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Wallace Stevens' Life Is Motion and the Emperor of Ice Cream Analysis
Wallace Stevens’ poems “Life is Motion” and “The Emperor of Ice-Cream” show a clear contrast between life and death, celebration and mourning. Through these two poems, he makes a critique on the social behaviors of people in a time of death. This reading journal will analyze these two poems with emphasis on images of life and death.
In “Life is Motion,” Stevens’ main characters are two young girls names Bonnie and Josie. In this poem, they are dancing in circles around a stump, “celebrating the marriage of flesh and air.” The reader may question why the girls would be celebrating life while dancing around something that has been cut off and static. Although it seems like this poem is alluding to some type of Native American ritual, it seems like the image that is painted here is an image of two girls, celebrating their lives based on the fact that death exists. If life were eternal, each moment would not be so special to those living it. Because of eventual death, we find ways to celebrate simply being alive. We can see this theme in other works by Stevens.
In “The Emperor of Ice-Cream,” Stevens illustrates two images that seem to contradict one another. In the half of the poem, the reader is given injunctions to prepare for what seems like a party or celebration: “Call the roller of big cigars…Let the wenches dawdle...” The poet calls to “the boys” to bring flowers in newspapers. This first half seems like they are celebrating something—that pleasure, even if corrupt, is happening in this home. The final couplet is strange, however: “Let be be the finale of seem./The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.” This couplet does not make sense until reading the second half.
The second half of the poem does not describe a celebration. In contrast, while still commanding the reader to fetch things, this half describes placing a sheet over a dead person’s face. This half of the poem is about death. The contrast between life and death is more obvious in this poem than the last, yet the symbol of ice-cream carries much more weight than that of the stump in “Life is Motion.” The ice-cream can be interpreted as death or life, depending on the reader’s interpretation. I suggest that this image serves as a symbol for life, however, because of ice cream’s temporary state.
The final lines of this poem are “Let the lamp affix its beam./The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.” Because the lamp is mentioned, I believe this is an allusion to the way ice cream melts. It is a temporary pleasure that is fleeting. Although it is sweet, indulging and innocent, the poet does not want us to forget that it doesn’t last for long: “Let be be the finale of seem.” and “Let the lamp affix its beam,” are lines that should be right next to each other. They describe the temporary state of living that all humans have. Through these poems, one may find that they are encouraging—that the reader must celebrate while they can, because death is eventual.