Wallace Stevens – The “Emperor” Disrobed – The Fortress of Irony in “The Emperor of Ice-Cream”

In response to questions about his most enigmatic poem, “The Emperor of Ice-Cream,” Wallace Stevens spoke of its “deliberately commonplace costume” that nonetheless has “something of the essential gaudiness of poetry” (L. 263, 1933).[1] In this respect we believe Stevens meant its vulgar and tawdry qualities, characteristics not often associated with his elegant and high-flown poetic tropes, but which nevertheless typified conventions of poetic expression with which Stevens experimented in his first book, Harmonium.

Yet Harmonium exhibits a variety of poetic modes that demonstrate the extent of Stevens’ artistic development over approximately twenty-five years preceding its publication. By turns, the style of the poems could by playful (“A High-Toned Old Christian Woman”), mock-heroic (“Of Heaven Considered as a Tomb” and “On the Manner of Addressing Clouds”), lyrical (“The Paltry Nude Starts on a Spring Voyage”), pastoral (“Depression before Spring” and “Ploughing on  Sunday”), imagistic (“Infanta  Marina”), symbolic (“Thirteeen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”) and even zen-like (“The Snow Man”). Stevens could imbue a paganistic paean to the soul with an Augustinian dialectic (“Sunday Morning”) and rework the seduction of Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” vis-à-vis middle-aged romance (“Le Monocle de Mon Oncle”).

“The Emperor of Ice-Cream” features Stevens in another mode of discourse, uniting mock-heroic diction with sacred and profane imagery, the effect of which produces a singular sense of something approaching lost hope and tragedy. The poem is set forth in full below:

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 newspapers.
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. (CP 50)

On the whole, critics have provided unsatisfying commentary on the poem. The commentary is unable to reconcile the “party” atmosphere of the first stanza with the funereal images of the second. Helen Vendler, whose work on Stevens is usually illuminating, read the poem as an “ur-narrative,” wherein the two stanzas are said to describe “two rooms” representing a life and death  dichotomy  from  which  the  poet  makes  “his  momentous  choice  for  reality  over appearance.”[2] Other critics have similarly addressed the poem’s façade and wholly ignored the rhetorical pitch of Stevens’ voice or the insensitivity he appears to display with respect to the character of the “poor” dead woman. These interpretations of “Emperor” have attempted to reduce the poem to a tidy moral (e.g., carpe diem or “gather rosebuds while ye may”). Even if this generally banal reading were true, such an interpretation is plainly unsatisfying and does not explain our visceral response to the poem’s imagery and sound.[3]

Given the level of literary abstraction that characterizes his work as a whole, as well as his professional life as a corporate lawyer in the insurance industry, most readers seem convinced that Stevens was incapable of the kind of broad irony that included a subtext of coarse sexual expression. They have ignored, for example, the girls in “The Plot Against the Giant” who are saucy and aggressive and speak in language laden with sexual innuendoes:

First Girl
When this yokel comes maundering,
Whetting his hacker,
I shall run before him,
Diffusing the civilest odors
Out of geraniums and unsmelled flowers.
It will check him.

Second Girl
I shall run before him,
Arching cloths besprinkled with colors
As small as fish-eggs.
The threads
Will abash him.

Third Girl
Oh, la…le pauvre!
I shall run before him,
With a curious puffing.
He will bend his ear then.
I shall whisper
Heavenly labials in a world of gutturals.
It will undo him.

The implicit irony is that these country “girls” are the opposites of their counterparts in city society, who were required to be chaste, modest and demure in order to attract the right mate. Life and literature often relate the wiles of women who compete for the same man, both in country and city settings. In the pastoral, the natural by-product of the competition is this elevated form of trash-talking with its sexual double entendres. Stevens sprinkles these throughout the poem, e.g., “whetting his hacker,” “unsmelled flowers,” “arching cloths,” “curious puffing,” and “heavenly labials,” in order to describe the seductive strategies of the country girls who, in competition with each other, chase the eponymous “giant.” Stevens’ linguistic precision was too keen to have employed these words without regard to their obvious sexual import. Indeed, his intent was to deliciously entertain (or shock) the reader and follow a traditional route that often contrasted the bawdy wit of the country girls with that more sublimated form of wit practiced in town.

