"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.
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...ourners directing the light of the lamp probably onto the dead woman gives the impression that they find the dead woman somewhat interesting and important. However, these impressions love and interest are quickly revoked when reminded that "the only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream." In other words, personal pleasure is far more important than duty.
"The Emperor of Ice-Cream" begins and ends with the ice-cream maker, thus establishing him as the most important piece of the poem. The ice cream maker is the only emperor; he is the only person, representing human desire, that can truly rule one's life. This power makes "the only emperor...the emperor of ice-cream."
Stevens, Wallace. "The Emperor of Ice-Cream." Literature: Reading, Thinking, Writing. Fourth Edition. Ed. Michael Meyer. Boston: St. Martin's, 1996.
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