Comment on the theme of Wallace Steven’s poem The Emperor of Ice-cream
Wallace Stevens, a renowned American poet of the 20th century, was known for his enigmatic and thought-provoking poems that often explored complex themes. “This is also true of one of his most well-known pieces, “The Emperor of Ice-Cream.” This 1922 poem can be interpreted in a variety of ways, and literary experts continue to disagree about its central idea. The poem explores the fundamental themes of life and death, the impermanence of existence, and the transient character of human experience.
Life and Death:
One of the central themes of “The Emperor of Ice-Cream” is the interplay between life and death. The poem opens with the image of a dead woman laid out on her bed and the preparations for her funeral, setting the stage for a contemplation of mortality. The mention of the “wenches” who are preparing her body highlights the stark contrast between the vibrancy of life and the inevitability of death. The poem juxtaposes these two aspects of existence, suggesting that death is an inherent part of the human experience.
Even the title, “The Emperor of Ice-Cream,” exudes grandeur and power. Irony is produced, nevertheless, when the word “emperor” is used in conjunction with “ice cream,” a commonplace treat. This ironic statement implies that even the most influential and ostentatious people have to face mortality’s simplicity. The poem’s central theme of life and death is emphasised repeatedly, serving as a reminder to the reader that dying is a common occurrence that affects all facets of existence.
Transience and Impermanence:
“The Emperor of Ice-Cream” delves into the transience and impermanence of life. The poem suggests that, in the face of death, even the most joyful and pleasurable experiences are fleeting. The description of “the only emperor” as the “emperor of ice-cream” underscores the idea that life, like ice cream, melts away. It is a reminder that life is transient and that one’s existence is, ultimately, temporary.
The use of the word “concupiscent” in the poem further emphasizes the ephemeral nature of life. “Concupiscent” suggests a strong desire or lust for life’s pleasures. However, it also implies that such desires are transient and fleeting. The word highlights the idea that human desires and pleasures are short-lived, just as the ice cream will inevitably melt.
The Banality of Death:
The poem challenges the way society often deals with death by emphasizing its banal and ordinary aspects. The dead woman is described in plain terms, as are the preparations for her funeral. The “wenches” who are preparing her body and the boys who are selling “cigarettes” and “soda” are depicted as ordinary individuals going about their everyday tasks. This portrayal of death as a part of the mundane and ordinary fabric of life is a critique of the tendency to sensationalize or mythologize death.
By presenting death as a commonplace occurrence, Stevens highlights the idea that death is an equalizer. It does not discriminate based on social status or individual significance. Everyone, regardless of their station in life, must ultimately confront mortality.
Celebration of Life:
While the poem confronts the theme of death, it also celebrates the vitality and pleasure of life. The image of the “wenches” and the boys selling ice cream and soda creates a sense of festivity and joy. The phrase “Let be be finale of seem” suggests that, in the face of life’s impermanence, it is important to embrace the pleasures and experiences life has to offer.
The description of the “wenches” as “straw” suggests a sense of naturalness and vitality. The “wenches” embody life and its vitality, contrasting with the stillness and finality of death. The poem implies that, even in the presence of death, life should be celebrated and enjoyed.
Ambiguity and Multiple Interpretations:
One of the remarkable aspects of “The Emperor of Ice-Cream” is its ambiguity and openness to multiple interpretations. Stevens’ poem does not provide clear answers or a single definitive message. Instead, it invites readers to engage with its words and images, encouraging them to derive their own meanings.
The poem’s ambiguity reflects the complexity of the theme of life and death. Life and death are profound, multi-faceted concepts, and the poem does not seek to simplify them. Instead, it asks readers to consider the intricate interplay between these themes and how they shape the human experience.
Imagery and Symbolism:
“The Emperor of Ice-Cream” employs rich imagery and symbolism to convey its themes. The image of the “wenches” and the boys, the “wenches” making “beds” and the boys selling “cones,” all serve as powerful symbols of life and death. The poem’s vivid imagery evokes a sense of both the ordinary and the extraordinary, the joyful and the mournful.
The ice cream and soda represent the pleasures and delights of life, while the preparations for the funeral and the dead woman represent the somber reality of death. The contrast between these images and the interplay between life and death contribute to the poem’s depth and complexity.
The Role of Language:
Stevens’ use of language is a key element in conveying the poem’s theme. The poem’s language is both plain and evocative, allowing readers to engage with the text on multiple levels. Stevens uses language to emphasize the banality of death and the transience of life, as well as to create a sense of celebration and vitality.
The poem’s language challenges traditional views of death by presenting it in a matter-of-fact manner. The title itself is a play on words, using the term “emperor” in an unexpected context. This linguistic creativity reinforces the poem’s exploration of life and death in unconventional ways.
“The Emperor of Ice-Cream” by Wallace Stevens is a multi-layered and enigmatic poem that explores the profound themes of life and death, the transience of existence, and the fleeting nature of human experience. This brief but impactful poem challenges conventional views of death by presenting it as an ordinary and banal part of life, emphasizing the universality of mortality.
Stevens’ language and imagery play a crucial role in conveying the poem’s themes. The contrast between the vibrant, celebratory aspects of life, symbolized by the “wenches” and the boys selling ice cream and soda, and the somber reality of death, represented by the dead woman and her preparations for the funeral, creates a complex interplay that invites readers to contemplate the intricacies of human existence.
The poem’s ambiguity, unusual language use, and surprising word and idea juxtapositions force readers to interact with the text on several levels. It makes people reflect on the fine line that exists between the pleasures of life and death’s inevitable conclusion, as well as the need of living fully and joyfully while acknowledging one’s own mortality.
“The Emperor of Ice-Cream” remains a thought-provoking work that transcends time and continues to invite interpretation and reflection. It underscores the importance of recognizing the beauty and vitality of life, even when confronted with the inescapable reality of death. Wallace Stevens’ poem serves as a testament to the complexity of the human condition and the enduring questions it raises about the nature of existence and the value of life in the shadow of mortality.
Q. How does the poem explore the contrast between life and death?
The poem juxtaposes scenes of life, represented by the “wenches” and the boys selling ice cream and soda, with the image of death, symbolized by the dead woman laid out for her funeral. This stark contrast emphasizes the coexistence of life and death and encourages reflection on their interplay.
Q. What is the significance of the “wenches” in the poem?
The “wenches” in the poem symbolize life and vitality. They are actively engaged in preparing for a lifeless body’s funeral, highlighting the contrast between the vibrancy of life and the stillness of death.
Q. How does the poem use language and imagery to convey its themes?
The poem’s language is both plain and evocative, and it challenges conventional views of death by presenting it in a matter-of-fact manner. The imagery of life’s pleasures, represented by ice cream and soda, is contrasted with the imagery of death, symbolized by the dead woman. This interplay of imagery emphasizes the theme of life’s impermanence.
Q. Why is the poem considered open to multiple interpretations?
“The Emperor of Ice-Cream” is open to multiple interpretations because it is deliberately ambiguous and thought-provoking. Wallace Stevens’ use of language, imagery, and juxtaposition of ideas allows readers to derive their own meanings from the poem, making it a rich and open-ended work of art.