A student of mine pointed out that “The Emperor of Ice Cream” endorses living in the moment. That, he thought, is what Stevens means by “Let be be finale of seem.” I agreed and responded that it was an Epicurean poem, sure in the moment that I had read that somewhere. I still think I have but don’t remember where and searching for Stevens and Epicurean philosophy turns up less than I would have thought; the most relevant item a 2007 article by Neil Coffee, who claims it’s not been much explored at all. He takes us through “Sunday Morning” and “Emperor of Ice Cream” for the most part; the echoes of Virgil and Lucretius (and Virgil’s Lucretius) in the former are persuasively identified, and the sources in Stevens’ reading also laid out.
Writing on a blog, I am freer to speculate, and will do so to claim that, regardless of the sources he read, Stevens’ sensibility, the quality of resolution that a great many of the poems achieve, can be called Epicurean, whether Stevens would have consciously aligned himself with the Hellenistic School.
For my guide to Epicurean thought, I take Pierre Hadot, who is helpful not only for what he says about Ancient Philosophers, but for his argument that philosophy itself was an distinctly ethical activity of the contemplative mind in the ancient world; that it was in this respect different from modern philosophy. Stevens-the-Philosopher is most often Stevens-the-modern-Philosopher, with obvious debts to German Idealism. An advantage of associating him with Epicurean thought and with another notion of what Philosophy is and does, is that it rescues the poetry from the history of ideas. His words and his poems do something, and what they do ought to be judged by what they espouse. I’m not sure the high abstraction of German Idealism can so easily align activity and ideal; in that tradition, everyone is a “poet” in the sense that the world is half-created and half-received. The reach of the claims is so general as to pertain to any poet at all, and cannot have much purchase on the sort of poems that Stevens writes or on the particular choices he makes within those poems. Epicurean philosophy can. I don’t want to deny Stevens’ debt to German Idealism, but would say that his application of those ideas to poetry, and his approach to them in the first place, is fundamentally Epicurean.
My account here will be lazy, in so far as it lifts from and follows Hadot:
Epicureanism originated in an experience and a choice. The experience was that of the “flesh”: “The voice of the flesh: not to be hungry, not to be thirsty, not to be cold. He who possess this state and hopes to possess it in the future, can rival Zeus for happiness.” The “flesh” here is of course not an anatomical part of the body, but—in a sense which is phenomenological and apparently wholly new in philosophy—it is the subject of pleasure and pain, or the individual…An experience then; but also a choice. What is most important is to deliver the “flesh” from its suffering thus allow it to experience pleasure. For Epicurus, the Socratic and Platonic choice in favor of love of the good is an illusion: in reality, individuals are moved only by their search to gratify their own pleasures and interest. Yet philosophy consists in knowing how to see pleasure in a reasonable way….the mission of philosophy and of Epicurus was therefore above all therapeutic: the philosopher must tend to the sickness of the soul, and teach mankind how to experience pleasure…The method for achieving this stable pleasure consists in askesis of desire. The reason people are unhappy is that they are tortured by “immense, hollow” desires, such as those for wealth, luxury, and domination…The askesis of desire consists in limiting one’s appetites—suppressing those desires which are neither natural nor necessary, and limiting as much as possible those which are natural but not necessary…Delivering people from the fear of the gods and of death was not the only goal of this theoretical edifice of physics [elided]. It also afforded access to the pleasure of contemplating the gods…This is one of Epicurus’ great intuitions. He does not imagine divinity as the power of creating, dominating, or imposing one’s will upon the less powerful. Instead, it is the perfection of the supreme being: happiness, indestructability, beauty, pleasure, and tranquility. In representations of the gods, the philosopher finds both the amazed pleasure we may feel when admiring beauty, and the comfort that can be provided by contemplating the model of wisdom.
I’ve cut exorbitantly to patch together Hadot’s account in order to suggest that Stevens’ poetry argues in favor of, but also has already made, the choice of an Epicurean life. The notion that philosophy is itself a choice, or a series of choices—to do philosophy in the first place, and then to choose a particular school—and then to renew those choices over time, suggests why poetry may figure in the philosophical life: it becomes a meditative act, as well as an act to persuade others and turn their minds to better objects of contemplation. Did Stevens think his poetry could or would do that? I do not know that it is safe to guess that any poet hopes his poetry to have any particular effect on the world, but the poetry itself suggests that it might harbor such an intention.
At any rate, it is evident that Steven’s Epicureanism would not involve a recovery of the Classical world; it does not insist upon returning in time and intellectual apparatus to the era of Epicurus, or Lucretius, or Horace. Instead, it is putting to Epicurean use what the early twentieth century offered, including the legacy of Germany idealism, in order to achieve an Epicurean equipoise of mind. The results are not to be found only in “Sunday Morning” or “The Emperor of Ice-Cream,” but elsewhere, through the major works “Esthetique du Mal” and “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction.”
“The Emperor of Ice Cream” is a “carpe diem” poem, Horatian for its Epicureanism; truer to Horace, in some respects, even than Robert Frost.