Interpretation of the Jar:
Benjamin, Paglia, and Brogan on Wallace Stevens
by Robert Russell
In his 1923 essay “The Task of the Translator,” critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin outlines the difficulties inherent in translating a piece of literature from one language to another. Exploring different modes of translation, Benjamin reveals a challenging conundrum that arises: “finding the particular intention toward the target language which produces in that language the echo of the original (Benjamin 258), in other words, finding the perfect calibration of fidelity and sense. Fidelity, as Benjamin indicates, refers to verbal accuracy on a word-by-word basis. Sense, on the other hand, refers to the syntactical relationships between the words and their dynamic context, often influenced by current social, political, or cultural forces. These two translational tenets stand diametrically opposed, as Benjamin writes, “it is self-evident how greatly fidelity in reproducing the form impedes the rendering of the sense” (Benjamin 260); it is job of the translator to find the perfect equilibrium, the common ground, so that the translation becomes a “midway between poetry and theory” (Benjamin 259). In striving to convey such a midway, many translators focus on the invariant, a textual quality which transcends the barrier of language while still retaining the verbal accuracy of its depiction. Such a method applies, too, to the interpretation of poetry; if one treats a poem as if it were a translatable text, one must strive to find the invariant qualities within which, in turn, influence and inspire subsequent meaning and significance. However, the invariant quality, as it pertains to a poem, must undergo a redefinition since the reader searches not for a transcendent voice which captures the echo of the original language, but rather seeks an underlying significance and meaning which may not be readily apparent. Therefore, the invariant quality must be defined by the interaction between the content of the poem and the insight of the reader–by the interplay between text and insight. Devoid of a reader’s own perception and schema transduced into the text rather than extracted, the poem remains idle, offering only a rudimentary reading and understanding.
Applying Benjamin’s fidelity-sense dichotomy as an approach to Wallace Stevens’s poem “Anecdote of the Jar,” first published in his debut collection Harmonium in 1919, yields a reading which most closely aligns with a formalist interpretation. Focusing on fidelity and sense in a poem written originally in English demands a close reading of the words, taking solely into account their definitions and identifying their role and function in relation to the text as a whole. In the first stanza, the reader can easily deduce three characters: “I,” “a jar,” and “Tennessee,” as well as understand that there is some symbiotic relationship established between the jar and nature, as “It made the slovenly wilderness / Surround that hill” (Stevens, line 3-4). There is a direct connection between the artificial and the natural, the inanimate and the living. The jar’s placement yields action, and the second stanza elaborates upon that action: “The wilderness rose up to it, / And sprawled around, no long wild” (Stevens, lines 5-6). The jar’s presence imparts assemblage and order to the wilderness, but in providing a reason why, the fidelity-sense approach offers no concrete answer; however, in recognizing the action as it relates to the poem itself, the insightful reader can glean that the poem is about poetry itself. If the “I” represents the poet, and the “jar” represents the “poem” (the man-made product), the poem then becomes an exploration of the ways in which poetry helps shape one’s understanding of the world that surrounds him. Ascribing function to the various characters of the poem elevates the text into a new light, an interpretation at the heart of which is a commentary on art itself.
And indeed, many scholars claim that the poem is about art and the artist. At the onset of her short essay about Wallace Stevens’s “Anecdote of the Jar,” in her essay collection Break, Blow, Burn, scholar and critic Camille Paglia states, “This cryptic poem is about art making” (Paglia 124). That the “jar” evolves into the subject of the poem (as the switch from “I” to “it” suggests in lines 3-4), revealed is a growing emphasis on the art over the artist, a notion that Paglia expands upon: “As the artwork gains independent existence, its creator recedes and disappears. The artist’s personal turmoil and travails, intrinsic to Romanticism, become irrelevant” (Paglia 124). Paglia’s insight strays from a formalist perspective of the poem by considering historical and canonical context, which, in turn, underscore the modernist aspects of the poem; the poem subverts and strays from the conventional tradition of heralding the artist as supreme. Here, the poem is supreme, art is supreme, and “art transforms reality, sometimes unrecognizably” (Paglia 125). Paglia’s insinuation that reality becomes “unrecognizable” alludes to the “jar” being an object which shatters certain preconceptions of reality, something which deconstructs the calm, comfortable veneer of daily life and exposes the true, ugly or less-palatable, mechanisms which lie beyond.
