Who is the Emperor of Ice Cream?
I think readers of Wallace Stevens‘s lyric “The Emperor of Ice Cream” often miss the full significance of the line: “Let be be finale of seem.” And by way of glossing it I here offer, in a sense, a “vocational” reading of the poem. Which is of course only one possible reading of it. Others I may attend to later, while holding what follows in essay, so to speak—on trial.
“Finale” belongs to the concert hall, or the theater. The sentence in which it appears is a kind of motto for the end-game: act five, the drawing of the curtain on a play. As in Oxford English Dictionary senses 1-3: “The last movement of a symphony, sonata, concerto, or other instrumental composition. The last scene or closing part of a drama or any other public entertainment. The conclusion, end; the final catastrophe. Also transf,” as in fact it is transferred into another context here: the poem describes a funeral, an end of the merely apparent “seeming” that any life somehow always is (a life, in the larger sense, being a thing we have to “get up”). Whether there’s any catastrophe in this old woman’s funeral I leave it to those who read these pages to decide. But the poem’s queer, playful mode—its affective register—doesn’t strike me as involving anything particularly catastrophic, or even anything much to be regretted. There’s a chill at the heart of it, such that with a little rock salt and a churn one might well get a pint of ice cream out of it.
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.
In low-rent American settings like the one depicted here, “finale” (when pronounced) often follows “grand”: the metaphor is theatrical, as I suggested, or as is plain to any reader I should say. But in “The Emperor of Ice Cream” the “finale” is not at all “grand.” Among the props are flowers “in last month’s newspapers.” Why not last week’s, or yesterday’s? Must we fetch the papers up from a dusty heap? (That little detail always strikes me as adding to the slightly absurd pathos of the poem, though at least the papers aren’t last year’s.) And then there is that cheap “dresser of deal,” missing a few of its glass knobs. “Deal” in this context means, as our O.E.D. has it: “1. a. A slice sawn from a log of timber (now always of fir or pine), and usually understood to be more than seven inches wide, and not more than three thick; a plank or board of pine or fir-wood.In the timber trade, in Great Britain, a deal is understood to be 9 inches wide, not more than 3 inches thick, and at least 6 feet long. If shorter, it is a deal-end; if not more than 7 inches wide, it is a batten. In N. America, the standard deal (to which other sizes are reduced in computation) is 12 feet long, 11 inches wide, and 2½ inches thick. By carpenters, deal of half this thickness (1 ¼inches) is called whole deal; of half the latter, slit deal.” More detail than we need for present purposes, perhaps. But deal furniture is often veneer (though not always), as when sheets of oak or maple are laid over the plain pine. This would entail another kind of seeming. But whatever the case, here, our deal dresser, lacking its three glass knobs, is already well on its way to disintegration; it registers (a little sadly) one more plea for an end to fiction, to seeming. (N.B.: On a whim I set about to find a deal dresser via Google Images and was led to the old outcast you see pictured to the above left. The snow and the green siding place this somewhere in the American Midwest of my imagination. Ohio? Michigan?)
Eleanor Cook has pointed out several Shakespearean echoes in “The Emperor of Ice Cream.” Let me tentatively add another. Behind “The Emperor” (very faintly) is a passage from the “finale” of Macbeth, at least insofar as that tragedy marks what is surely the best known use in English poetry of the metaphor of life-as-a-play:
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
“Let be be finale of seem” is essentially Macbeth’s line, as the dark woods of Birnam, full of animus, encroach. That Macbeth ever supposed himself master of his own destiny at all was catastrophic error, a veer off into a “seeming” life in which not he, but the three Weird Sisters, took Scotland by the scruff of its neck. Macbeth had thought he was a player, as we Americans now say, but in fact he was, simply, a “player.” Or perhaps we should think of Sir Walter Raleigh’s fine quatrain, whose sardonic humor sorts well with Stevens’s little elegy:
Our graves that hide us from the searching Sun
Are like drawne curtaynes when the play is done.
Thus march we playing to our latest rest,
Only we dye in earnest, that’s no Jest.
