Anecdote of the Jar by Wallace Stevens is a poem that expresses, through the story of “a jar” and “a hill,” the progressive overtaking of industry over nature. In the final stanza, that overtaking is revealed to be a sad and absurd prospect since Stevens’s comparisons make it clear that he believes nature is far more remarkable than industry will ever be. While there are other explanations that could be applied to this poem, the heart of the plot is a reflection of this absurdity, making the three-stanzas a combined lament of the forsaking of nature for what was misinterpreted as betterment. You can read the poem here.
Anecdote of the Jar Analysis
I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.
The narrator begins the poem by the simple proclamation that he “placed a jar in Tennessee,” “upon a hill.” This is a very clear and nondescript action, and even this “jar” is treated in a less than vivid manner. The reader does not know how big this “jar” was, what color it was, etc. Rather, the reader can only know that it was “round.” Despite the simple design and description, however, this “jar” turned into something of massive importance since “[i]t made the slovenly wilderness [s]urround that hill.”
Already, the reader might find themselves pondering a strong and reasonable question regarding how something as insignificant as “a jar” could have such an impact on “wilderness.” Because “a jar” would not physically be capable of making something like this happen—and also because “wilderness” would not be able to make a rational decision like this—the reader must look to metaphor and symbolism for an answer. It could be that Stevens is relaying a situation where perfection demands attention and admiration. This idea has support in that this “jar” was “placed” “upon a hill” so that “wilderness” would have to grow to reach its superior position, and in the notion that “wilderness” itself has been labeled as “slovenly.” If “wilderness” was unimpressive, its reach toward this “jar[‘s]” position and stance would show the tendency of something that is less to try to become something better by example.
More likely though, this is a general representation of the transition of the world from something completely natural to something more focused on man-made structures and engineering. This “jar” could represent the progress into a more industrial era from the more natural world that once existed, and the falling away of “wilderness” as the world strove to follow this industrial pattern is revealed through the statement that “the slovenly wilderness” started to “[s]urround that hill.” Through industry, more and more became man-made, leaving less that still existed within the realm of “wilderness” territory.
The question would then become why Stevens has selected a lowly “jar” to represent all of man-made industry. The answer could be found in the progress of industry since tools and equipment would have started much simpler than they currently are in the modern world, meaning this “jar” could take the reader back to a moment of early history in industry. In this, the reader can see the beginnings of industry as a turning point of “wilderness” to witness that early struggle. Another possibility is that Stevens is showing that even the simplest of man-made items has the ability to lure people from more natural elements, and something as non-technical as “a jar” would be a wonderful representation of that.
Early in the second stanza, the sway of this “jar” over “[t]he wilderness” increased so that “wilderness” did not just “[s]urround the hill” this “jar” was “on,” but “rose up to” “[t]he jar” itself. This progress was so strong and impacting that “wilderness” was “no longer wild” by the time the transition was finished. This represents the complete change of the world around technology and industry since so much of nature was forsaken during the process. The world became tame, and nature was forced to change to keep in step, as can be seen by forests and such that would have been removed for the sake of buildings and factories.
Still, this “jar” remained unchanged. It stayed “round upon the ground,” and in fact seemed quite proud and admirable in its stance of being “tall and of a port in air.” The visual is almost regal, as odd as it might seem to have that kind of atmosphere linked to a simple “jar,” but given the sway of this particular “jar” to the world, it is fitting. It is being treated like a ruler over “wilderness,” so describing it like royalty is a fitting choice.
The third stanza begins with the blunt declaration that this simple jar “took dominion everywhere,” which extends the influence of “[t]he jar” beyond the “hill.” The sway grew to include every place imaginable, and that idea gives the theme of the poem universality. Ironically, though, once this concept is noted, Stevens turns to criticize “[t]he jar” by saying that it “was gray and bare” and “did not give of bird or bush.” Essentially, as soon as its influence has been extended as a universal issue, Stevens mocks that issue by revealing how unimpressive this “jar” was when compared to the things around it.
By appearance, it was almost boring, and it lacked the natural beauty and possibility that the “bird” or “bush” would have provided. Ironically, these “bird[s]” and “bush[es]” could have been the very things striving to be like “[t]he jar,” and that idea makes the transition feel a bit ridiculous. If “a jar” could not “give” like the “bird or bush,” there was no reason why they should have striven to be like that “jar.” In fact, if such were the case, “[t]he jar” would have had reason to envy the “bird or bush,” or anything “else in Tennessee” that could have provided natural beauty, wonder, and purpose to outshine the “gray and bare” industry that overcame nature.
This is a statement that industry itself is “gray and bare” as compared to the “giv[ing]” nature of “wilderness,” and that idea would make this poem a mocking tale of industry’s rise to reveal how lacking the world has become through the embracing of that industry.
About Wallace Stevens
Wallace Stevens was born in 1879 and died 1955, and he was a noted poet in American history. He graduated from Harvard and New York Law School, and his professional accomplishments include his work in the legal field as well as the literary world. Unfortunately, his primary attention for his poetry did not occur until near his time of death, but his continuing relevance in the field has extended that fame beyond his lifespan.