Stevens’ self-style “fanfaronnade”[4] in “Ploughing on Sunday” flags the same ironic double entendres. Throughout the poem sexual imagery and metaphor abound, adorning the “white cock’s tail” and the “turkey-cock’s tail,” while the poet happily summons classical antiquity [“Remus, blow your horn!/I’m ploughing on Sunday,/I’m ploughing North America./Blow your horn!”] and preens himself with a song, “Tum-ti-tum/Ti-tum-tum-tum!” Those who would limit this poem to a prudish declaration of independence from society’s strictures (i.e., by working on Sunday) need to check their Protestant work ethic at the door.[5] The poem turns on what might be described as a sophisticated combination of Emerson’s cosmopolitanism with Whitman’s native sexuality.

Importantly, the poems that speak to sexual themes demonstrate that Stevens possessed a sophisticated adult’s sensibility that was not blunted by the scholar and lawyer he also was. We should not forget that Stevens spent a considerable amount of his life (from young adult to middle age) among other writers and bohemian friends in the  artist’s demimonde of New York City and occasionally visited Hemingway’s outpost in Key West where he spent time with Robert Frost, Elizabeth Bishop and other writers of the era. He doubtlessly appreciated the kind of sexual wordplay that reveals the humanity in Chaucer and Shakespeare and others, in contrast to someone like Henry Miller, whose writing he found obscene and without merit.[6] The pastoral and other classical venues offered Stevens the opportunity to display his own wit in exfoliating human sexuality as all great writers do.

It is well-documented that the mock-pastoral is replete with examples of similar usages.[7] At least as far back as ancient Roman poetry, the introduction of sexual imagery gave literary work an attractive spice. Even then, the pastoral mode was considered a pose and an artifice by the urban-dwelling Ovid, Virgil and Catullus, among others.[8] We also see broad irony practiced in other archaic modes of poetic expression, as in the mock-heroic (e.g., Alexander Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock” and its progeny) and the mock-elegiac (e.g., John Donne’s profane elegies and Robert Burns’ “Poor Mailie’s Elegy”). In “The Plot Against the Giant,” and “Ploughing on Sunday,” Stevens worked in the fertile tradition of poetry that is typically ironic when employed in an archaic mode.

In Troubadours and Irony, Simon Gaunt makes two important points with respect to irony and sex in literary expression:

First, irony is an ideal vehicle for sexual innuendo. In most cultures it is to a greater or lesser extent taboo to designate a sexual organ or act explicitly, depending on the context. When social decorum is being observed, for whatever reason, and sexual acts or organs are designated implicitly, irony will probably ensue. This is because the allusion must retain its ambiguity if it is to be socially acceptable, communicating two different levels of meaning.

Secondly, a definition of irony which allows for a divergence between literal and intended meaning invites comparison with definitions of metaphor or allegory, both of which allow one thing to be said and quite another to be meant. The distinction between irony and other types of figurative speech lies not in formal differences, for metaphor, allegory, metonymy and synecdoche can all be used ironically, but in the ironist’s intentions.

Since everyone has an equal opportunity to understand an ironist’s intended meaning, he does not set out to mislead any one member of his audience. But, as the intended meaning must be inferred, in some cases some people will fail to grasp it. In all the examples of irony from Guilhem’s poems discussed thus far, it is possible to imagine a listener or reader taking him literally and being duped by the pretended meanings: most meanings, pretended and real, remain possible. The ironist is implicitly dividing his audience into two groups: the initiated and the uninitiated. In Muecke’s words: “a sense of irony depends for its material upon a lack of sense of irony in others, much as skepticism depends upon credulity.”[9]

“The Emperor of Ice-Cream,” like Stevens’ poetry taken as a whole, separates its audience from the initiated and uninitiated. The poem is not a narrative, but a system of images cast in the form of exhortations which reflect the emotional disposition of the speaker. A back story is vaguely discernible, but that story is not the focus of the poem and is not revealed in a systematic plotting of the various statements made by the poet. The poem is chiefly ironic expression with a highly dramatic and allusive textual surface which is steeped in a recognizable poetic tradition. As such, it stands as a great fortress of irony on the plains of realism ordinarily travelled by the naïve reader.

