The sounds of this poem are round and smooth. We imagine them floating around our tongue just like the glass of a jar would feel in our hands. We hear the word "round" itself twice, but get that same sound in the words "surround," "around," and "ground." We also hear a lot of "air" in "everywhere" and "bare."
So, the dominant sounds in this poem are soft, smooth, and easy to deal with. There's no set rhyme scheme, but there's lots of repetition, and for the most part, there's a steady four beats to a line, in a pattern called iambic tetrameter (check out the "Form and Meter" section for more on this).
But just like the jar, alone in the wilderness on the Tennessee hill, there are some parts of the sounds of this poem that don't quite fit. First of all, we've got the word "jar" itself. The noise of this word is just like that—a noise. It's more clunky, forced, and strange than the rest of the smooth and easy sounds in the poem. We've also got lines like line 8:
And tall and of a port in air.
This stands out as rough after the super-smooth line 7 ("The jar was round upon the ground"). If you read line 8 aloud in the four beat a line rhythm, the word "of" sticks out.
So pay attention to these tiny bumps in the rhythm of the poem. We're betting that they are there because their... jarring effect catches our attention, letting us know that there's conflict in the world of this little poem, even in its sounds.
The title tells us that this poem is an anecdote, or a little story, about a jar. When we read this title alone, we can think about a jar, and all the things that a jar can do. It can store food for consumption later, it can hold fun little buttons, it can capture a bug that we've caught. In the verb sense of the word "jar," it can shock us, suddenly, changing our routine and everything that's normal.
When we think about an anecdote, we think about little stories, sometimes they are funny, sometimes they are moral lessons, and sometimes they're just stories. But when we read this poem, it doesn't really seem like a story at all to us. It's just talking about a jar. The only plot to the tale is that it's taking over the wilderness.
Yet, it's also a kind of relief that the tale of the jar taking over all this wilderness and making it no longer wild is just an anecdote. If this were truly, literally happening, this would be a disaster of epic proportions, not just a nice little story. So, we've got to think about the irony, the unexpected meaning, of the title as it relates to the rest of the poem. It's more of a warning, it seems like, than a description of actual reality (although, you could argue that humanity has, indeed taken over the wilderness—we'll listen to you!).
The title is also important in one possible interpretation of the poem: to read it as in discussion with a famous poem by John Keats called "Ode on a Grecian Urn." The urn is beautiful in itself and decorated with scenes of lust and joy and life. The jar is this fat round little thing, sitting on a hill. It's not ancient, Grecian, or beautiful at all. It just is. Yet the jar—like the Grecian urn—as a mere object has some sort of strange power over the growing, living world, at least in the eye of a human beholder.
So, maybe, especially through the echo in the title, Stevens is saying that he, like Keats, can see the power of objects to say something about life. In the hands of an artist like Stevens, a jar is more than a crummy, little jar. It's the catalyst for this story that he's telling. It's a vessel, filled with ideas about our role in the natural world.
We've got a pretty clear idea of the setting of this poem. The jar is sitting on the ground, in a hill, in the middle of the wilderness. It's also, of all places, in Tennessee.
Before we start tackling the mysteries of this setting, let's imagine a little what we already do know about the setting. We can see bushes, and birds, and vines winding up trees. If we were walking in this wilderness, we'd probably be all scratched up from the thorns that get in our way, and have to do a good bit of trailblazing. This wilderness is "slovenly," so we don't think that there could be many paths cut in it.
But for some reason, the hill the jar is on seems likely to be as gray and bare as the jar itself. The jar is on the ground, and seems to have a central place in the landscape, which makes us think that it can't be obscured by a bush or a tree. The jar, given this place of high ground, seems to be sitting on a little throne, humbling all the scenery around it by force of sheer, man-made ordinariness. The setting of the wilderness, then, serves to heighten the contrast with this unassuming, fabricated, little jar.
Then, of course, we've got the whole Tennessee thing. We know that Stevens was an East Coast kind of guy—born in Pennsylvania, educated in New York, and a professional in Connecticut. Maybe Tennessee had an appeal to him as a wild, more western state. Clearly, this poem would lose some of its central contrast if it took place in New York City's Central Park.
More importantly, perhaps, than what state the poem is set in, is that it's set in a state at all. This jar, the speaker tells us, is in the wilderness—but it's also in Tennessee, the man-made name for the state whose boundaries that wilderness is in. So, even as we follow this little artifact of industry into the wilderness, we haven't really escaped civilization at all. Tennessee may be full of things that procreate, are wild, and live outside in the land of birds and bushes, but, after all, Tennessee's boundaries were drawn up by men. By this token, the speaker seems to be asking, "Is there any way to escape to a purely natural setting, one that lacks any stamp of human influence?" We're guessing… no, though it could be fun to try.
Though we only hear directly about the speaker once in this poem, the poem's very first word is "I."
This means that, though we hear little about the personality of the speaker, the rest of the poem is in the light of his action (we're just assuming it's a he, since this is Wallace Stevens' poem). The jar, after all, didn't just magically appear on a hill in the middle of Tennessee. Our speaker put it there.
Even though the poem moves off to consider the jar, it's important not to forget the word "I." That's because it is from the point of view of this "I" that the wilderness seems to be controlled by the jar. Maybe, he has placed the jar in the wilderness as a sort of experiment. How, he may wonder, will this jar affect the wilderness around it? In the final stanza, we get our answer to that: though the wilderness comes under the reign of the jar, the jar will never actually be part of the wilderness.
