Views & Reviews Medical Classics

The Emperor of Ice-Cream

BMJ 2012; 344 doi: (Published 25 January 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;344:e562
  1. Desmond O’Neill, consultant physician in geriatric and stroke medicine, Dublin
  1. doneill{at}

Although death is a constant companion of medical practice, we are rarely well equipped for the juxtaposition of life and the living with death and the dying. From the chatter from the nurses’ station and the hubbub of visiting families to the quiet of the side room, there is a constant and often uneasy sense of two parallel worlds jostling with each other.

The respectful stillness and calm in the company of the dying eventually segues into discussion and even laughter, with episodic, sometimes embarrassed, lapses back into solemnity and silence. An awareness of the awesome nature of what we are witnessing is constantly challenged by the surrounding human vitality and the mundane. Those dying almost certainly do not want life to stop, yet we are often at a loss as to how to negotiate these abrupt shifts of emotional climate.

Where prose falters, poetry steps up: The Emperor of Ice-Cream, arguably the most famous poem of the American poet Wallace Stevens, brings us skilfully to the heart of this everyday clinical conundrum. Two stanzas, each of eight short lines, draw us immediately into a world that makes sense of these conflicting emotions and experiences.

Stevens was a consistently fascinating poet, using an almost outrageously broad vocabulary with surgical precision to create an unrivalled marriage between the reality of the mundane and the possibilities of the imagination.

This poem describes a wake, the ice cream suggesting to me an African-American household: the first verse explodes with an effervescence of life in all its energy and normality. The imagery veers between the lustful and the tawdry; the maker of ice cream whips it into “concupiscent curds” and the sense of permission for the living to continue to live is expressed: “Let the wenches dawdle in such dress / As they are used to wear, and let the boys / Bring flowers in last month’s newspapers.”

The second verse portrays the desolation and mean reality of the corpse, taking from, “the dresser of deal, / Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet / Upon which she embroidered fantails once / And spread it to cover her face.” We may rebel at the poet seeming to denigrate the deceased in these terms: “If her horny feet protrude, they come / To show how cold she is, and dumb.” Yet these lines serve as a foil to the reassertion of life in the person of the emperor of ice cream.

And who is the emperor? The genius of Stevens is that his masterly ambivalence allows each of us to come away with one or simultaneously several images of what the emperor might represent: life in all its vulgarity and power; a universal being; or those in the family whose role and reactions are central to celebrating the deceased and carrying his or her spirit into the future.

With this we are comforted by a duality that not only is death a part of living, but that life—and those who live on—are in turn equally entwined with our deaths.


Cite this as: BMJ 2012;344:e562


  • The Emperor of Ice-Cream

  • A poem by Wallace Stevens

  • First published 1922