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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 234

This poem is famous for its sparseness. What happens? The action is summed up in the first line: "I placed a jar in Tennessee." The rest of the poem is concerned with what happens after the jar has been "placed." In the second stanza, the jar "made the slovenly wilderness surround" the hill the jar is on. In the second stanza, the jar causes the wilderness to "sprawl" and become "no longer wild." In the final stanza, the jar takes "dominion everywhere," and does not "give of bird or bush." Whatever the jar is doing, there is a clear progression from cause (placing the jar) to effect (taking dominion everywhere). The jar gets stronger as the poem progresses. In fact, it is "Like nothing else in Tennessee."

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The action of the poem is inextricably bound up in what you think the "jar" might mean. There have been many interpretations of the poem, but if we limit ourselves to "summarizing" the action, then, in a basic way, the poem is about displacement and difference. The jar on the hill seems to displace nature, which is made to "surround the hill" and which (in comparison to the roundness of the jar) is "slovenly." In the second stanza, the wilderness is changed, "no longer wild," while the jar "was round upon the ground." Finally, the jar, "gray and bare," takes "dominion everywhere," its man-made roundness replacing nature.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 418

Perhaps the most frequently anthologized of Stevens’s poems, “Anecdote of the Jar” reflects Stevens’s preoccupation with appearances or surfaces. “The world is measured by the eye,” he said in one of his many aphoristic comments, and this difficult poem plays with the issues of what the eye measures and how. The poem’s interpretation is far from agreed upon, as any identification of the jar (art? technology? any single point of reference?) tends to limit the poem unacceptably.

The poem’s twelve lines describe the placement of a jar—a mason jar, as one critic suggests? a vase?—on a hill in Tennessee; once placed, the jar reorders the landscape. “It made the slovenly wilderness/ Surround that hill.” The description suggests the distortions of the landscape in the curved sides of a plain glass jar. The new order is only that, a new order; it is not beauty. The jar takes over the scene: “It took dominion everywhere.” Yet it is “gray and bare.” The double negative in the last two lines causes confusion: “It did not give of bird or bush,/ Like nothing else in Tennessee.” If the jar itself is read as the subject of the last line, the statement is clarified, but one might ask whether such a grammatical wrench is acceptable.

Read with as few limitations as possible, the poem suggests that adding an artifact or a point of focus compels a new interpretation of any scene. Moreover, there is a certain arrogance in making such rearrangements: “I placed a jar in Tennessee” has a casual affront to it, as the jar placer assumes the right to a whole state. Perhaps “I placed a jar in Tennessee” may even be read as “Eye placed a jar in Tennessee.” Whatever the jar is or represents, it has made order out of chaos or “slovenly wilderness.” Yet which is better—disorder or gray, bare order? If the order is not artistically preferable to the wilderness, if the net change is not a gain, what the jar represents is finally irrelevant.

Many of the Harmonium poems deal with changes wrought by the imagination upon reality, and these changes may alter things for the better, if the imagination is a true or honest creative perception, or for the worse, if (as in “The Ordinary Women”) the imagination is limited by preconceived clichéd interpretations. “Anecdote of the Jar” is an example of perception as imagination with little judgment of its product. Only the process is defined.

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