“The Emperor of Ice-Cream” revisited

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September 7, 2017 by AK

This week, I’ve been re-reading Aaron Haspel’s excellent blog, God of the Machine. In May 2003, he anatomized The Emperor of Ice-Cream by Wallace Stevens (1922).

On thing struck me in going through the poem. “Let be be finale of seem” reminds me of the first line from Mignon’s last song in Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship. Thomas Carlyle translated it bluntly as

Such let me seem till such I be…

Mignon sings of her imminent death and a new life after a brief rest. The opening line in the original German is richer and more subtle than Carlyle’s, although still simple at first glance. “Scheinen” means both “to appear” and “to shine,” and “werden” is “to become,” which philosophers often contrast with “to be.” In Cynthia Hampton’s analysis of Plato’s Philebus, one short chapter has an improbably relevant title: “Ontological argument against hedonism: becoming vs. being.”

Another, pedestrian observation. If ice was used to preserve the body for the funeral, it could also be used to make ice cream: a practical bridge between the two rooms and worlds in the poem. (One or two years after The Emperor, Khodasevich wrote of a dead worker lying in his room in a Paris apartment building: “Today, into the ice; tomorrow, into the fire.”) The cigar-wrapper in Stevens’ first line makes the setting vaguely Caribbean; they say ice cream is commonly served at Key West funerals. But I wouldn’t be surprised if the author didn’t have this custom in mind.


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