Who knows but that all lives aren’t merely apparent, merely exercises in “seeming,” or what you will? (Renaissance England loved the trope, and that fact alone makes it pass current with me.) In any event, if not a Scottish king, then at least the “Emperor” of Ice Cream “speaks” in Stevens’s poem. The locutions are recognizably imperial, and savor a little of the decree: “Call the roller of big cigars,” “bid him whip,” “Let the wenches dawdle,” “Take from the dresser of deal,” and so on—all spoken in the indulgent, slightly condescending imperatives of majesty, and in a tone quite outside (or above) the key we might associate with a wake. If you would look for an emperor here you’ll not find one; but if you listen for one, you will. “Let the wenches dawdle in such dress as they are used to wear.” Well, OK. So be it. The decree stands.
Of course, Stevens’s Emperor does not take the finale as seriously as Shakespeare’s King of Scotland does. The strange comedy (or mischief) of the poem works by way of disparity: the pomp and circumstance of the imperial voice are absurd in connection with this funeral/wake—”wenches” dawdling in their quotidian clothing; muscular, big-cigar rollers (whomever such men may be), here conscripted into making ice cream, and not only ice cream, but ice cream in “concupiscent” curds; month-old newspapers; cheap furniture. Etcetera. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the collocation of “concupiscence” and “wenches” awakens certain meanings in the words that one hardly associates with things funereal, though one might with things venereal. Does the poem entirely control these associations, rule them out? Or does it in fact somehow court them? And if it does, why? A little of Eros creeps into Thanatos here. Is Stevens’ imperial speaker wenching his time out? Our O.E.D. again: “concupiscent, adj. and n. A. adj. Eagerly desirous; lustful. Cf. Johnson (1755), with citation of Shakespeare Measure for Measure v. i. 98, where the original reading, now accepted, is concupiscible” [concupiscible intemperate lust” is the line in question]. c1450 tr. T. à Kempis lviii. 135 It bihoueþ nedys‥þat he cleue to no creature concupiscently wiþ no pryuate loue. 1875 B. Jowett tr. Plato Dialogues (ed. 2) III. 57 The division of the soul into the rational, irascible, and concupiscent elements. B. Desires, lusts. Obs. 1646 H. Lawrence Of Communion & Warre with Angels 147 When your concupiscents are cooled by the Holy Ghost.” And then this for “wench,” in addition to everything else the word denotes: “2. A wanton woman; a mistress. Obs. exc. arch.” Or, in its verbal form, “to wench”: “Obs. exc. arch. intr. To associate with common women. †to wench out (time): to spend (it) in wenching. 1599 H. Porter Angry Women Abington H 1, Indeed tis true, I am thus late a wenching, / But I am forc’st to wench without a wench.” I fetch all this up because Stevens was a known lexico-phile. And because the affected, at times playfully pompous, diction of Harmonium is often very strange, such that one sometimes wants to say of Stevens what Ben Jonson said of Edmund Spenser: He writ no language.
The Emperor—that is to say, the notably august speaker uttering these imperative locutions—desires that the woman should wear something to her funeral “of mere being,” to borrow the title of another funereal poem by Stevens. (No more becoming for her.) So much the better if what she wears is a sheet on which she “embroidered fantails once.” Let there, at least, be some art; or, failing that, artifice. But even so, deploy the old sheet as one will, her “horny feet protrude,” where “horny” means, in OED sense 2: “transf. a. Callous or hardened so as to be horn-like in texture.” Those most unforgettable feet in early 20th century American poetry!—a bit goutish, gnarly, intractable, arthritic, too heavily & yellowly be-toe nailed, I can only suppose. These feet befit the office our imperial speaker assigns them: they do “come to show how cold she is, and dumb.” Well, indeed. Cold and dumb. The sheet and its embroidery form another kind of “veneer,” and the deal in this case isn’t very pretty. The sheet peels away from the woman’s body, exposing it, just as the veneer on that battered old deal dresser lacking its three glass knobs (let’s suppose, if only on a whim) may have peeled away here and there. Stevens may revise (and fairly severely) yet another familiar Elizabethan formula. As in Spenser’s “I wrote her name upon the strand,” the artist’s work used to give his subject a voice in death, a kind of immortality:
One day I wrote her name upon the strand,
But came the waves and washed it away:
Again I wrote it with a second hand,
But came the tide, and made my pains his prey.
