Joseph Carroll: On "Anecdote of the Jar"


"Anecdote of the Jar" (1919) . . . celebrates a moment of aesthetic triumph. Stevens achieves this triumph by means of a tactic similar to that of "The Snow Man"; he transfers his own imaginative activity to an inhuman medium. The effect of this tactic in "Anecdote of the Jar" is to represent the conflict between the mind and external reality as an impersonal play of aesthetic forces:

I placed a jar in Tennessee,

And round it was, upon a hill.

It made the slovenly wilderness

Surround that hill. (CP, 76)

The three stanzas of the poem move in a circling pattern, repeating first elements in a jubilant manner and gradually coming closer to the concentrated focus of the third stanza: "The jar was gray and bare." The jar serves as an extension of the poet's own drive to order, but it achieves dominion over the chaotic wilderness precisely because it is inanimate. "It did not give of bird or bush." The jar does not itself move or change; it merely sheds influence. The source of its power is its perfection of empty form. It is "of a port in air," stately and imposing but also vacant, a mere circular opening in the air. The dominion of the jar is evoked on the level of sound and image by the repetition of the word round. The jar is round upon a rounded piece of ground, a hill, and the image of roundness is picked up again, phonetically, in the word ground: "The jar was round upon the ground." Stevens catches the assimilation of chaos to order in the moment of transformation. The wilderness, though "slovenly," surrounds the hill, and though it sprawls, it sprawls "around." The transformation to controlled pattern is reflected even in the metrical structure of the poem. The smoothness of contour in the short, tight iambic lines is broken only once, by "slovenly wilderness," and at this point the wilderness is already being rounded up. The word slovenly is a backward glance at irregularity. Whatever potential form or roundness there may be in the wilderness answers to the realized form of the jar. The jar simply is round, and because it is round, the wilderness moves to surround it.

The jar in Tennessee represents a purely formal principle of order, and this kind of order cannot satisfy the deepest needs of Stevens' imagination. He ultimately seeks not only to impose order on the external world but to integrate the mind and the world within a sentient unity of being. As long as he remains fixed within a dualistic conception of the world, this fulfillment will elude him.

From Wallace Stevens' Supreme Fiction: A New Romanticism. Copyright © 1987 by Louisiana State University Press.


Title Joseph Carroll: On "Anecdote of the Jar" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Joseph Carroll Criticism Target Wallace Stevens
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 04 Dec 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
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