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, meaning and summary of Wallace Stevens's poem Anecdote Of The Jar


  1. Deepbluekat says:

    Could the line, “And tall and of a port in air.” be a pun–a play on the words “of important air” as in haughty? … perhaps a reference to the dialect of Appalachia?

  2. martin asiner says:

    Whenever human beings interact with nature, they usually try to bend it to their will, often in selfish and destructive ways. In Wallace Stevens’ “Anecdote of the Jar,” Stevens describes a Tennessee long before human beings lived there. It is in this human free nature that Wallace sees as the stage against which man battles nature for supremacy.
    The “I” of the first line symbolically represents all humanity. He enters, places a jar on a hill, and then departs the poem. The rest of the poem is told from the viewpoint of the jar, thus equating the jar with the human need to dominate nature. It is significant that the “I” did not place a flower or plant on that hill. Not only is the jar a man-made artifact, its roundness, a shape not often found in nature, emphasizes its human origins. Further, the “I” places the jar at the top of the hill, thereby giving it a commanding view of the terrain. The jar’s height advantage over raw nature gives it an initial power advantage over the disorganized wilderness. However, Stevens suggests that the power of man to gain a permanent advantage over nature is illusory. Man may think that he has the upper hand; he may further think the height is a symbol of that power. But the ability of human beings to control nature is the larger battle of the few to control the many. Usually the few lose.
    The struggle for supremacy seems to go toward the jar’s side at first: “It made the slovenly wilderness / Surround that hill.” The wilderness that surrounds the hill is only that part which lies closest to it. The greater majority is far from the jar and thus unaffected. So if nature loses the first meeting between man and nature, that loss is the inconsequential loss of a skirmish rather than the ruinous defeat of a rout.
    The seeming victory of the jar continues in the second stanza, as the viewpoint shifts subtly from the jar to that of the wilderness. The reader sees events from the non-human angle and nature first counterattacks, then submits meekly: “The wilderness rose up to it, / And sprawled around, no longer wild.” The victory of the jar is echoed in the poem’s many repetitions of “round:” round, sur-round, a-round, and g-round. Each sound-alike reinforces what to humanity must be the victory of the artifice of human-directed roundness over the slovenliness of nature. Yet, the seeds of a stalemate are suggested in the often overlooked last two lines of the second stanza: “The jar was round on the ground / And tall and of a port in air.” The roundness and tallness of the jar is undercut by the suggestion that it is “of a port in air.” A rarely used definition of “port” is that of an escape or hatchway to safety. The victory of the jar, then, is seen as merely a prelude to a more traditional stalemate that emerges in the final stanza.
    After the jar “took dominion everywhere,” the jar itself is described in terms that do not indicate a fruitful victory: “The jar was gray and bare.” Here the jar is lifeless, a quality further emphasized by the next line: “It did not give of bird or bush.” The result of the battle for control leaves nature defeated, but only locally, and the man now as weakened and slovenly as nature was in the first stanza. The mention of “Tennessee” as both the starting point and the end point suggests its circularity. Man may try to overpower nature, may in fact win a few local skirmishes, but nature itself is too powerful for human beings to control. What is left is only the illusion on control. “Anecdote of the Jar” then implies that power is a game in which one must fool oneself about the rules and outcome of a game that was decided long before human beings ever walked on the face of the earth.

  3. R Freeman says:

    The poem is one of the great arguments for the value
    of formalism and its connection to its environments, or contexts. The jar (its form) brought the surrounding hills (the contexts) to life.

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