Vain man, said she, that dost in vain assay
A mortal thing so to immortalize!
For I myself shall like to this decay,
And eek my name be wiped out likewise.
Not so (quoth I), let baser things devise
To die in dust, but you shall live by fame:
My verse your virtues rare shall eternize,
And in the heavens write your glorious name;
Where, whenas death shall all the world subdue,
Our love shall live, and later life renew.
“Seeming”—at least the highest order of it, as in Spenser’s sonnets—achieves some sort of triumph over the sorry circuit of being and death, over the “weary kingdom of Time,” as Emerson puts it in “The Poet“: “Genius is the activity which repairs the decays of things, whether wholly or partly of a material and finite kind. Nature, through all her kingdoms, insures herself. . . She makes a man; and having brought him to ripe age, she will no longer run the risk of losing this wonder at a blow, but she detaches from him a new self, that the kind may be safe from accidents to which the individual is exposed. So when the soul of the poet has come to ripeness of thought, she detaches and sends away from it its poems or songs,—a fearless, sleepless, deathless progeny, which is not exposed to the accidents of the weary kingdom of time: a fearless, vivacious offspring, clad with wings (such was the virtue of the soul out of which they came), which carry them fast and far, and infix them irrecoverably into the hearts of men. These wings are the beauty of the poet’s soul.” Old women and their embroidered sheets just don’t pass muster. Their horny “feet” protrude in ways Emerson’s poet’s “feet” never do (for, of course, poems go a-foot, too).
So the embroidery (or art, or artifice) of Stevens’ woman only goes to “show how cold she is, and dumb.” They do not her virtues eternize, though Stevens’ verse about her sheet has certainly eternized those “horny feet” of hers. (I find myself discussing them on December 9, 2010, eighty-seven years after Harmonium appeared, with “The Emperor” in it. An infant at the woman’s wake might have suffered her own grand “finale” by now.) Anyway, the old woman’s “fantails” may be from a fantail pigeon (as pictured above); or they may be from some other bird (most have “fantails” of one sort or another); or, say, from a peacock, an emblem of vanity. In his New York days, living alone, Stevens owned “a rug with the figure of a peacock woven into it—blue and scarlet, and black, and green and gold,” as he described it in his journal. And there’s also that cockatoo woven into the rug in “Sunday Morning.” The “seeming” in “The Emperor of Ice Cream” is mostly pretension. There seems good enough reason to call for an end to it. Let it be. Let the lamp affix its beam to show how things sit with her now.
I think I have given as ready an account of the poem, in most of its details, as I can at present. Why not venture into fields more controversial, as to our reading? ‡ (Here’s where the vocational reading I spoke of earlier comes in.) Let “The Emperor of Ice Cream” be, in some sense, a “debunking” poem. Quietly and experimentally, Stevens may disparage his own artifice, his own “embroidery,” into the bargain; he may find himself quite apart from Spenser as to ambitions of the sort “I wrote her name upon the strand” involve. When he calls for an end to “seeming,” to fiction, he also may be calling for an end to the supreme fiction of poetry, as he speaks of it in a poem also from Harmonium (1923), “A High-Toned Old Christian Woman.” That is another way to read “let be be finale of seem,” though I freely grant that it is not in the usual run of readings. And yet this conclusion becomes difficult to resist when we recall how often Stevens’s poetry features terms like “seem” and “fiction” in settings more or less directly concerned with the making and vocation of poetry. “The Emperor of Ice Cream” is in that sense anyway a “vocational” poem. Let’s say—again, if only as a thought experiment—that the quasi-hapless sham of this funeral/wake complements, in some sinister way, the “supreme fiction” with which Stevens famously rebukes another old woman in Harmonium: “Poetry is the supreme fiction, madame,” he writes in the aforementioned “A High-Toned Old Christian Woman” (detailed commentary on which I reserve for another day, calling attention here only to the way in which Stevens happily whips a kind of pure poetry of alliterative nonsense out the words in the last few lines):
Take the moral law and make a nave of it
And from the nave build haunted heaven. Thus,
The conscience is converted into palms,
Like windy citherns hankering for hymns.
