Recently, I described how big an idea Robert Frost packages into “Design,” a 14-line sonnet.
In the three quatrains of “Anecdote of a Jar,” Wallace Stevens explores the interplay of the imagination and the actual world, a theme as interesting as Frost’s speculation about a “design of darkness” in his sonnet.
Stevens’ poem begins, “I placed a jar in Tennessee,” as though starting a story. But this “story” will have no plot. Rather it creates a landscape painting in words. It invites us to visualize the jar against its background. We learn that the jar, not surprisingly, is round and that it was placed on a hill. The following lines tell us that the jar “made the slovenly wilderness/Surround that hill.”
We now have a provocative image to deal with. The round jar sitting on a hill draws our imagining eye to it. It does so because it is out of place. It has no business sitting on that hill.
A discarded food wrapper on a highway would also be out of place. Yes, but Stevens gives us a key word. The wilderness into which the jar has been inserted is “slovenly” in visual terms.
By contrast the jar is not. The second quatrain develops the contrast between the simple regularity of the round jar and the slovenliness of the natural world. We are told that the jar, sitting on the hill, dominates the scene, “The wilderness “rose up to it/ And sprawled around, no longer wild,” much like unruly subjects bowing before a monarch.
By this point in this very short poem, our ear might begin to tell us something in much the same way as in his poem, Frost focuses our aural attention on words that rhyme with “white.” Frost’s poem wants us to see how out of place “whiteness” is in the scene of the carnage he describes.
Stevens does something very similar in his poem, drawing our attention to words that rhyme with “round,” such as “surround,” “around,” and “ground,” offering five rhymes in its first eight lines.
Consciously or not, our ear remembers that repetition as we move into the final quatrain.
In it, the contrast between the round jar and its surroundings takes another turn. The jar “took dominion everywhere,” as the visual center of the scene, but it is also “gray and bare,” suggesting sterility. These two lines form a rhyme with “everywhere” and “bare,” the only such couplet in the poem. In fact, that rhyme carries over from the last word “air” in the previous quatrain. Again, our ear is asked to pay attention.
Stevens has focused our two senses — sight and sound — to prepare us for the poem’s message, contained in the last two lines. The gray, bare, and round jar “did not give of bird or bush/Like nothing else in Tennessee.”
The jar is an object created in service of the human imagination. It is round because its shape is in the form of a circle. A circle is a geometric figure of 360 degrees. In this respect, the jar is the product of an abstract idea formed by our imagination. We did not define what a circle is by seeing one in the natural world. Round objects yes but to make something perfectly round as in a circle we had to invent geometry.
The wilderness with its bird and bush, and its slovenliness, is vigorously alive and present, standing in stark contrast to the gray and bare jar, whose shape provides an organizing principle, inviting us to see how imagination shapes our perception of reality.
Neither is sufficient by itself, but in combination they create this remarkable scene.