Anecdote of the Jar by Wallace Stevens: Summary and Critical Analysis

Anecdote of the Jar is an imagist poem in which Stevens explores the question of the superiority between art and nature: Is nature superior to human creations, or does human creativity surpasses nature in some way? This is an age-old and puzzling question. This poem solves the riddle by recognizing the unique differences between art and nature: art may sometimes be more beautiful than nature but it cannot be as creative as the nature.

Wallace Stevens (1879-1955)

The poem begins by telling us of an incident in the past. Once he kept a big and beautiful jar upon an untidy hill in Tennessee. It was a beautiful round jar, reminding one of the Grecian urns of Keats. We are asked to imagine a kind of enormous hand placing a round jar on a hill. The jar is an art object made by a human being, whereas the hill on which it is placed is natural. This contrast becomes more striking as the poem develops. The persona of the poem tells us that the man made jar caused the wilderness to surround the hill, or that the hill looked more untidy in contrast to the jar.

In the second quatrain, the "slovenly" and wild nature rises up to the artistic jar, which we now understand as a symbol of the human imagination. But rather than overtake the jar, as we might expect natural brush would in reality, the jar/imagination tames or controls the wilderness. Perhaps Stevens is arguing briefly here that the imagination, culture and art might be more powerful than any natural reality. But the poem abruptly takes a turn in its form, and another turn in content follows. The jar domineers "everywhere". This is a striking expression of the power of the imagination over reality. But we are soon to see the other side of the reality.

In the third stanza, the poem takes the other turn, in its content. Here, the persona shifts from the lofty images that described the majestic jar (or imagination) to a different description using words like "gray" and "bare object", which cannot give birth and re-create the fertile lushness like that of the "slovenly wilderness" described in the first stanza. It is beautiful, but ultimately does not have the power of creation of the nature/ reality represented by the wilderness. The poet is demonstrating the acceptance of the limits of imagination in reality. Steven's central concern in his poetry is the treatment of the "problem" of reality versus imagination. "Anecdote of the Jar" is an example that expresses an acceptance of the limits of the imagination; this is also Stevens's theory of poetry. The jar, as a symbol of the imagination, is not fertile, and it cannot recycle itself or reproduce, though it may, in imagination, be richer than the nature. Both have their uniqueness, and yet we feel that the poet is more or less on the side of the nature's diverse, creative and limitless powers of creation. The confident persona, who seems to have egoistically placed a jar to challenge the nature, realizes at last that his art is not capable of what the nature is.

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Sharma, K.N. "Anecdote of the Jar by Wallace Stevens: Summary and Critical Analysis." BachelorandMaster, 24 Nov. 2013,