Anecdote of the Jar by Wallace Stevens: Summary & Analysis

Instructor: Natalie Purcell

Natalie teaches high school English and French and has a master's degree in teaching.

In this lesson, we'll explore the poem 'Anecdote of the Jar' by Wallace Stevens. We'll look at the structure, sounds, and meter of the poem, along with analyzing possible interpretations of the poem.

Solving the Puzzle

Anecdote of the Jar by Wallace Stevens has been puzzling readers for nearly a century. On the surface, it's a short, lyrical imagist (creating one strong image) poem, consisting of three 4-line stanzas, or quatrains. So, its structure is simple and familiar to the readers.

Stevens also uses a light word, Anecdote, in the title, suggesting to readers that this is just an incidental report of a minor event. The speaker in the poem, presumably the author, appears only in the first line as I, and then detaches himself as merely an observer. All of these elements of familiarity, simplicity, and detachment serve to free the reader to concentrate his or her energy on contemplating the deeper meaning, or content, of the poem.

Meter and Sounds

Anecdote of the Jar is written mostly in iambic tetrameter. That is, lines of four beats with each beat consisting of an unstressed syllable, followed by a stressed syllable. Most of the lines sound like da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM when you read them aloud. This is easily heard in line 7, The jar was round upon the ground. However, Stevens deviates from this meter in a few of the lines, such as line 3: It made the slovenly wilderness. We're not sure why he does this. Perhaps he wants readers to pay special attention to the lines that do not follow the predominant meter. Or maybe he's using the meter to show a juxtaposition between an orderly man-made object (the poem) and the disorderly slovenly wilderness described within the poem. It's left up to the reader to decide.

While Anecdote of the Jar doesn't rhyme in the traditional sense, Stevens does play with the sounds of the words in the poem. Many of the words are smooth and soft sounding, such as round, surround, and ground, while others have a breezy quality, like air, everywhere, and bare. He also uses repetition of 'il' in the middle of words, such as hill, wilderness, and wild. All of these soft, smooth, breezy sounds create a stark contrast when he occasionally uses words with harsher sounds, such as jar, tall, and port. In the final stanza, Stevens uses the only instance of alliteration (bare, bird, and bush), which creates a contrast with the rest of the poem and urges the reader to contemplate those lines.

Stevens also plays with syllables in his poem. While most of the words are short, simple, and monosyllabic, he occasionally throws in a longer word, such as dominion or wilderness. All of these various uses of sound let the reader know that the choice to use these specific words was very deliberate and not merely by chance.

What Does it Mean?

Let's start with the setting, which is pretty clear. The speaker states twice that he is in the Tennessee wilderness. Wallace Stevens was from the East Coast, so why didn't he place his jar in upstate New York or the middle of Pennsylvania? Perhaps he thought of Tennessee as having more of a wild landscape, or perhaps he just liked the sound of the word Tennessee better than the sound of New York or Pennsylvania. For whatever reason, he chose to place his jar in Tennessee.

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