Richard Ellmann correctly described Stevens’ voice in Emperor this way: “Here the poet is hortatory, not descriptive, and his tone is buoyant and defiant.”[10] The speaker commands “Call the roller of big cigars”; “bid him whip”; “Let the wenches dawdle in such dress/As they are used to wear”; “let the boys/ Bring flowers”; and “Take from the dresser of deal/Lacking the three glass knobs”. The diction employed by Stevens is archaic, mock-heroic, attuned more to Shakespearian histories than twentieth century poetic expression. In fact, our ears expect the mock-heroic because it is signaled by the title of the poem.

In the first stanza there is no indication that the poem is elegiac or that a death has occurred. The commands may be addressed to the reader as witness, someone who is not necessarily expected to carry them out, but most likely they are self-addressed and rhetorical. The speaker is not a real emperor, but he has adopted the diction of an emperor, and therefore “emperor” becomes self-referential. Even absent the mock-heroic dress, the “emperor of ice-cream” is an inherently ridiculous soubriquet, hence everything that precedes it must be necessarily viewed as ironic, sarcastic and rhetorical.

The archaic expression in “The Emperor of Ice-Cream” is distinguishable from that used by Ezra Pound in “Homage to Sextus Propertius” or The Cantos. Pound’s use of archaic forms is intended pedagogically, as a means of approaching the tone of ancient Latin or Greek poetry, with the intent of giving them a voice a modern audience could understand and enjoy. Pound wanted his readers to suspend belief and experience ancient writings as a continuum of human expression with a universality of application. Therefore, the irony that would normally adhere and be invoked by archaic usage is inapposite in Pound’s transcriptions.

In “Emperor,” Stevens expects us to sense the traditional irony implied by the archaism of its rhetorical expression (in the same sense that James Joyce’s Ulysses features Buck Mulligan posturing in rhetorical disguises to poke fun at the literary pretenses of Stephen Dedalus). By recognizing this change in tone we understand its dramatic and emotional purpose as light satire or even more lethal sarcasm.

The irony is further enhanced by the abundant profane imagery. The “roller of big cigars” is “bid,” in a concatenation of alliterative “k” sounds (voiceless velar stops), to “whip/In kitchen cups” the “concupiscent curds” of ice cream phalluses (for what else would a roller of “big cigars” do?).[11] The roller is “muscular,” inviting obvious connotations of sexual prowess. The women on the scene, phrased to mean all women, are “dawdling wenches,” not only low-class, but promiscuous if we accept the preceding sexual imagery. The boys being summoned may seem to be in the person of youthful courtiers bringing flowers “in last month’s newspapers,” but a more plausible reading is that the flowers were appropriate “last month,” but not now.

At the end of the first stanza we have the extraordinary iconic couplet. Stevens’ speaker issues another “Let” command, but it is absent of image and contains an apparent nonsense lyric that provides the hitherto unused device of rhyme:

Let be be finale of seem,
The only emperor is the emperor of ice cream.

The primary interpretation of the line, “Let be be finale of seem” is something like: “Let’s abandon all pretenses.”[12] Significantly, the line represents an apparent break in the mode of expression, away from irony, where a moral or code of conduct is being stated, and causes it to stand apart from the raucous imagery of the preceding lines. Because of this departure readers reflexively consider the line more trustworthy, i.e., since it appears that the speaker/poet is stepping out of character, almost as a Shakespearean aside, to confide a truth.

