By Dr Oliver Tearle
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’.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: Soviet mayonnaise jar 250 ml, author unknown, via Wikimedia Commons.
Thanks for the post and analysis. The poem is baffling. I’ve read it a number of times over the years and have never been able to make heads nor tails of it. To date, I don’t find this poem a pleasure to read like a lot of other Stevens poems that I don’t necessarily “understand”, like for examples Fabliau of Florida or Of Mere Being. I came back to Jar, because I just read for the first time David Ignatow’s lines
I should be content
to look at a mountain
for what it is
and not as a comment on my life
and it made me think of it.
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I think the poem is about self-reliance and authenticity. The solid point in a changing universe. It is born out of Thoreau and is (in my mind somehow) linked to the Robert B. Parker world of Spenser and Hawk. Events happen around them but there is a trust and a genuineness in their actions, in their positioning against the world that can be relied on. It is not a divine world Keats and Wordsworth are not part of this modern American situation and they would feel lost and deserted. This poem is about strength and commitment. Man is set in a wilderness but he will survive.
I’ve taken it to be a teasing parody on Ode to a Grecian Urn and is slightly tongue in cheek on one hand – and on the other… in order to manufacture glass in quantity requires a certain technological ability so demonstrates dominion over nature. Also it’s inert and won’t rot or add to the soil, etc…
We’ll go along with that – a persuasive reading of an elusive poem!
I enjoyed your post about this special (and classic) poem – read it a few times. :)
and only want to add that I think Tennessee is noteworthy here…. the author seems to specifically love tenneseee and was maybe tamed there as man…. maybe he is a bit like the jar …
but to mention the state twice shows it is maybe less America in general and more this wilderness state specifically – and the ending:
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.
also shows the fondness he has for Tennessee and the effects of this place….
just my thoughts :)
Good point about Tennessee being singled out. I think you’re right, especially in terms of the wilderness. Thanks for the comment!
thsnls for the reply and again – good post
haven’t read stevens since college 50 years ago – thoroughly enjoyed your piece
Thank you! Much appreciated :)
I was puzzled by your reference to the poem being in the public domain and I wondered if you were confusing it with copyright which lasts for 70 years after the author’s death. Just thought I’d mention it! Never read any of Wallace Steven’s work before – it this typical of her style: accessible language & dense subject matter?
It’s because the poem was published in America before 1923 – the UK copyright rule is 70 years after the author’s death, so it’s a little confusing in this case. We found the poem listed as in the public domain elsewhere on the web, so we’re relying on others’ superior knowledge of copyright law :)