Wallace Stevens’ poem “Anecdote of the Jar” explores the struggle between humans and nature. Nature, left alone, grows continuously, existing harmoniously in interconnected ecosystems. Every creature, plant, and organism in nature plays a role in supporting the rest of the environment. Humans, on the other hand, tend to take over when they enter a new place, destroying everything in their paths and, as a result, disrupting the delicate balance that existed before their intrusion. Humans introduce artificiality into the world, converting nature from its original state of vitality and freedom to one of repression and control. In the poem, the jar, a manmade object used for containment, is the ultimate representation of this repression. Stevens uses style, symbolism, juxtaposition, personification, and the relationship between the narrator and the jar to effectively illustrate the containment imposed on nature by humans.
A jar is an object, made by man, of unnatural materials, with an artificial shape. It is described vaguely as “round” like a typical jar (2). It has a definite, immovable shape that forces whatever object or material placed inside of it to conform to its shape. Stevens gives it a sense of superiority with the description “tall and of a port in air” and by placing it physically above the rest of the environment, “upon a hill,” suggesting it has an advantage over the wilderness (8, 2). A jar also serves as a barrier between what is inside and what is outside. The final feature of a jar that supports the argument that it represents containment is its lid. When in place at the opening of the jar, the lid completely shuts out the rest of the world, enclosing only what is desired in the limited space of the jar. The jar itself is the most obvious illustration of containment.
The jar is also personified. It is described as having “made the slovenly wilderness/ Surround the hill” (3-4). It is more than just an object; it takes on human characteristics, such as the ability to interact with and affect the world around it. It represents something much larger than itself; it represents humanity and civilization. The jar’s interaction with the wilderness of Tennessee reflects humans’ interaction with the natural world. The most important action the jar performs is “[taking] dominion everywhere” (9). This line reveals the true power the jar has over the wilderness. The wilderness was suppressed, “sprawled around, no longer wild,” when it “rose up to [the jar]” (6, 5). While the jar is merely sitting on a hill, it is capable of exerting such a force over nature that it tames the unruly wilderness, forcing it to surrender to its control.
In addition to the jar’s personification, the relationship between the narrator and the jar reinforces the argument that the jar is representative of humanity as a whole. The fact that the narrator, “I” in the first line, places the jar into the scene, introducing it into the wilderness, demonstrates that it is an extension of him. The jar did not appear on the hill on its own, it originated from the nameless, faceless narrator. The power behind the jar’s influence over and interaction with the environment is the narrator, a human being. Humans do not always directly impact the natural world, but their influence can be felt through the byproducts of their presence. The jar, a symbol for all of humanity, contains the wilderness, reflecting humanity’s repression of nature.
Stevens contrasts the jar with the environment in which is it placed, emphasizing their differences. He states it plainly in the last line when he says the jar is “like nothing else in Tennessee” (12). Firstly, the jar is an inanimate object, manmade, not a part of the nature surrounding it. The wilderness is made up of living creatures, plants, and organisms that “give of bird or bush” (11). Trees and animals do not exist isolated from everything around them. Instead, they provide for and sustain each other. Secondly, the jar is immobile, described as either “upon a hill” or “upon the ground” (2, 7). The wilderness, in contrast, is portrayed as “slovenly” (2). It is unruly, overgrown, and constantly changing. The wilderness “rose up” and “sprawled around,” proving it is capable of movement (5, 6). Lastly, the jar is described as “gray and bare” (10). It is dull, plain, and ordinary. The “slovenly” wilderness is filled with color and texture: leaves and trees, flowers and plants, as well as the diverse creatures that live in an environment such as this. By employing these contrasts, Stevens sets up two opposing forces that make up both sides of the struggle between the jar, representing humanity, and the wilderness, which represents the natural world.
Containment is an important theme that appears continuously throughout the poem. The most obvious place it can be observed is with the jar, but there is another important instance in which it is present as well: the setting. The fact that Stevens places the jar in “Tennessee” not only provides a real world setting in which the poem takes place but also emphasizes the theme of containment (1). Tennessee is an arbitrary boundary created by humans, with the purpose of taming the huge continent and bringing it under the control of man. State lines did not exist in the natural world before humans came in and took over. Their creation is a way for man to establish his dominion over the unruliness of nature, just as the jar takes dominion over the wilderness.
Furthermore, the poem itself reflects the theme of containment. The style of writing is succinct, with no unnecessary words. The three stanzas are uniform, each consisting of four lines. In the same way, each line is generally the same length, never exceeding eight words. The poem is not written in free verse where there are no rules and the poet is free from restrictions. Instead, Stevens abides by certain limitations. The short length and compact appearance of the poem can be observed when it is viewed in its entirety. The poet’s conciseness of language and manner of writing echo the restrictiveness of the jar on the natural world around it.
Stevens’ choice of a jar as the subject of the poem successfully expresses the battle between humanity and the natural world. Jars contain and restrict. They serve as an excellent representation of the result of human interaction with nature. In this poem, the jar represents humanity and its pattern of suppressing nature, taming it in order to fit into man’s ideal civilization. Nature may still exist, but it will be in a different, more limited form, such as an occasional potted plant, garden, or park. Rarely is it left to flourish as it did before humans or their influence interfered.