Wallace Stevens, Anecdote of the Jar

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Frequently anthologised and widely researched, “Anecdote of the Jar” (1919) is, despite its length, one of the most well-known poems in Harmonium, Wallace Stevens’ first published collection of poems (1923). The status and importance of the poem, similar to those of the other short pieces entitled “anecdotes” in the volume – such as “Earthy Anecdote”, “Anecdote of the Prince of Peacocks” and others – seem deceptively secondary to longer, more complex poems such as “The Comedian as the Letter C”, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” or “Notes Towards a Supreme Fiction”. Strategically placed within the volume – the riddle poem “Earthy” anecdote opens the book – these anecdotes typically deepen, modify or challenge ideas which have been already presented in other poems and, conversely, longer poems assume a certain familiarity with the themes presented in them. The poem presents the case of a man-made object, a jar, taking over and taming its surrounding wild nature:

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

By metaphorically situating the jar upon a hill in Tennessee, Stevens initiated an ironic tautology which has puzzled scholars for almost a century. The man-made jar – an artefact which, though humble in itself, embodies the complex mastery of technology on the part of humans – alters nature by creating a referential point, an artificial, “round” centre which, in the eye of the beholder, makes the “slovenly wilderness / Surround that hill”. This unavoidable problem of perception – Stevens’ sense of the anecdotal actively involves the intersection between factual representation and imagination – creates a situation in which nature is tamed, being “no longer wild”, and seemingly surrendered, “sprawled around” to the situational power of the jar. The result is a trick of perception, namely that the same object – the jar – can be “round upon the ground”, when seen from above, but also “tall and of a port” when seen from below the hill; this calls the attention to the power of arrangement in our apprehension of reality. This fact questions the chances of an objective observation, but most importantly states the role of subjectivity in creating things as they are. The result is that the jar, a mere object, “took dominion every where”. The sombre, stale reign of the jar which, “gray and bare”, does not “give of bird or bush”, contrasts with the subjugated nature which, full of life, does exactly the opposite in the whole of “Tennessee”. The poems seems to end in a dark, depressing domination of artificiality over nature and the imposition of a certain structuring, an enforced order to which nature is altogether foreign and which has unbecoming consequences. The jar becomes a “symbol of fixed, orderly and dead, within natural, diffuse and live landscape” (Kermode).

Far from these dark overtones, certain aspects counter the unlikely regime of infertility caused by the incidental placing of the jar amidst nature. Humour and double-entendre are not alien to Stevens, especially to his short poems, and they often involve the release of tension through exploring the possibilities of double meaning, cultural referencing and, most importantly, ambivalence towards figurative and literal language. Famously identified as a “Dominion Wide Mouth Special” mason fruit jar, widely distributed in the United States at the time (Pearce), Stevens is aware of the wide difference in pragmatic meaning between taking dominion – to dominate – and to literally take the Dominion brand jar “every where”, as an advertisement would do, by placing it within the vantage point of a linguistic version of Duchamp’s ready-made (MacLeod). Instead of resolving the many ambiguities created by the poem, Stevens exploits and reinforces their indetermination, thus leaving the poem open to readings which would differ greatly according to how literal or figurative the elements in the poem are interpreted.

Consequently, there is little critical agreement over the exact meaning of the piece. Some critics have observed how the poem can actually be approached from different theoretical angles and yield deeply dissimilar readings (Brogan). In fact, “Anecdote of the Jar” faithfully exemplifies how seemingly self-referential poetry can appear, and how often the perception or consideration of a tiny element may alter the interpretation of the whole poem, irradiating meaning towards other elements within the text. Considered from the point of close-reading, the poem seems to be meta-poetic; the jar would stand for those objects – perhaps the poems themselves – foregrounded by poetry and thus it would reveal an allegory of figuration in which the representation overcomes the represented. A strict Feminist understanding of the poem would unearth a paradigmatic male dominance over the oft-feminised natural scenery. Furthermore, from a deconstructive vantage, the poem is meta-linguistic, and thus concerned with the dislocation of language and time; not without surprise can we apprehend the use of verbs and syntax by Stevens in the poem – are “give of”, or double negation, acceptable in English? Other commentators have pointed out the political dimension of the poem – namely a denunciation of industrial imperialism – making an argument for the semantic incoherence of the poem without finding an anchoring reference outside the text (Lentricchia); or, more recently, even the avant-la-lettre concern for ecology on the part of Stevens (Voros).

