Having had the benefit of a devoutly Roman Catholic education, courtesy the Loreto Nuns, the de la Salle Brothers and the Irish Christian Brothers I’m now a devout atheist. You might think I’d also like to view myself as an appropriately rational and logical thinker. But I’m saved from that dry and dust-spotted fate by the insistent, not-to-be-ignored parade of convincing illogicalities and mysteries I encounter on a regular basis. Most of these are down to language, in particular to the English language and its astonishing ability to transcend the literal. An example is required? Right. Kindly explain the following, which is both the title of a poem and the closing line in each of the two short verses that constitute the poem.

The Emperor of Ice-cream is by Wallace Stevens. It describes the preparations for the funeral of an elderly woman. The first verse ends with the couplet:

Let be be finale of seem.

The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

The second verse ends:

Let the lamp affix its beam.

The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.


I find this line simple, beautiful and intensely moving. But what does it mean? The only emperor? Ice-cream? Does this add up to anything that makes any sense whatsoever? What logic can we apply to it to winkle content out of it? I can’t discern any. It’s a flat statement, an assertion that seems both utterly sure of itself and at the same time defies analysis. It goes further, it mocks the rational.

And it’s wonderful. I wish I could have written it; I wish that one day I could write something as fine, though I doubt it. What it does, for me at least, is to encapsulate the  mystery of language. It’s why I myself try to write, to make up for my jettisoning of God and all the tedious unprovable and often contradictory claptrap that goes with belief. I write to participate in a mystery.