After the chaotic and profane images of the preceding lines, the poet suddenly instructs us to drop our pretenses, all those fictions we habitually harbor about life and ourselves. In view of this sudden break in style, we are forced to reflect back on the preceding images and reconcile their purpose in terms of the ending couplet. Because of the gross hyperbole in those images (n.b., Stevens’ characterization of the poem’s “the essential gaudiness of poetry”), and their contrast with the presumed candor of “Let be be finale of seem,” we see that the introductory “narrative” actually consists of rhetorical flourishes concocted by the speaker for the purpose of ironically communicating his interior disposition, one filled with self-mockery and despair. Pound and T.S. Eliot (“Do I dare eat a peach?”) frequently employed rhetorical irony to evoke sarcasm and despair, a practice they acquired from Charles Baudelaire and the French Symbolists, their immediate antecedents, as well as from Latin poets such as Catullus.

With the poem’s refrain (“The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream”), the speaker reassumes the mantle of the ironist,[13] lending dramatic pathos to the poem. It is not party-time after all, and the morbidity that follows in the second stanza’s images continues this sardonic tone.

In the second stanza, the speaker renews his imperial commands, rhetorically directing the listener/reader to take an embroidered sheet from a “dresser of deal” and to cover the face of the woman who embroidered the sheet. This is the first reference in the poem to a particular woman who appears (from the context of the attendant descriptions) to be dead, and indeed a darker mood is cast over the poem at this point.

Deal, as legend has it, is the type of pine wood from which Christ’s cross was made.[14] The poet describes the dresser as missing “the three glass knobs,” which has been interpreted as a sign of a neglected house occupied by (in Vendler’s description) a “poor old woman”).  But more likely this is religious or mythic symbolism. The phrase, “the three glass knobs” – specifically, a definite article followed by three stressed one world syllables – is particularization, both pointed and purposeful, and demands a corresponding response from the reader. The specification of the “three” knobs, rather than describing the dresser simply “with the missing knobs,” could indicate the Holy Trinity or the mythological Three Graces (fertility, beauty and charm).[15] If so, these sacred symbols are juxtaposed against the profane imagery that precedes and follows them. In other words, the context gives rise to the inference that she is a woman who has “lost” her virtue, a status comparable to the “wenches” in the first stanza.

The use of an “embroidered” sheet as a winding sheet, suggests that the woman was virtuous “once,” as embroidery was traditionally associated with a woman’s femininity and virtue. The deliberate placement of the word “once” at the end of the line (where both meter and grammatical placement give added stress to “once”) acts to emphasize the “past tense” status of her virtue. The covering of the woman’s face is an act that hides her shame. The speaker is portraying the woman in representational language, but, in keeping with the interiority of the portrait, she embodies shame in his eyes. [Later, when we accord deeper significance to the woman as muse, the winding sheet of “fantails” becomes an analogue for the type of flowery poetry that became reflexively associated with poets of the Romantic and Victorian eras.]

Aside from their obvious meanings in the context of the surface of the poem, the words “fantails,” “horny” and “come” are also crude sexual double entendres.[16] The speaker uses the conditional tense, “If her horny feet protrude,” to signal that he is imagining the scene only for rhetorical purposes. Because of the emotional nature of the portrait, there does not have to be a deal dresser, missing glass knobs or an embroidered sheet in reality, as these are merely projections of a scene used to describe the perfidious lover. Likewise, the speaker is not certain that the sheet will not cover her (as if no ordinary sheet could be big enough), and so it may be incapable of hiding her shame.

The strength of the emotions on display, intensified by the profane and sexual imagery, suggests that the lady’s loss of virtue has been recently discovered (perhaps within the period defined by “last month’s newspapers”) and that the veil has been suddenly lifted from the speaker’s eyes. The lamp must be allowed to “affix its beam” on the woman and the speaker (and all else), and show things for what they are. As he has been betrayed, the poet’s imagination colors his reality. The speaker has become reduced to an emperor of temporal and evanescent pleasures, in other words an emperor of nothing substantial. The woman is similarly reduced to a corpse. In this context, the mock eponym, as the mock-heroic language, is sarcastic and despairing. Both speaker and the woman have become ridiculous subjects within the speaker’s mind.