All these readings assume a certain degree of symbolism which Stevens denied in other anecdotes; writing about “Earthy Anecdote”, he clarifies that he meant “no symbolism” in the poem, and that he “intended something quite concrete: actual animals” (Stevens) – which is a hard claim since his firecat does not exist in nature, nor does the name belong to any known animal (Bacigalupo). Could Stevens be writing about a jar, and nothing else? Many critics, such as Joseph Kronick, have argued that reading Stevens requires a certain acceptance of the paradoxical relationship between reality and the imagination. For Stevens, the distrust of metaphor as identification of dissimilar objects, but also the acceptance of its imaginative powers in a poetry of Romantic descent are but two sides of the coin – none of which can be renounced. The poet would settle for neither reality nor the imagination, but would aim, instead, to represent the inconsistencies and ambiguities inherent to his representation. This predicament, to which Romanticism had its solution “in the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant properties” (Coleridge), is further problematized by Stevens by exploring the possibilities of conciliation between the unity of metaphoric representation and the fragmentation of those elements being identified. The tension created by the artificial placing of the jar – as does figurative, non-referential use of language – in the surrounding nature highlights the necessity to consider both the domination effected by the jar and the fact that it does not integrate with nature, remaining still while the figuratively tamed nature continues growing. While the poetic voice would create a new situation which can be considered a still life (Buttel), the imposition of that unnatural order, as Stevens makes clear in the last stanza, is far from promising; it cannot, however be ignored, which is precisely what the poem does, making a case for the incorporation of both the real and the imagined in our concept of reality.

The poem is perhaps best understood as a dialogue with tradition, one which assumes its poetic heritage and deepens the problems and solutions presented by earlier poets, which connects Stevens with the Romantics, but also Stevens’ own interests in other pieces. The anecdote told by the poem reveals itself primarily, then, as an intertextual affair with other poems. Helen Vendler reminds us that “Anecdote of the Jar” acts as a palinode, a retractation from the hopeful expectance of “Sunday Morning” (first published by Stevens in 1915), but also as a dialogue with the poetic past. The jar’s “awkward sublimity” is a recant of Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (Vendler). It is worth noticing that, unlike Keats’ urn, Stevens’ jar is “gray and bare” in comparison with nature, and thus implicitly falsifies the Keatsian well-known chant “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know” (Keats). The jar is “a visual surveillance point, not teasingly enigmatic but blank, without cordial allusions to illustrious urn forebears and implicitly a rebuff to Keats’s expression of ardent longing for a consummate reciprocity between art and nature” (Righelato). For the American modernist poet, the beauty of the natural or the artificial does not suffice unless domination of one over the other is excluded; it requires “a vow to stop imitating Keats and seek a native American language that will not take the wild out of the wilderness” (Vendler). In contrast with a certain idealising reading of English Romanticism, Stevens aims to incorporate nature and its lyrical description into a system which balances out the inherent powers of each element – of both nature and poetry – without suppressing or belittling their complexities. The poem “has it both ways – the character of reality is a creation of perspectival seeing and ordering; the character of reality as a given exposes the artificiality of any given perspective” (Leggett). This dual aspect of reality is a recurring concern in Stevens’ poetry, one which would be developed in further poems such as the last of his Collected Poems, a Pulitzer-winning collection published the year before his death. “Not Ideas about the Thing but the Thing Itself” closes the volume offering a revealing insight on how both reality and imagination fuse in the moment of perception:

That scrawny cry—it was
A chorister whose c preceded the choir.
It was part of the colossal sun,
Surrounded by its choral rings,
Still far away. It was like
A new knowledge of reality.

Works Cited

Bacigalupo, Massimo. “Wallace Stevens and the Firecat”, The Wallace Stevens Journal 21(1), 1997. 94-98.
Brogan, Jacqueline Vaught. “Introducing Stevens: Or, the Sheerly Playful and the Display of Theory”, in Teaching Wallace Stevens: practical essays, ed. John Serio and B. Leggett. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1994. 125- 189.
Buttel, Robert. Wallace Stevens: The Making of Harmonium. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1967.
Buttel, Robert. Wallace Stevens: The Making of Harmonium. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1967.
Kermode, Frank. Wallace Stevens. Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1960.
Kronick, Joseph G. “The Metamorphic Stevens”, The Wallace Stevens Journal 6 (1/2), 1982.
Leggett, B. Early Stevens: The Nietzchean Intertext. Durham: Duke University Press, 1992.
Lentricchia, Frank. Ariel and the Police: Michel Foucault, William James, Wallace Stevens. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988.
MacLeod, Glen. Wallace Stevens and Modern Art: From the Armory Show to Abstract Expressionism. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.
Pearce, Roy Harvey. “’Anecdote of the Jar’: An Iconological Note”, The Wallace Stevens Journal 1(2), 1977. 65.
Righelato, Pat. “Wallace Stevens” in American Poetry: The Modernist Ideal, eds. Clive Bloom and Brian Docherty. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995. 81-91.
Stevens, Wallace. Letters of Wallace Stevens, ed. Holly Stevens. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966.
Stevens, Wallace. The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1954.
Vendler, Helen. Words Chosen Out of Desire. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1984.
Voros, Gyorgyi, Notations of the Wild: Ecology in the Poetry of Wallace Stevens. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1997.

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Citation: Jiménez Muñoz, Antonio José. "Anecdote of the Jar". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 20 September 2012 [https://www.litencyc.com/php/sworks.php?rec=true&UID=6660, accessed 08 February 2023.]

6660 Anecdote of the Jar 3 Historical context notes are intended to give basic and preliminary information on a topic. In some cases they will be expanded into longer entries as the Literary Encyclopedia evolves.

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