The “jar” being the centralized object of the poem, rather than a pencil (an instrument of the artist) or a shoe (what protects his feet) or some other man-made object, inspires a specific set of interpretations. For Paglia, and many critics would agree, the “jar” harkens the “urn” in Romantic poet John Keats’s famous poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” therefore making Stevens’s poem “a parody of John Keats’s [poem], a creed of High Romantic aesthetics” (Paglia 124). However, the various descriptions of the jar impel the reader into different and more specific interpretations that stray from historicism. That the jar is empty, “tall and a port of air” (Stevens, line 8) and that it “was round upon the ground” (Stevens, line 7), too, influence interpretations. In her essay “Introducing Wallace Stevens,” scholar and professor Jacqueline Vaught Brogan, taking a feminist approach, highlights the intrinsic phallic shape of the jar, asserting that the “poem emerges, quite obviously, as a poem concerned with male (or phallocentric) dominance over a traditionally feminized landscape” (Brogan 59), the “feminized landscape” being “mother nature.” However, the opening of the jar, its hole, inspires, too, a certain yonic shape, one symbolizing femininity; that it “takes dominion” over the landscape of reality serves to subvert patriarchal themes and elevates woman into the sole position of power. Brogan also mentions that from the poststructuralist perspective, “the poem proves convincingly to be one concerned with temporal and linguistic disjunction, exhibiting what Paul de Man might call dédoublement” (Brogan 58), an interpretation in which the jar represents the empty center which supports the bricolage of language, meaning, and communication. A reader combining a feminist and poststructuralist interpretation may see the jar as a symbol for phallogocentrism, a term coined by Jacques Derrida to describe the “structure or style of thought, speech, or writing…deconstructed as expressing male attitudes and reinforcing male dominance” (OED), in other words, the masculine-skewed privilege in the construction of language and meaning. In any event, the reader that considers the poem with a fidelity-sense approach in tandem with interpolated nuance and symbolism, inevitably finds himself in the midst of a litany of different interpretations. Paglia writes, “The jar is as ordinary and taciturn as its nameless, generic hill, just as the poem itself remains oblique” (Paglia 126), and yet, it is the jar’s ordinariness and the poem’s terseness and simplicity which inspire innumerable interpretations.
The fact that Wallace Stevens’s short poem can inspire such innumerable interpretations is a testament to the subtle elegance which resides just below the surface of the text. As Benjamin wrote that the translator “instead of imitating the sense of the original, must lovingly and in detail incorporate the original’s way of meaning, thus making both the original and the translation recognizable as fragments of a greater language” (Benjamin 260), so, too, must the reader excavate beyond the fidelity and the sense of the text, to recognize and incorporate the text’s subtle intimations toward the external, merging the content of the poem with their own insight, in order to discover the invariant qualities therein. The invariant quality of a poem resides in the liminal space between the text and the reader, revealing itself only in the convergence of content and insight. Like Stevens’s jar and the wilderness which surrounds it, the reader must place himself into the content of the poem, and let his perspective interact with the text, in order to discover the invariant quality within and “liberate the language imprisoned in a work in his re-creation of that work” (Benjamin 261).
 Similarly, in the first line of his poem “A High-Toned Old Christian Woman,” Wallace Stevens writes, “Poetry is the supreme fiction, madame” (Wallace 77).
Benjamin, Walter, “The Task of the Translator” Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings Vol 1 1913- 1926, edited by Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings, Harvard University Press 1996. Pp 253-263. Print.
Brogan, Jacqueline Vaught, “Introducing Wallace Stevens: Or, the Sheerly Playful and the Display of Theory in Stevens’s Poetry” Teaching Wallace Stevens, edited by John Serio and B. Leggett. University of Tennessee Press, 1994, pp. 51-62.
Paglia, Camille, “Anecdote of the Jar,” Break Blow Burn, Vintage, New York, 2005, pp 124-126. Print.
"phallogocentrism, n." OED Online, Oxford University Press, September 2021.
Stevens, Wallace, “A High-Toned Christian Woman,” The Palm at the End of the Mind, edited by Holly Stevens, Vintage, New York, 1967, pp 77. Print
––, “Anecdote of the Jar,” The Palm at the End of the Mind, edited by Holly Stevens, Vintage, New York, 1967, pp 46. Print.