We agree in principle. That’s clear. But take
The opposing law and make a peristyle,
And from the peristyle project a masque
Beyond the planets. Thus, our bawdiness,
Unpurged by epitaph, indulged at last,
Is equally converted into palms,
Squiggling like saxophones. And palm for palm,
Madame, we are where we began. Allow,
Therefore, that in the planetary scene
Your disaffected flagellants, well-stuffed,
Smacking their muzzy bellies in parade,
Proud of such novelties of the sublime,
Such tink and tank and tunk-a-tunk-tunk,
May, merely may, madame, whip from themselves
A jovial hullabaloo among the spheres.
This will make widows wince. But fictive things
Wink as they will. Wink most when widows wince.
So let the winking “subject” of “The Emperor of Ice Cream” be, at one level, poetry itself—of the sort that might make a high-toned Christian widow wince. And discussing the poem as an example of “pure poetry,” Milton J. Bates makes precisely this point in Wallace Stevens: A Mythology of Self (1985).
Two questions present themselves. Is Stevens likening his own fictions to those depicted in the poem, obliquely expressing reservations about the powers of poetry that elsewhere he “eulogizes” in the celebratory rather than in the funereal sense? Or—and this alternative is hardly attractive—is it rather the pathetic, uneducated art of the woman and her déclassé send-off that suffers in comparison with Stevens’s more powerful fictions, such as “The Emperor of Ice Cream” itself (or himself)? There is yet another way to put the question. The poem asks: What is the difference, if any, between “artifice” and “art”? The question is familiar from much of Stevens’s poetry, which often tries to locate itself along a spectrum running from “fiction” to “supreme fiction” to “truth”—a spectrum in which the latter two terms contend in a kind of rivalry for ultimate position. At first glance, it may seem that in “The Emperor of Ice Cream” Stevens’s crafty and infamously filigreed art in Harmonium—that is, the poet’s art—benefits (even imperially so) by implied comparison to the woman’s “embroidery.” But we should remember that the poem affirms nothing if not the infidelity of appearances. We should not be satisfied merely with what seems to be the case. We are to let “be” put an end to anything merely apparent, anything that “seems.” It is worth asking whether Stevens deviously wants his own horny “feet” to protrude, showing how cold he is, and “dumb”: both words have special meaning when a poet uses them. In “The Man Whose Pharynx Was Bad” he writes: “I am too dumbly in my being pent.” And even with its great facility and weird eloquence, “The Emperor of Ice Cream” may betray the same frustrations. There may be a mixture, here, of self-aggrandizing and self-deprecating motives.
In any event, a letter Stevens wrote to Leonard van Geyzel suggests how “The Emperor of Ice Cream” addresses some fundamental questions about “belief” in poetry. Geyzel had asked him to analyze the poem, and Stevens replied: “You examine what you do as you go along and you examine it afterwards, yet there is a point at which you are bound to stop. If you do not stop, you soon become like anyone else who no longer has anything in which to believe. If you don’t believe in poetry, you cannot write it.” Which is to say: if the poet ceases to believe in poetry—in his fictions, in what he makes apparent—he becomes “cold and dumb.” And yet, the very act of composing “The Emperor of Ice Cream” safely manages any potentially troublesome possibilities of poetic self-deflation. That is, when poetry is itself the means of hashing out these problems about “seeming,” the “poetic motive” as such transcends any motives of “pure being” that threaten it. I agree with Bates’s remark in Wallace Stevens: A Mythology of Self: “Ostensibly an endorsement of `be,’ [the poem] testifies still more eloquently to the power of `seem.'” So far as this funeral is concerned, Stevens enjoys a position of advantage: he remains both in and out of the game (dumb and eloquent), which may explain his enduring affection for “The Emperor of Ice Cream.” And it is useful, here, to draw a distinction the poem itself seems to draw: “The only emperor is the emperor of ice cream.” A context of comparison, perhaps even of rivalry, is implied. Who is the real emperor? Death himself, or the “emperor of ice cream”? The imperial voice of the poem argues for the latter; the realities it so casually describes argue for the former. I think the question remains unresolved in the poem. And who’s to say that the Emperor and the Reaper are not one and the same, in this strange memento mori of a poem?