As ironic rhetoric of the interior, it is possible that the woman is actually alive and only described as dead in order to suggest that she is dead to the speaker. She is “cold” as a lover who spurns her suitor. Consider how a spurned Venus addresses Adonis, who is very much alive, in Shakespeare’s “Venus and Adonis” (lines 211-214):

Fie, lifeless picture, cold, and senceless stone,
Well painted idol, image dull, and dead,
Statue contenting but the eye alone,
Thing like a man, but of no woman bred.

Poets traditionally described their unresponsive or unfaithful lovers as “cold,” intending to mean hard-hearted, usually, but sometimes extending the meaning to “barren.” Here, the crude and unforgiving portrait of the woman and her surroundings, the wild speculation (on whether the sheet will cover her or not) and the sexual epithets all leave a reader with the sense that the poet is a lover spurned or betrayed.  Symbolically, especially for a poet, one can see the figuration of the woman as the muse who has betrayed the poet. Adopting such a reading would put Stevens squarely within a tradition of poets who complained of being abandoned by the muse.

If we were to (1) cast aside the clear sexual imagery of the first stanza, (2) determine that Stevens’ word choice is devoid of sexual connotations and (3) disregard the symbolism of the deal and three glass knobs, the resulting description of the “poor old woman” would render Stevens’ portrayal insensitive and undignified. Such an interpretation would lend a disjointed character to the poem, albeit one some critics have nevertheless embraced. In no other poem has Stevens’ seemed to violate decorum or display the heavy-handedness of a boor as he does here under the traditional reading. But, if we embrace the poem as a projection of the poet’s emotional interior, in a way that makes use of profane imagery, religious symbolism and symbolic elements, then all disparate aspects of the poem cohere.

Therefore, “Emperor” should be taken as ironic hyperbole and a portrait of the stricken soul of the poet. The factual representations are purely symbolic gestures in the service of a greater truth which, on one level, is about seduction and betrayal: we are seduced by the beauty of life and betrayed by its mortality. The “ice-cream” is all the sweetness of life, but in any event a temporal pleasure. Louise Glück reaches for a similar rhetorical posture in “The Sensual World”.

Yet this reduction of the trope is insipid unless we combine with it the preposterous irony of a virtually impossible emperor lording over his ice-cream domain. This is the tragic-comic face of poetry, a burlesque of the poet’s fate. It is Stevens’ own version of Leoncavallo’s “Ridi Pagliacci,” where Pagliacci’s last words, “La Commedia è finita!” (literally “the comedy play is over,” but figuratively, “let’s be serious now”), serve the same function as “Let be be finale of seem” and “Let the lamp affix its beam.” The tragic irony is that the poet must deal in illusion (ice cream) in order to avoid the common elusions (evasions) of life. In his February 18, 1942 letter to Hi Simons, Stevens wrote:

      When a poet makes his imagination the imagination of other people, he does so by making them see the world through his eyes. Most modern activity is the undoing of that very job. The world has been painted; most modern activity is getting rid of the paint to get at the world itself. Powerful integrations of the imagination are difficult to get away from. I am surprised that you have any difficulty with this, when the chances are that every day you see all sorts of things through the eyes of other people in terms of their imaginations.  This power is one of the poet’s chief powers.

About escapism: Poetry as a narcotic is escapism in the pejorative sense. But there is a benign escapism in every illusion.  The use of the word illusion suggests the simplest way to define the difference between escapism in the pejorative sense and in the non-pejorative sense: that is to say: it is the difference between elusion and illusion, or benign illusion. Of course, I believe in benign illusion. [17]

Unlike previous interpretations which generally hold that “Emperor” exhorts us to “seize the  day” (carpe  diem),  here  the  speaker  is  exorcising  his  demons  in  a  way  that simultaneously captures his abject despair, sarcasm and remorse. This follows the long tradition of the rejected poet who pours verbal abuse on the perfidious amour, his muse. The poem does not merely stand as a lament on the illusive nature of love and life, but bitter commentary on the poet’s status. Indeed, Stevens may have well been thinking of Emerson’s essay, “The Poet,” when creating this poem

The poet is the sayer, the namer, and represents beauty. He is a sovereign, and stands on the centre. For the world is not painted, or adorned, but is from the beginning beautiful; and God has not made some beautiful things, but Beauty is the creator of the universe. Therefore the poet is not any permissive potentate, but is emperor in his own right.[18]

Contrary to Emerson’s overweening portrait, Stevens saw the poet as a debased “emperor,” recognized by the world at large as little more than purveyor of literary delicacies (which Stevens has conveniently transposed to “ice cream” and “fantails”). The perfidious muse’s absence leaves the emperor-poet in his sorry state, where both the “finale of seem” and “light affix its beam” indicate the abandonment of the customary illusions of poetry, hence the virtual death of poetry.

“The Emperor of Ice-Cream” was a personal favorite of Stevens. We see that the poem works  on  multiple  levels,  employs  rhetorical  artifice,  symbolism,  broad  irony  and  sexual imagery, and these are qualities that would have greatly appealed to him. An understanding of the poem’s textual surface, however, is not all. There is that allusive quality of his best works that typifies the Stevens’ brand. Stevens said of his writing:

[T]hings that have their origin in the imagination or in the emotions very often take on a form that is ambiguous or uncertain. It is not possible to attach a single, rational meaning to such things without destroying the imaginative or emotional ambiguity or uncertainty that is inherent in them and that is why poets do not like to explain. That the meanings given by others are sometimes meanings not intended by the poet or that were never present in his mind does not impair them as meanings.[19]

The final irony, whether intended or not, lies in this: With his command, “Let be be finale of seem,” Stevens’ emperor is much like King Canute, who, in order to teach his subjects about the limits of human power, attempted to command the sea to stop moving. Stevens’ injunction to “Let be” is as futile a universal goal as it is a temporal model for human behavior. Milton Bates put it this way:

At the level of argument, it exhorts us to confront the squalor of life without any illusions. At the level of style, however, it virtually turns that argument on its head: some kinds of seem can sustain and even delight us in the daily struggle with be. Poetry is one of these, which is why Stevens liked to say that it helps us to live our lives.[20]

As he instructs us in The Idea of Order at Key West, the mind’s “rage to order” instinctively constructs fictions, paradigms that delight and satisfy, but which may ultimately deceive us upon the realization of another, more embracing paradigm of the truth.[21] “Being so” can never be the finale of our “seeming to be so,” because we are human and not capable of the complete abstraction required by the ethical absolute. This applies not only with respect to our view of the external world, but that more penetrating regard of ourselves.



1. Wallace Stevens, Letters of Wallace Stevens. Ed. Holly Stevens. New York: Knopf, 1966, p. 263.

2.  Helen Vendler, Words Chosen Out of Desire, Univ. of Tennessee P, 1984, 50-51. A short-hand version of this account by her is stated in another one of her commentaries on Stevens: “The famous poem, “The Emperor of Ice-Cream,” resisted explication for some decades, perhaps because no one took the trouble to deduce its implicit narrative from its stylized plot. (The Russian formalist distinction between “story” and “plot” is often useful for this and other Stevens’ poems.) The basic “story” of “The Emperor” is that of a person who goes to the house of a neighbor, a poor old woman, who has died; the person is to help “lay out” (arrange for decent viewing) the corpse in the bedroom, while other neighbors are sending over homegrown flowers, and yet others are preparing food, including ice cream, for the wake.” Vendler, Helen. “Wallace Stevens,” The Columbia History of America Poetry. Columbia U P, 1993. Eds. Parini and Miller. 382.

3. See Jahan Ramazani’s empathetic reading of the poem as a mock-elegy in Poetry of Mourning: The Modern Elegy from Hardy to Heaney (University of Chicago Press 1994), p. 92. “Unctuous in sound, the poem not only delights in sensuality but uneasily exaggerates it: witness the lingering r-sounds, heightened in such words as cigars, curds, and newspapers, each dragging out the line’s final syllable.”

