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Analysis of Poem "Anecdote of the Jar" by Wallace Stevens

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.


Wallace Stevens and a Summary of "Anecdote of the Jar"

"Anecdote of the Jar" is an enigmatic poem which still baffles readers and is open to many various interpretations. It has a slightly surreal, almost playful feel which is so typical of Wallace Stevens, who liked nothing better than to have his poetry resist intelligence.

It was written in 1919 and published in Harmonium, the first book by Wallace Stevens, in 1923. Some immediately noted its modernist tone and critics likened the subject matter to the ready-made objects of the artist and pioneer Marcel Duchamps, infamous for introducing a urinal into an art exhibition in New York in 1917.

Duchamp's urinal certainly changed the way people thought about the world of art and similarly, Stevens' jar changes the way we might look at objects in the context of the natural world.

More than that, the poem is pointing the reader in the direction of philosophical contemplation. What seems literal—a jar on a hillside—has to be considered figuratively, as a port of air, open to the heavens, informing the mind and imagination.

Should a poem be allowed to do this? Take the reader on a circular journey that might end up going nowhere? This poem, like the jar, forms a challenging relationship with the reader, the senses, the imagination, and consequently the wider, wilder world.

This poem, in the opinion of some critics, started the conscious involvement in the intellectualisation of the argument: environment versus human progress.

Other poems by Stevens that explore similar themes are "Man on the Dump", "Someone Puts A Pineapple Together" and "Connoisseur of Chaos". And for a poem similar in style, read "Gray Stones and Gray Pigeons".

A jar is an everyday object, a mass-produced storage container made of glass which is, strangely, placed on top of a hill by the speaker. This is an odd enough action in itself but once up there it takes on a different role—it becomes dominant as an alien thing.

Incidentally, Wallace Stevens made a tour of Tennessee in 1919 and might have come across an actual manufactured jar whilst there. The Dominion Wide Mouth Special jar was used for preserving fruit—a possible source for this inspiring poem.

Just why the jar should affect the hillside and the wilderness surrounding is best answered by the poem itself.

"Anecdote Of The Jar"

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

Analysis of "Anecdote of the Jar"

"Anecdote of the Jar" makes a big impact for a short poem. Written in iambic tetrameter—eight syllables on average per line, with one or two exceptions—it is a tightly knit creation of three stanzas, each a quatrain.

  • There is no set rhyme scheme but there are occasional end rhymes: hill/hill, air/everywhere/bare. These appear as if by accident and don't play a significant role in the wholeness of the poem.
  • Note the repetition of the sound of the words surround, around, round and round and ground in the first two stanzas. This creates an almost dizzying effect, as if the simple jar is causing the landscape to circle it, as if ripples are emanating from the jar and causing a physical effect within and without.

As the poem progresses there is a definite shift in the influence of the jar. Initially, it is just placed by the speaker but this placement soon causes the wilderness to move in and surround the hill, then rise up to it, losing its wildness in the process.

Meanwhile, the jar has grown in stature, is now tall and something like an opening or gate where things can pass in and out, perhaps into the mind and out again.

Finally, the jar takes over. But now it is altered, becoming gray and bare, a spent thing? It certainly seems to change from stanza to stanza—first it is round, then still round and tall and of a port, and in the end, it's sort of nondescript. But is it still round? What is going on with this jar?

Unanswered Questions

"Anecdote of the Jar" is a poem that poses more questions than answers. In three short quatrains the speaker manages to alter a whole landscape in Tennessee, and quite possibly the whole known universe, by placing a jar on the ground and letting the reader, and Nature, get on with it.

The opening line is the only clear indication that a person, a persona, is responsible for initiating this mysterious and slightly disturbing process. A jar is placed, not dropped or left or discarded or ignored. This is a conscious decision, to select a space on a hill in which to place a jar, all in the wonderful state of Tennessee.

Already there is the suggestion of an experiment about to take place, perhaps a scientific experiment, because the jar is described as being round. Who else would purposefully place a jar out in the open in daylight? Only a scientist would, or someone testing a theory.

At this moment the reader is uncertain as to whether this jar is full or empty, on its side or upside down or open to the sky. All personal connection has left; it's just the reader and a more distant jar on the hill in Tennessee.

The quantum leap comes in line three as the reader is informed of the power of that same jar. It becomes the prime mover in that Tennessee landscape; the slovenly wilderness is animated, as if by a magic wand. It is also changed. It has been tamed. It is personified too, at first slovenly then sprawled around. But why the word "slovenly"? That is a rare adjective to use when describing untouched, unmanaged land. Slovenly means dirty, untidy, disheveled.

It also becomes the prime mover in the psychological landscape. This jar is anything but inert, it is a catalyst for action. The reader, every observer, is now influenced, becoming a part of this evolving scenario in which a jar is conductor of events.

In a specific state of the USA, states of mind are altering. The jar seems to be a port, an opening that allows the chaos of the wilderness to become the order of the mind, and the chaos of the mind to become the order of the wilderness. The whole process is cyclic, on and on it goes.

So is the jar a symbol? Of the imagination? Of the power of thought? Is the speaker implying that, by placing a jar, or any object, into a landscape, change has to happen? Out of the chaos of Nature comes a semblance of reason and order.

The jar could be a medium through which we as humans try to understand the natural world we're part of. The more we know, the more the innocence of the environment is corrupted. Gone are bird and bush. The altered state (of mind) evolves.


Collected Poems and Prose, The Library of America, 1997

Norton Anthology, Norton, 2005

© 2017 Andrew Spacey