Friday, 15 June 2012


Wallace Stevens' first published volume of poems (pub. Alfred A. Knopf in 1923) was called Harmonium. There are many famous poems within; Tea at the Palaz of Hoon, Fabliau of Florida, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, The Emperor of Ice-Cream etc., etc..

Yesterday I went to visit The Emperor of Ice-Cream and I found him, as you can see, hard at work in his ice-cream palace. He was, as you may just be able to make out, busily whipping his concupiscent curds. I asked him if I could take his photograph and he replied, after a moment's hesitation in which he looked me up and down: Of course!

The Emperor

The poem is already somewhere else on this blog but to save the reader the trouble of looking it up here it is again:

The Emperor of Ice-Cream

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 papers.
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.

The Emperor's Palace

The Emperor's ice-cream

Stevens has been very clever in his construction of this poem which is about a wake.

Let be be finale . . .

I remember my granddad laid out in the parlour in Wales with his relatives around, the old ones sitting wherever they could find a perch, the younger end not quiet knowing what to do or how to behave

the wenches dawdle . . .
the boys bring flowers . . .

and everyone nibbling on dainty triangular sandwiches from a large blue plate on the Welsh dresser.

The aunts took turns at going to and fro with a large black teapot. And another someone, an uncle of mine I believe, poured generous tots of whisky into crystal glasses for the men.

There may even have been a cigar or two on fire, certainly many cigarettes were in evidence.

We didn't cover grandad's face with an embroidered sheet as in the poem but copper coins were placed over his eyes, presumably so that he couldn't see us.

And so I think it is with Wallace's embroidered sheet.

spread it so as to cover her face . . .

It's to cover the dead woman's face so that she cannot see the party enjoying themselves with ice-cream and cigars.

Call the roller of big cigars . . .

When the old person finally dies the death should be seen as part of the natural course of events. We should not perceive it as tragedy. A long life is a cause for celebration and reflection.

she embroidered fantails once . . .

And really, there is no mystery about this poem,  for death's cold hand will grasp us all.

how cold she is, and dumb . . . 

Now you should read the poem again but this time substitute the last two lines in the first verse with the last two lines in the second verse and vice-versa and see where that leaves you.

If you want to discover more about The Emperor of Ice-Cream check out George Szirtes' website for the day before yesterday.


  1. nice synopsis Gwilym - I believe the pennies were to pay the ferryman on the river styx but who knows

  2. Aye, you never know - good to go with the right change ;),


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