Anecdote of the Jar Themes
by Wallace Stevens

Start Your Free Trial

Anecdote of the Jar Themes

One of the themes of this short, seemingly simple, but truly complex poem is the way in which human-made objects can establish order and distinction in the natural world. The theme is the distinction between civilization and nature. A jar, very simple in design, is able to establish dominance, or what Stevens calls "dominion," over the world around it, because it has orderly, rounded sides. Even though nature possesses power and majesty and can bear fruit and leaves, a simple jar is more powerful. By its presence, the jar makes the wilderness around it seem "slovenly," or without design.

Download Anecdote of the Jar Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Another related theme is the tension between order and the wild. Stevens himself felt this tension, as he was an insurance man who had the soul and mind of a poet. The jar placed in the wilderness is a kind of static rendering of the ongoing tension between order in life and the forces that pull people towards nature, wildness, and abandon. Both forces have a forceful pull, as nature has the capacity to bear fruit and host animals, while order can seem to establish dominance over the messiness of nature.

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 clearly intended by Stevens in those words) that wilderness is “no longer wild” even though, paradoxically, it still “sprawled around.” Poetry, and by extension all arts that are represented by the symbolic jar, thus have a dual capacity to tame and order nature while at the same time emphasizing nature’s fundamental characteristics. The Tennessee wilderness is tamed twice: first by being literally...

(The entire section is 756 words.)