posted by Chuck Dodge
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.
A famously philosophical poet, Wallace Stevens strokes the page with creative images to explore the truth of the world around us. Often these images are the stuff of dreams and the symbolic paintings you might find in a modernist gallery, in this case a usual object in an unusual setting. In the poem, Stevens depicts an empty, gray jar placed on top of what seems to be a barren, likely grassy hill somewhere in “the wilderness.” In doing so he makes a contemplative statement about society’s perception of itself in the world.
Stevens writes from an interesting perspective in this poem, that is, in the first person. He makes no effort to divert any potential underlying disdain towards mankind upon a random character or the general population. Instead, he begins the poem by saying “I placed a jar in Tennessee,” and follows it up with his own observations. His honesty and confessional style are incredibly effective because rather than feeling accused, the reader accepts his story and should consider how Stevens’ view of human presence in nature is actually a societal understanding and not a personal one.
Stevens uses the jar as a metaphor for mankind and its creations in an otherwise non-human world. The final two lines of the first stanza and the opening two lines of the second describe how society subjugates everything else in the eyes of people within that society. Barren and plain, the hill is nothing to speak of before its interaction with man, especially as it is surrounded by the “wild.” But as soon as the jar rests on the hill, it becomes the center of attention and makes what was once wild now appear messy, boring, and insignificant. Stevens states the transition of his outlook when he writes, “It made the slovenly wilderness / surround that hill.”
Not only does the wilderness become sloppy in the presence of human order, but it actually makes a desperate, futile effort to become more orderly, Stevens suggests. He writes, “The wilderness rose up to it, / And sprawled around, no longer wild.” He illustrates, let’s say, trees, reaching out to meet the hill’s height but unsuccessfully falling , sprawling – lying flat and no longer unique. This image suggests the narrator’s notion that nature wants to fit into human society, the pinnacle of existence, but does not. The most important part of this statement, however, is that it is nothing more than the narrator’s notion; it is solely self-centered human perception that drives nature outside the realm of importance.
The final stanza describes the society’s emptiness or lack of quality substance in contrast with its overbearing impact on everything else. Stevens uses two consecutive lines to demonstrate this powerful contrast: “It took dominion everywhere / The jar was gray and bare.” The jar is a dull gray, but more importantly, it is empty. The object that represents humanity is a gray jar with literally nothing inside it. It does not offer anything to the world, like nature offers animals, vegetation, life or “bird” and “bush,” as he puts it. The “wilderness” element of Tennessee, or for that matter of the world, does offer substance, but despite this, the jar stands elite in its surrounding. At least, according to us.