Wallace Stevens's "The Emperor of Ice-Cream"
"The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream," Wallace Steven's writes in his poem "The Emperor of Ice-Cream" (8). This line proclaiming the ice-cream maker as important as an emperor is used metaphorically to describe the selfishness of human nature. One the surface, the poem is about the wake of a poor, old woman. However, if the metaphors and symbols of the poem are examined, the poem's deeper message becomes apparent. The attenders of the wake, who represent human nature, are uninterested in the dead woman; they are only concerned with their own wants - eating ice-cream. Therefore, the "emperor of ice-cream" is truly the mourners' emperor, for the ice-cream maker represents the power of human selfishness, a power present in all humans.
Stevens creates nondescript characters, other than in their plainness, for "Emperor," thus making them easy to identify with as general and typical people, who therefore exhibit typical human nature. Furthering their regularity, the dead woman and her mourners are from a fairly low social status. Stevens writes, "Let the wenches dawdle in such dress/ As they are used to wear, and let the boys/ Bring flowers in last month's newspapers" (4-6). The girls' everyday dresses and the boys' flowers wrapped in old newspapers are testaments to their plainness as well as their lack of wealth. Stevens says the dead woman has a "dresser of deal,/ Lacking the three glass knobs" (9-10). Her cheap dresser missing three of its knobs is another example of the near poverty and simplicity of the woman and her mourners. Stephen's characters are simple and normal people; thus, their actions represent the actions and urges of simple and normal human nature.
The mourners attending the wake are more interested in themselves than the woman whom they are honoring. Even though "Emperor" describes a wake, the first stanza describes the attenders of the wake, and the dead woman is not even mentioned until the last stanza. This late mention serves as a commentary to the unimportance of the dead woman to the mourners and, thus, the importance they place in themselves. The poem opens with a list of attenders, starting with the man churning the ice-cream. Stevens writes, "Call the roller of big cigars,/ The muscular one, and bid him whip" (1-2). The reason for the wake, the dead woman, is not as important to the attenders as ice-cream, as revealed by the order in which the ice-cream man, the attenders, and the dead woman appear in the poem. In addition, the line "The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream" further backs the ice-cream man's importance by making him an emperor. The dead woman is only described as cold and dumb (14). The woman is rather unpleasant now; because she is unpleasant, she represents one's duties, which are oftentimes quite unpleasant. The...