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

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Wallace Stevens - The Emperor Disrobed - The Fortress of Irony in The Emperor of Ice-Cream
  1 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.  292). 1  In this respect we believe Stevens meant its vulgar and tawdry qualities, characteristics not often associated with the elegant and high-flown poetic tropes that dominated 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 -Ton ed 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 Co y 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 1  Wallace Stevens,  Letters of Wallace Stevens. Ed. Holly Stevens. New York: Knopf, 1966. 263.  2  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  Others 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 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 A gainst 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. 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 narrativ e 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 ha s 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: “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.”  Jahan Ramazani,  Poetry of Mourning: The Modern  Elegy from Hardy to Heaney, U of Chicago P, 1994. 92.  3 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. However, 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  - styled “fanfaron n ade” 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. 4    Letters , 338. 5   See , Robert Buttel, Wallace Stevens: The Making of Harmonium, Princeton U P, 1967. 6    Letters. 338, 772.  4 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 t he Giant,” and “Ploughin g 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. However, 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 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 “Epithalamium Made 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 ca stum 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.']).  5 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 hortator  y, 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 d eal/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 in voked 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. 9  Simon Gaunt, Troubadours and Irony, Cambridge U P 1989. 22 ( italics supplied).   10  Richard Ellmann, “Wallace Stevens’ Ice - Cream,”  Aspects of American Poetry: Essays Presented to Howard  Mumfrod Jones . Ed. Richard M. Ludwig, Ohio U P, 1963 (srcinally printed in Kenyon Review 1957). 207.
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