So, this is essentially the result of the experiment that the speaker has conducted in this poem. By that token, we find it striking how Stevens himself, as the writer of the poem, is conducting a very similar experiment to the one undertaken by the speaker. The poem, in a way, represents a kind of investigation. What is the line between the natural and the man-made world? Is that line even an important one to draw? Stevens' writes his poem to think about those questions, in the same way that the speaker puts his jar on a hill in Tennessee.
It may seem like a little poem about a jar would be pretty simple to get through, but this one is, well, more jarring than round and smooth. There are lots of lines that throw us for a loop, and the meaning of words and phrases can be easily distorted, as if we'd seen it through the glass of a jar. Yet once we twist open the meaning of this poem, it yields delicious, thought-provoking fruit. And it tastes all the sweeter for the work it took to take off the lid!
Probably the worst mistake that you could make when reading Stevens is to think that you know exactly what a line means. Most of the time, his lines can carry several different meanings—just look at the confusing whopper of a line in this poem, saying that the jar was "tall and of a port in air" (8). Sure, you can spin his lines to what you think is the best meaning for the poem, but if something seems a little off, don't ignore it. Even if your interpretation of an ambiguous line is leading you down a wrong path, we're willing to bet there are some interesting sights along the way, which Stevens mostly like fully intended you to see.
Now, we admit that this seems pretty puzzling to most Stevens first-timers. Why would anyone try to be obscure, or difficult? Like, come on! Why not just say what's on his mind directly? While Stevens himself would likely not agree that he's trying on purpose to throw us off, we think that he would agree that one of the supreme pleasures of art is that it activates our imagination.
And what better way to do that than by inviting the reader into the poem to consider possible meanings and interpretations? In short, Stevens' poetry does something that very little else in our faced-paced, disposable culture does today: it makes us think. And thinking is… uh… good. So, read Stevens with a mind that embraces ambiguity and the unclear, and you're going to have a much more fulfilling, and much more thoughtful, experience.
They say things come in threes, but in this poem, they come in fours. There are four lines per stanza, and, with some variation, four beats, or stressed syllables, per line.
Though there's no regular rhyme scheme in this poem, it has a very round sound, because of all the repetition of sounds within it, including the sound "round" itself. We also hear a lot of the "ill" sound in "hill," and the sound of "air" repeating throughout the poem. (We'll be going into more detail about the sounds of this poem in the "Sound Check" section, but the most important thing to get down now is that there's no set rhyme scheme.)
The poem, however, tries to trick us into thinking that it has a particular meter, or rhythm scheme. It masquerades as iambic tetrameter, but if we pay attention, we find that's not always the case.
Iambic tet-who-meter? Okay, let's break it down. First we start with the iamb, which is a unit of poetry that basically means an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one. So, you hear a sound like da DUM. (If you say "allow" out loud, you'll hear an iamb.) The tetrameter part means that each line is ideally made up of four sets of iambs (tetra is Greek for four). Got it? Great. Let's look at an example, with stressed syllables bolded and italicized:
And round it was upon a hill. (2)
There are four definite stressed beats in this line. But look closely and you'll see that in lines like the third, the rhythm doesn't hold up:
It made the slovenly wilderness (3)
"Slovenly" and "wilderness" both end with two unstressed syllables, which breaks the iambic tetrameter. Then there are lines such as line 4 and line 10, which completely break away from the pattern:
Surround that hill. (4)
So why would this poem so blatantly break its established rhythm? Well, this irregularity reminds us much more of the wilderness than of a well-wrought, predictable jar. In that way, it's like we're getting the fight of the wilderness against the regular pattern of the regularly shaped, conformed jar. The rhythm of the poem—and, importantly, the breaks with that rhythm—neatly reflect the deeper conflict that Stevens' anecdote is all about.
This jar is not your average jar—but then again, it's not your average jar because, well, it is your average jar. Its significance is that it's normal, average, commercial—something you could expect in any and every household. Yet, in this poem, it's been placed into the wilderness, and in this new context, gains a whole new meaning. The jar stands up as a man-made, civilized object in a world that perpetuates itself knowing no laws. Thus, the jar has become a symbol, and is no longer just an object, making it all the more important that we pay attention to its appearances in this poem.
Standing apart from, yet dominated by, the jar is the wilderness. The speaker doesn't seem to think much of this wilderness, calling it "slovenly" (3), and portraying it as completely under the control of the gray bareness of the jar (6). Yet, in the end, we start to think that this wilderness, no matter how tarnished it is by the presence of the jar, is still free. Unlike the jar, the wilderness does give of bird and bush—it is, well, wild and green. It grows and breeds.
The idea of roundness and shape is quite important in this poem. The wilderness, sprawling and unkempt, has no defined shape. That's a sharp contrast to the jar, the shape of which is discussed a lot in the poem. So, the poem seems to highlight the differences between the unchecked wilderness and the man-made world, partly by contrasting the shapeless with the shaped.
While there's certainly no explicit mention of sex and violence in this poem, the second to last line, which claims that the jar "does not give of bird or bush," points towards the wilderness' power of procreation. It might take a mature mind to fully get this poem, but there's no content that should be restricted to mature audiences only.