Anecdote of the Jar by Wallace Stevens

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

The poem celebrates a moment of aesthetic triumph. The poet transfers his own imaginative activity to an inhuman medium-jar. It serves as an extension of the poet’s own drive to order, but it achieves dominion over the chaotic wilderness precisely because it is inanimate. The jar in Tennessee represents a purely formal principle of order and this kind of order cannot satisfy the deepest needs of Stevens’ imagination. The jar is not placed in Tennessee, on the hills of Tennessee. The jar is round upon a rounded piece of ground, a hill. Hills are calmer and softer than the mountains. We can imagine that this jar is sitting perfectly on the crust of the hill. The jar is looking down upon everything around it and it is affecting the world around it. There is a lot of wilderness around the place where the jar is placed. This place is slovenly unclean and unmaintained. As the jar is placed on the hill, we can imagine that the crust of that hill is bare and grey. The wilderness-the trees, vines, birds, shrunk and rabbits around the hill are being raised up to the hill.

There is something man made in the wilderness now, tarnishing its purity. It could also be a statement about how men and manmade objects often overtake the wild and the natural. Being placed on the top of a hill the jar gives an apex of human purpose through nature. But the jar asserts authority even more through the implied design of its own rotundity. It is the design of a created object embodying a human, cultural purpose. “Anecdote of a Jar” is a metaphor about the magnetic power of mind and art to order a void (and the void). Stress is laid upon its non- naturalness to accentuate the crucial power of artistic and thus human purpose. Art (mind) governs its antithesis, nature—”It took dominion everywhere,” even, indeed, especially, in a non- civilized, non-human place.

Theme

The poem is about a single subject –the relation between imagination and reality. His view is that it is the man who imposes some kind of order upon nature through his artistic creation (jar). In many of the poems he tries to resolve the conflict between reality and imagination as it appeared to him. Ultimately, he found that reality is indispensable to a poet while composing verses, but his imagination has the right to play upon reality and even transform it when necessary. The idea is that art which is the product of imagination can impose order upon a chaotic state of affairs. But Steven’s modernist austerity nakedly reveals that his theme is power. In an American context the poem engages with Emerson’s Transcendentalist emphasis on the possessive power of the eye.

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