Let Be Be Finale of Seem

SA187
Wallace Stevens (1879 – 1955)

“The Truth is rarely pure and never simple.”

Oscar Wilde

The Emperor of Ice Cream

by 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’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.


 

I don’t know why I love this poem.   Maybe it’s the mixture of serious with the silly. It paints a great picture, even if I am not sure I totally understand what its all about. Good poetry has a veil around it that allows the reader to decide and this one leaves plenty for the reader to interpret.

A more interesting question is whether Wallace was intentionally playing with a sonnet concept when he wrote it? At first glance this is obviously not a sonnet, at least to any purist. But when I look closer, I am not so sure. It is 138 syllables in length, shockingly close to our 140 syllable traditional sonnet.  It is 16 lines, not 14, but its clever in how the rhyming scheme is incorporated with a 1-2 punch at the end, just like an English sonnet.  The final two lines of each stanza is 21 syllables.   If you count enough sonnets there are plenty of others that finish with an extra syllable or two when it carries the sonnet to its natural conclusion.

Stevens was consciously moving away from traditional metrical poetry to voice his own unique style throughout his career. But the pull of tradition impacts writers and artists in unusual ways and it would have been interesting to have a conversation with Wallace on whether, even subconsciously, his experience with sonnets had an impact on his creation of this wonderful poem.

I often am attracted to a poem for one line and for me in this poem it is the line “Let be be finale of seem.”   It is such a convoluted use of the word be and yet it makes sense to me.   It says to me – our impressions have the final say in what’s real and what is not, for though we may have eyes in our heads it is our brains that decide what is that we see.