But there is another way to talk about “seeming” and “play-acting.” In concluding his preface to E. A. Robinson‘s King Jasper (1935), Robert Frost builds on the lines of Hamlet and Touchstone, not (as Stevens may have) of Macbeth: “The play’s the thing. Play’s the thing. All virtue in `as if.'” If Frost was finally more comfortable with his self-investment in fictions (his poetry and “play”), the reason may be that he had integrated his “avocation” and “vocation” (his play and his work) in ways that Stevens never quite could in his capacity as Vice President of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company. Frost had successfully “socialized” his “difference” as a poet, thereby solving the problem that sent Ezra Pound into permanent exile, and caused Stevens—as Randall Jarrell suggests in Poetry & The Age—consistently to imagine, in his poems, a world altogether foreign to his own. “There has never been a travel poster like Harmonium,” Jarrell writes. As if confirming the disintegration of his writerly self from his social and public self, Stevens once wrote to his then-fiance Elsie Moll: “It seems insincere, like playing a part, to be one person on paper and another in reality. But I know that it is only because I command myself there.” He “commands” himself there: the page is this Emperor’s dominion. Fictions of a world utterly unlike the world in which one lives and works are more likely to seem fraudulent or unreal, at least in certain moods, than those that somehow marry the two; perhaps this is why Stevens speaks of his writerly persona as “insincere,” or as the “playing of a part.” By contrast, when poetry, as an art and as a vocation, successfully marries “ideals” to “actualities,” questions about “seeming” and “being” become considerably less anxious. The world of actuality and the world of imagination become one. In any event, that is the claim Frost’s poetry makes, as in “Two Tramps in Mud Time”: “But yield who will to their separation, / My object in living is to unite / My avocation and my vocation / As my two eyes make one in sight.”
In a lecture at the Bread Loaf School of English, Frost asks, echoing Plato’s denunciation of poetry in The Republic: “Why is it that people are so ready to blame poetry for idealism? It is because they think that poetry is all permissible lies,” by which he may as well mean “fictions.” He might well have believed that the kind of poetry Stevens was writing abetted this sort of attitude. The author of “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,” among all the moderns, most thoroughly investigated the sense in which poetry may be “permissible lies.” Stevens writes in his Adagia: “The final belief is to believe in a fiction, which you know to be a fiction, there being nothing else. The exquisite truth is to know that it is a fiction and that you believe in it willingly.” Stevens considered it the responsibility of poets to provide such fictions, such seemly seemings. We should distinguish his position, here, from Frost’s contention in “Education By Poetry” that we “believe the future into existence.” Milton Bates’s useful remarks about Stevens’s adage help us maintain the distinction: “In this respect, the supreme fiction belongs to a tradition of literary illusions that includes some of Poe’s poems, Huysmans’ `A Rebours,’ Villiers de L’Ils-Adam’s `Axel,’ Tennyson’s `The Lady of Shallot,’ and Mallarme’s prose poem `Le Nenuphar blanc.’ In these and other nineteenth-century works, an exquisite illusion is deliberately contrived and sustained in the face of a sordid or humdrum reality.” My point is that, in Frost, one never encounters the feeling that “reality” is “humdrum,” let alone “sordid.” John Bartlett remembers how, in 1935, Frost laid great stress on the fact that Stevens kept his “two lives” as a businessman and as a poet utterly distinct. This seemed quite significant to the author of “Two Tramps in Mud Time,” and given his own vocational struggles we can readily see why. Stevens does seem almost manic-depressive, at times, in his alternating exultations and deflations of the powers of poetic fictions (or seemings), which may be symptomatic of his own ordeal (other examples of this sort of perplexity recur, as I say, in “The Man Whose Pharynx Was Bad” and “The Man on the Dump”). In this alternation, as in other things, Stevens resembles Nietzsche in “On Truth and Lies in a Non-Moral Sense.”
