Wallace Stevens: Poems

The Life of the Party: Hedonism in Wallace Stevens's "The Emperor of Ice Cream"

An event marked by sex and celebration, the wake in Wallace Stevens's "The Emperor of Ice-Cream" is inescapably bizarre. Though one might expect an air of sobriety, importance, or - at the very least - reflection to characterize a discussion of death, the poem's language and content are instead suffused with an almost nonsensical air of pomp. An unnamed speaker acts as master of ceremonies, encouraging mourners to engage in behaviors more fit for a party than a funeral, while simultaneously scorning the lifeless corpse for the same sexual revelries. Further obscuring the poem is the odd refrain, "The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream." Though many parts of Wallace's verse seem more concerned with clouding meaning than creating it, there is sense hiding beneath every line. Using contrasting sexual imagery to create a mockery of conventional grieving practices, Stevens describes a funeral that embraces life instead of lamenting death, and subsequently exposes the hypocrisy that stems from humanity's obsession with mortality.

The first stanza of the poem describes a strangely exuberant scene of mourning that resembles a lusty celebration more than a wake. Right away, the speaker makes...

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