“The Emperor of Ice-Cream” is Modernist poet Wallace Stevens at his most whimsical, and his most notoriously evasive. Originally published in 1922, “The Emperor of Ice-Cream” was included in Stevens’ 1923 debut collection, Harmonium. This poem exemplifies the blend of mundane everyday reality and metaphysical philosophy that marks Stevens' work and has earned him a place as one of America’s 20th century master poets.
In a 1933 letter, Stevens picked “The Emperor of Ice-Cream” as his favorite of his poems, because it “wears a deliberately commonplace costume, and yet seems to me to contain something of the essential gaudiness of poetry.” This gaudiness shines through in the first of the poem’s two stanzas, depicting a joyous, youthful scene with ice cream and flowers. Not until the second stanza does the poem reveal that the occasion is a wake, a gathering for a recently deceased woman.
Through an ironic juxtaposition of vivacity and death, “The Emperor of Ice-Cream” implicitly asks how life and death can coexist. The poem encourages its readers to strip away the appearances of both, and confront bare reality, which is full of the delightful, lustful, crude energies of life.