That essay, perhaps because it is unfinished, perhaps because Nietzsche could not or (like Stevens) would not resolve its ambiguities, remains equivocal in its attitude toward “fiction.” “Once upon a time,,” Nietzsche writes, “in some out-of-the-way corner of that universe which is dispersed into numberless twinkling solar systems, there was a star upon which clever beasts invented knowing”:
That was the most arrogant and mendacious minute of “world history,” but nevertheless, it was only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths, the star cooled and congealed, and the clever beasts had to die. One might invent such a fable, and yet he still would not have adequately illustrated how miserable, how shadowy and transient, how aimless and arbitrary the human intellect looks within nature. There were eternities during which it did not exist. And when it is all over with the human intellect, nothing will have happened. For this intellect has no additional mission which would lead it beyond human life. Rather, it is human, and only its possessor and begetter takes it so solemnly—as though the world’s axis turned within it. But if we could communicate with the gnat, we would learn that he likewise flies through the air with the same solemnity, that he feels the flying center of the universe within himself. There is nothing so reprehensible and unimportant in nature that it would not immediately swell up like a balloon at the slightest puff of this power of knowing. And just as every porter wants to have an admirer, so even the proudest of men, the philosopher, supposes that he sees on all sides the eyes of the universe telescopically focused upon his action and thought.
It is remarkable that this was brought about by the intellect, which was certainly allotted to these most unfortunate, delicate, and ephemeral beings merely as a device for detaining them a minute within existence. For without this addition they would have every reason to flee this existence as quickly as Lessing’s son. The pride connected with knowing and sensing lies like a blinding fog over the eyes and senses of men, thus deceiving them concerning the value of existence. For this pride contains within itself the most flattering estimation of the value of knowing. Deception is the most general effect of such pride, but even its most particular effects contain within themselves something of the same deceitful character.
As a means for the preserving of the individual, the intellect unfolds its principle powers in dissimulation, which is the means by which weaker, less robust individuals preserve themselves-since they have been denied the chance to wage the battle for existence with horns or with the sharp teeth of beasts of prey, This art of dissimulation reaches its peak in man. Deception, flattering, lying, deluding, talking behind the back, putting up a false front, living in borrowed splendor, wearing a mask, hiding behind convention, playing a role for others and for oneself—in short, a continuous fluttering around the solitary flame of vanity—is so much the rule and the law among men that there is almost nothing which is less comprehensible than how an honest and pure drive for truth could have arisen among them. They are deeply immersed in illusions and in dream images; their eyes merely glide over the surface of things and see “forms.” Their senses nowhere lead to truth; on the contrary, they are content to receive stimuli and, as it were, to engage in a groping game on the backs of things. Moreover, man permits himself to be deceived in his dreams every night of his life. His moral sentiment does not even make an attempt to prevent this, whereas there are supposed to be men who have stopped snoring through sheer will power. What does man actually know about himself? Is he, indeed, ever able to perceive himself completely, as if laid out in a lighted display case? Does nature not conceal most things from him—even concerning his own body—in order to confine and lock him within a proud, deceptive consciousness, aloof from the coils of the bowels, the rapid flow of the blood stream, and the intricate quivering of the fibers! She threw away the key. And woe to that fatal curiosity which might one day have the power to peer out and down through a crack in the chamber of consciousness and then suspect that man is sustained in the indifference of his ignorance by that which is pitiless, greedy, insatiable, and murderous—as if hanging in dreams on the back of a tiger. Given this situation, where in the world could the drive for truth have come from?
Cold comfort. Well, call the roller of big cigars. Take from the dresser of deal (lacking the three glass knobs) that sheet on which the old gal embroidered fantails once. Let the lamp affix its beam.
‡N.B. In speaking of “fields more controversial,” I have in mind the distinction I make between non-controversial and controversial statements about poems elsewhere in The Era of Casual Fridays. For another reading of Stevens within these pages click here.