emperor of Ice Cream by Wallace Stevens for the first time. I love the first stanza, but I do not get the second.
As are other poets, Stevens was also a philosopher; however, I read once that the difference between Stevens and those like him is that Stevens was first a philopher, then a poet, whereas it was vice-versa with the others.
The best of evidence may be his Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird. His poetry is philosophy-heavy, oftentimes so much so it almost seems incomprehensible.
But I read “The Emperor of Ice-Cream” and loved it so much I re-read it numerous times right away.
And still, the second stanza eludes me. But one thing I know, this is where his philosophy comes in. It must, right?
The first stanza is quite simple: call Dad into the kitchen to make some ice cream for the boys and girls around him. The whole idea at face value is so Norman Rockwell. Every line in the first stanza can be a separate Norman Rockwell painting, from the cigar-smoking father figure, maybe sitting by the fire, to the serving of the sweet stuff. But if that were all it was, it wouldn’t be much. He adds to it a theme that is so much more than that, and yet so simple:
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.
At first I thought it a little odd that the girls were considered wenches, and why are the boys bringing flowers? Concupiscent was a word I had never heard of before. I read it and pronounced it more or less correctly, because I surveyed the words that came before (and a little after) it: bid, kitchen, cups, one, whip, muscular, curds, him. The only thing I got wrong was the second syllable is pronounced cyoo not coo. But it was in the definition that the entire stanza came together thematically. It means lustful, sensual, (sexually) desirous. What lover of ice cream will deny its orgasmic quality? Of course the boys are carrying flowers. Of course the girls are wenches (sexually active girls, historically).
Then comes the proclamation: “Let be be the finale of seem.”, and then the bottom line: “The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.” I first read the proclamation like be-be, but it is actually more like “Let ‘be’ be”, with a pause between the two words. As a proclamation, it is so much more than what’s on face-value: the pursuit of ice cream. I am not sure I completely understand the intention behind this line in the ice cream context, but I have an idea, and I can’t argue with the generalization behind the statement. It may be one of my favorite lines of poetry ever.
|“Let be be the finale of seem.”|
Then there is the second stanza. It appears to be a complete turn from the first stanza. No longer about a father serving ice cream, but something else entirely, a bit more philosophical. We have a dresser, with odd knobs, that holds a sheet, which was personally embroidered, and for some reason placed over a body, including the face, but with the bare feet sticking out from under it. The person is cold and dumb (stupid? lacking in speech?), and for some reason the lamp fixes the problem (warm heat?). It has nothing to do with ice cream on face value, but we have a cold body (ice cream?). We have the person who is doing the action (the emperor). It all kind of makes sense, in an abstract sort of way. Just like philosophy. But I am still not satisfied.
Can anyone bring any magic to the second stanza?
“After the Prom” by Norman Rockwell courtesy of his estate and: