Thursday, August 12, 2010

At Death's Door

He was a lawyer, insurance executive, and one of the most celebrated American poets of the first half of the twentieth century. He published his first collection in his mid thirties, and the quality of his work was universally recognized. In 1955 he won the Pulitzer Prize and was offered a faculty position at Harvard University. He turned it down to remain Vice President of The Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company.

The poem below is perhaps his best known. Its subject is a dead woman being prepared for viewing. The presence of the emperor in both stanzas makes clear who he is, the sole survivor when all else is gone.

The Emperor of Ice-Cream

Wallace Stevens

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' 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.

1 comment:

  1. You first showed me this poem when I was very young, and I didn't get it at all and thought it was really weird. I think I was about 9 and choosing a poem to read to my class. For some reason, even though I'm older now and can appreciate the poem, I still think of my confused 9-year-old self whenever I read it.