What symbolism in "Anecdote of the Jar" portrays the relationship between humanity and nature?

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The jar in this poem is a powerful symbol of man's desire to control what he cannot possibly contain. We see this impossibility signified in the very first line, in which the speaker says that he has placed a jar "in Tennessee." A jar is something into which other...

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The jar in this poem is a powerful symbol of man's desire to control what he cannot possibly contain. We see this impossibility signified in the very first line, in which the speaker says that he has placed a jar "in Tennessee." A jar is something into which other things are generally placed; we might more usually expect to hear that someone has placed something in a jar. In this instance, however, Tennessee is of course too large to fit into a jar, with the result that the speaker has placed a jar into it -- "jar" here having a double meaning. As well as signifying a "round" container, the speaker has symbolically also placed a "jar" in Tennessee, where "jar" means something harsh or grating, a sudden unpleasant effect caused by something which does not belong. The speaker, a human, has introduced into Tennessee some element which does not belong there and which cannot perform its ordinary function because Tennessee is too big to contain. Nevertheless, the speaker, representative of humans, has attempted to proceed with the plan anyway.

Unlike the landscape that surrounds it, the jar is "gray and bare." Despite being small and seemingly functionless, it has agency over the "slovenly wilderness" around it; it "made" the wilderness circle around the hill and approach it, "no longer wild." This jar, which represents human orderliness, is too small and inadequate to contain the area around it, and yet has nevertheless tamed it, taking "dominion everywhere." Yet, the jar actually contributes nothing to Tennessee as it "did not give of bird or bush," the only thing in the state which does not do so. It is the only non-contributing element, and yet it has taken charge, because this is the effect humans have upon the natural landscape. The jar represents the human desire to tame what we perceive to be "slovenly" in nature, and yet without contributing anything to replace this wildness. We "jar" the landscape and take control of it, heedless of the fact that we are ill-equipped to do so.

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The jar in the poem is, to use a bit of wordplay, a "jarring" presence on the landscape. Being man-made, it is unnatural and serves a purpose to man only, not to nature, which has no use for it.

From the perspective of the man, the jar becomes the primary feature of the landscape, not the wilderness that surrounds it. In the same way, mankind likes to think of itself as the force that tames and brings order to the natural world. In the speaker's way of thinking and valuing, the wilderness surrounding the jar is "slovenly," thus careless and messy, while the jar symbolizes order and containment.

The speaker also seems to recognize the jar's foreignness in the final two lines of the poem. "It did not give of bird or bush" like everything ("like nothing else") in Tennessee.

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In the poem “Anecdote of the Jar,” a particular relationship between humanity and nature is described by means of the symbolism entailed in the jar and the state of Tennessee.

The poet begins by stating that he “…placed a jar in Tennessee” (line 1). This line contains the central focus of the poem.

The jar stands for human order and the drive to arrange things according to a pattern. Tennessee, on the other hand, is impossibly large in comparison to the jar.  In the same way, nature can be seen as an unfathomable force, much larger than humanity, which humanity nonetheless feels must be overruled and ordered.

To the human mind, the “wilderness” mentioned in the poem is not only wild, it is also “slovenly.”  The jar, on the other hand, creates a sense of order within the impossible wilderness.  It orders the hill and nature surrounding the hill.  It creates neat patterns within a sense of disordered chaos.

Another aspect of this order is the poet’s use of the words “gray and bare” (line 10) to represent the human order.  It is predictable and uninteresting, like a gray, bare jar.  Nature, on the other hand, provides life and sustenance.

The central theme of the poem is therefore the human tendency to rule by means of order and tidiness. However, the price is the beauty and wildness that might be found in nature.

 

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