A critical reading of an enigmatic poem
How can one even attempt to offer an analysis of ‘Anecdote of the Jar’, one of the most baffling and elusive short poems of the twentieth century? Wallace Stevens (1879-1955) wrote ‘Anecdote of the Jar’ in 1918 and it was published a year later; this apparently makes it in the public domain, so we have cited the poem below. What is the meaning of Stevens’s poem? Difficult poems call for at least a stab at trying to unpick their ambiguities and determine their meaning, and we think ‘Anecdote of the Jar’ no different. So let’s roll our sleeves up and attempt a little analysis of this – one of Wallace Stevens’s best-known poems.
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.
To offer a summary of ‘Anecdote of the Jar’ is, on the face of it, not much help in analysing its meaning. What actually happens in the poem remains odd and baffling: the speaker tells us that he placed a jar on a hill in Tennessee, and the wilderness of the surrounding land seemed to grow up around the jar, until it was no longer wild. The jar is described as tall and impressive as it stands on the hill. The jar takes over everything, despite being grey and bare (and presumably empty). It does not seem to care for the nature around it, and is like nothing else in the whole of Tennessee.
What is this enigmatic little poem about? Let’s start with the title. This is presented to us as an ‘Anecdote of the Jar’: not an ode to a jar, or even a song (indeed, several critics of the poem, such as Helen Vendler and Pat Righelato, have interpreted ‘Anecdote of the Jar’ as a tacit response to Keats’s ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ – a sort of American poet’s response to the European poetic tradition). An anecdote is light and amusing, often inconsequential. Should we not take this bizarre poem too seriously?
The poem contains a number of particularly inscrutable lines. The jar, we are told, ‘did not give of bird or bush’. Does this simply mean the jar did not care – being an inanimate object – for the living world of nature that surrounds it? Or that the jar brings nothing forward, contributes nothing to the natural world, unlike the bird and the bush? Should we keep in mind the proverb ‘a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush’ here? Is this a poem about convenience? We take nature, in the form of food, and process it, selling it on in jars – and of course America is the birthplace of consumer capitalism. A jar is, among other things, a symbol of this.
We might also interpret ‘Anecdote of the Jar’, more widely, as a poem about man’s conquest over nature. Note how the placing of the jar on top of the hill means that the wilderness – the natural world – has to grow around the jar, and that, in the end, nature loses its wildness. The jar seems to infect everything around it, and removes the very wildness that makes the natural world what it is. The repetition of ‘round’ words – ‘round’, ‘Surround’, ‘around’, ‘round’, ‘ground’ – emphasise not only the round shape of the jar but also the difference between the manmade jar and the ‘wilderness’ of nature (and of America?) that surrounds it and ‘sprawl[s] around’ it.
There is, not can there probably ever be, one definitive reading or analysis of ‘Anecdote of the Jar’. It contains multitudes. How do you interpret Wallace Stevens’s poem? Continue to explore his work with our analysis of his famous poem, ‘The Emperor of Ice-Cream’.
Image: Soviet mayonnaise jar 250 ml, author unknown, via Wikimedia Commons.