Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

As is often the case with Stevens’s poetry, the underlying theme of “Anecdote of the Jar” is the division between the natural and artistic realms, a study in the conflict between outer and inner worlds, and, above all, the often conflicting relationship between the actual and the ideal. As Stevens himself once phrased it, the theme here is, yet again, the disparity between “imagination and reality.” This division, Stevens maintained, could be resolved only through art and, in particular, through the medium of poetry, which he termed “the supreme fiction.” “Anecdote of the Jar” is a symbolic representation of and reflection on how art controls, shapes, and ultimately determines the so-called real world.

To begin with, the jar is decidedly not natural but artificial. It is of human origin, deliberately manufactured and consciously placed on the hillside, thus doubly removing it from the natural order of things. It is further removed by the fact that the jar is not placed on the hillside to fulfill its original purpose (to hold or store items, generally foodstuffs). It is there as an artificial item, pure and simple—to fulfill an aesthetic rather than utilitarian purpose.

In contrast to the sleek, smooth sides of the fabricated jar as an object, the natural wilderness is “slovenly” and, to some degree, therefore inferior. In the poem, when the wilderness finally “rose up” to the jar (with a deliberate punning meaning...

(The entire section is 566 words.)