4. Letters, p. 338

5. See, Robert Buttel, Wallace Stevens: The Making of Harmonium, Princeton U P, 1967.

6. Letters, pp. 338, 772

7. See, e.g., Christopher Marlowe’s The Passionate Shepherd To His Love and his translation of Ovid’s Amores; Virgil’s Burcolica 2 and 3, John Donne’s EpithalamiumMade at Lincoln’s. Inn; and Simon Gaunt’s discussion of compagho poems of Guilhem IX in Troubadours and Irony (Cambridge Univ. Press 1989).

8. A discussion of the sexual imagery of classical Roman and Greek poetry appears in Foulmouthed Shepherds: Sexual Overtones As A Sign Of Urbanitas In Virgil’s Bucolica 2 And 3, by Stefan van den Broeck, published by Electronic Antiquity (May 2009), 12.2,(http://scholar.lib.vt.edu/ejournals/ElAnt/V12N2/vandenbroeck.html); citing Catullus 16, 5-9 (“nam castum esse decet pium poetam/ipsum, versiculos nihil necesse est;/qui tum denique habent salem ac leporem,/si sunt molliculi ac parum pudici,/et quod pruriat incitare possunt.” [‘because a pious poet should be chaste, but there is no need for his verses to be; they only have wit and grace if they are a bit loose and not too modest, and if they can excite what is itching.’]).

9. Simon Gaunt, Troubadours and Irony (Cambridge University Press 1989), p. 22 (italics supplied).

10. Richard Ellmann, “Wallace Stevens’ Ice-Cream,” Richard M. Ludwig, Aspects of American Poetry: Essays Presented to Howard Mumfrod Jones (Ohio University Press.1963) (originally printed in Kenyon Review 1957), p. 207.

11. I note that many contemporary bachelorette parties often feature cakes and other delicacies in the shape of phalluses. However, the sentiment in this poem is not so playful and sanguine.

12. “Let be be finale of seem” may be an extension of the Latin motto, esse quam videri (“be rather than seem to be”), which derives from Cicero’s speech “On Friendship” (Cicero, De Amicitia, chapt. 26). Esse quam videri is a well-known motto that has survived the ages into the present day, having a recognized meaning, and would have been especially familiar to Stevens who studied Latin and Greek.  Contextually, Cicero instructs: “there are not so many possessed of virtue as there are that desire to seem virtuous.” In other words, they would rather seem virtuous than be virtuous.

13. Daniel Fuchs’ observation is pertinent: “Stevens’ wit, although it is often directed at himself, is mainly directed at the fictions which have failed him. His brilliant comic sense has allowed him the boon of equilibrium, as he sifts out the old to come to the new. There is indeed feeling, if not always in the lines themselves, then between them.” Fuchs, The Comic Spirit of Wallace Stevens (1653), p. 30.

14. See, e.g., Ebenezer Cobham Brewer, A Dictionary of Miracles (1894), p. 269; Louis de Combes, The Finding of the Cross (1907), p.223. This may have been the legend that caused Stevens to choose deal as the dresser’s wood. [I have not overlooked the fact that deal was also considered a cheaper type of wood when compared to other hardwoods like oak and mahogany, or that this feature supports the theme of impoverishment that cloaks the woman’s quarters. Yet I find the religious symbolism more compelling here.]

15. Even if one did not know that deal was the wood of Christ’s cross, it is difficult to miss the patent symbolism of “the three glass knobs.”

16. Without going into an exhaustive recitation of the etymologies of each word, all such connotations would not have been novel to Stevens.

17.  Letters, p. 402.

18. Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, New York, 2010. 194 (emphasis supplied).

19. Wallace Stevens, The Explicator, November, 1948.

20. Milton Bates, “‘The ‘Emperor’ and Its Clothes,” Teaching Wallace Stevens: Practical Essays. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1994.

21. See, generally, Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (U of Chicago P, 1962). Kuhn discusses the evolution of scientific discovery in terms of the adoption and replacement of successive paradigms for explaining natural phenomena.

© Steven M. Critelli 2009

Categories: Literary Criticism

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