The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Wallace Stevens’s “Anecdote of the Jar” is a short lyric poem of three four-line stanzas that explore certain aspects of the relationship between art and the natural world. Although the lines have no definite, formal meter they are generally iambic with four stresses per line. With few exceptions, the words used in the poem are all commonplace and monosyllabic, allowing Stevens to employ at key points a variety of hammer-stroke rhythms for emphasis. The appearance at intervals of those words that are more than one syllable (“slovenly,” “wilderness,” and “dominion,” for example) help emphasize the poem’s dominant theme, the gulf between art and nature in the contrast between the short and “natural” words and the longer and “artistic” words. While there is no formal rhyming scheme to the poem, Stevens’s characteristic skill with sounds, in particular consonants in the middle of words and the repetition of key words, helps link the piece together as well as further emphasizes the difference between “nature” and “art” or “artifice.”

Ostensibly, “Anecdote of the Jar” is a straightforward, even simple, account of a commonplace action by the unnamed speaker, presumably Stevens himself. The speaker of the poem places a glass jar on the side of a hill in Tennessee. No reason is given for this action (as one shall see, the action of placing the jar is symbolic of artistic creation, which has no “reason” in the...

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Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Known for the originality and individuality of his syntax and vocabulary, Stevens frequently teases his readers with a lexicon that seems commonplace but that, upon closer inspection, refuses to yield a single unambiguous meaning. At the same time, he often places these placidly baffling word choices within lines of deceptively straightforward narrative. In “Anecdote of the Jar” he presents the reader with a series of simple, declarative sentences whose individual words and overall meaning, while generally clear, can be difficult to unravel.

As previously noted, the action of the poem is deceptively simple: The poet places a glass jar on the side of a Tennessee hill. Then, however, the poem calmly informs readers that the jar assumes some sort of control over the wilderness, paradoxically taming it. Apparently the jar can accomplish this because it was “round upon the ground/ And tall and of a port in air.” The internal rhyme of “round” and “ground” reinforces the concept of the jar (or a poem) as a conscious work of human artistry, an artificial creation that draws attention to its nature by the almost doggerel nature of the rhymes. As an artifact the poem is linked to the jar, which is also a creation of human beings.

Each created object is in some way capable of at least some control over nature. So much is clear: Art is a way of imposing order and meaning to a natural world that otherwise lies outside one’s powers....

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Bates, Milton J. Wallace Stevens: A Mythology of Self. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.

Bloom, Harold. Wallace Stevens. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2003.

Cleghorn, Angus J. Wallace Stevens’ Poetics: The Neglected Rhetoric. New York: Palgrave, 2000.

Critchley, Simon. Things Merely Are: Philosophy in the Poetry of Wallace Stevens. New York: Routledge, 2005.

Ford, Sara J. Gertrude Stein and Wallace Stevens: The Performance of Modern Consciousness. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Leggett, B. J. Late Stevens: The Final Fiction. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005.

Morse, Samuel F. Wallace Stevens: Poetry as Life. New York: Pegasus, 1970.

Santilli, Kristine S. Poetic Gesture: Myth, Wallace Stevens, and the Motions of Poetic Language. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Sharpe, Tony. Wallace Stevens: A Literary Life. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000.