Wallace Stevens is, at times, the exemplary figure of the austere Modernist, shorn of Transcendental excess, wary of its expansionist programme for consciousness: ‘Anecdote of the Jar’ has been mined by generations of students teasing out its seemingly endless self-referentiality to demonstrate that ‘less is more’. The poem is, of course, an ironic critique of the Romantic yearning for the creative interfusion of consciousness and nature as the basis of art. Its circular self-enclosing form seems an austere rebuke to Emerson’s more expansive solipsism. Emerson wrote, ‘The eye is the first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary figure is repeated without end’, but Steven’s circling is a demarcation line, an exclusion zone. Similarly the poem cheats the reader’s desire for narrative lift-off; this is an anecdote which leads nowhere, which fends off chatty familiarity, and in which there is no significant joining that transcends its constitutive elements.
These refusals are particularly evident when comparing the poem with its famous Romantic precursor, Keats’s ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’. The heated imagination of the narrator of Keats’s Ode desperately interrogates the ‘cold’ and ‘silent’ Urn about the narrative significance of its figures; this is frustrating for the questioner, but at least the Urn bears signs of nature to which consciousness can respond. Stevens’s jar, more exigently, has no trace of nature, human or otherwise, and the ‘I’ of the poem does not attempt to read the jar or to express feeling, but merely notes its regulatory effect with a punctilious disinterestedness. The poem itself jars, repels the reader’s consciousness. Keats’s poem concludes in enigmatic utterance, yet the very ambiguity as to whose voice the final words are to be attributed is a kind of merger:
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’ -that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
The voice is rhetorically identified as the voice of art, whose utterance has been achieved by the coming together of passionate warmth and cold silence; together they have produced the epigram (literally ‘an inscription’) which, although circular, seems to suggest something beyond its apparent limited prescription.
Most strikingly and consolingly, the reader of Keats’s poem is aligned with nature, with ‘breathing human passion’; the reader and the poet share the intensities of transience, whereas the bald statements of Stevens’s poem are indifferent to such intensities. The jar is a visual surveillance point, not teasingly enigmatic but blank, without cordial allusions to illustrious urn forebears and implicitly a rebuff to Keats’s expression of ardent longing for a consummate reciprocity between art and nature. Stevens’s own Keatsian proclivities are being kept well in check in this self-admonitory anecdote —an anecdote for the artist.
But Stevens’s modernist austerity nakedly reveals that his theme is power. In an American context the poem engages with Emerson’s Transcendentalist emphasis on the possessive power of the eye. The genteel tradition, of which Emerson was the principal representative, might seem to have existed in rarefied seclusion from the commercial energies of the age, but it underwrote the expansionist energy of the era by transforming its power into an aesthetic of consciousness. In his essay ‘Nature’, Emerson comments on property:
The charming landscape which I saw this morning is indubitably made up of some twenty or thirty farms. Miller owns this field, Locke that, and Manning the woodland beyond. But none of them owns the landscape. There is a property in the horizon which no man has but he whose eye can integrate all the parts, that is, the poet.
What is significant here is that this is not a rejection of ownership —indeed it expresses land-hunger — but a relinquishment of an inferior category of ownership for a superior, more active one. Similarly, Emerson’s ‘transparent eyeball’ utterance is the expression of a colonising consciousness — there is space which the eye can acquire:
Standing on the bare ground — my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing: I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God ... I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty.
The disclaimer, ‘I am nothing’ is disingenuous within the overall context of the egotistical sublime in which ‘I’ becomes ‘eye’, infinitely expansive, capable of encircling nature. Consciousness is prehensile and invasive, its transports masking its annexations.
In ‘Anecdote of the Jar’, Stevens’s curious use of the word ‘slovenly’ to describe the ‘wilderness’ converts the traditional meaning of the expression to a positive rather than a pejorative sense, as well as drawing on the more recent and more neutral American meaning of ‘uncultivated’. Indeed, in ‘Anecdote of the Jar’ the Tennessee wilderness is less satisfactorily assimilated by the power of the colonising consciousness: the jar may take ‘dominion’, but the wilderness is not internalised as an active source of creative power; it does not give its energy and fecundity to the jar. Emerson, ‘crossing a bare common’, is exhilarated by the winter landscape and the initial bleakness is suffused with a rhetoric of euphoric exchange; however, when Stevens’s starting point in the Harmonium volume is an Emersonian one, the bleakness is not the occasion of rapturous interfusion.