Wallace Stevens

(October 2, 1879 – August 2, 1955 / Pennsylvania / United States)

Anecdote of the Jar


I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

Submitted: Friday, January 03, 2003

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  • Ron Lane (12/11/2009 5:24:00 PM)

    I'm thinking this is about the white man coming to Tennessee and sticking out like a jar on a hill, but having dominion over the wild natives and plants and creatures, and taming them. Like the jar, the white man put himself above nature, and didn't give back. (Report) Reply

  • Brittany Tacconi (11/4/2007 9:45:00 AM)

    Actually this poem explains the relationship between art and the natural world. The jar changes how we perceive nature. (Report) Reply

  • Gary Witt (12/19/2006 12:06:00 PM)

    This almost has the quality of a Zen story discussing the concept of 'emptiness.' Ordinarily a jar contains what is inside it. Here, the jar “contains” what is outside it. “It made the slovenly wilderness/ Surround that hill.” Moreover, “The wilderness rose up to it, / And sprawled around, no longer wild.” So the jar starts out as a demarcation point between the civilized world and the wilderness. But then, the very presence of the jar tames the wilderness, which is “no longer wild.” Indeed, the jar “took dominion everywhere.” In the opening stanza, Stevens mentions that the jar was round, and then he repeats that in the second stanza: it was “round upon the ground.” The geometric nature of the jar makes it unnatural or strictly man-made, and gives it dominion over what is natural and formerly wild. So at least in that sense, the jar does “contain” what is outside it. (BTW, I think this is different from a candy wrapper or a cigarette butt or other litter simply ruining the view. The poet-narrator “placed” it. The jar here contrasts with the “slovenly” wilderness. It is “tall and of a port in air.” It is not just litter.)

    The poem ends as a sort of joke, as so many Zen stories do. The jar “did not give of bird or bush.” Well, of course not. It will only be of use to a bird or bush if it contained something else, like water, seed, or the bird’s nest. Empty, it “contains” the wilderness. But if it has something in it, then it’s just there. It becomes part of what surrounds it.

    And then, in the last line, the jar is “Like nothing else in Tennessee.” Question: there are no other jars in Tennessee? Answer: well, no others that contain the wilderness. (Report) Reply

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