In Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” and Stevens’s “Anecdote of the Jar,” two poets take an approach often seen in romantic verse, in that both focus on the relationship between humanity and nature. Moreover, and for each poet, the relationship is intensely strong. Wordsworth and Stevens similarly immerse themselves in the natural landscapes they explore, as both suggest immense power in those landscapes. At the same time, however, there is a crucial difference in their views. This also goes to the actual lengths and tones of the poems, in that the longer expression of Wordsworth promotes affection, while the brief lines of Stevens reflect a combative quality. As the following examines, Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” exists as a loving tribute to a natural scene of his past, whereas Stevens’s “Anecdote of the Jar” is based on an adversarial relationship between mankind and a raw landscape known to the poet.
There is no question that both poems are based on each poet’s perceptions and feelings regarding nature, and in terms of a specific landscape. Wordsworth in fact identifies the exact scene he recalls and revels in. There is a kind of blending here between the natural and the man-made, as the poet’s focus is on both nature and the dwellings created by man within the scene. Nonetheless, what dominates is the force and presence of the natural, as in: “These plots of cottage-ground, these orchard-tufts,/…Are clad in one green hue, and lose themselves/ ‘Mid groves and copses” (ll 11-14). As the poem goes on, the personal fuses with the scene, but nature is supreme to the poet’s being: “The sounding cataract./ Haunted me like a passion: the tall rock,/ The mountain, and the deep and gloomy wood” (ll 79-81). Stevens is by far less effusive in his observations: I placed a jar in Tennessee,/ And round it was, upon a hill” (ll 1-2). At the same time, however, the scene here is natural, so both poems are based on extremely personal experiences and perceptions of men regarding natural landscapes known to them.
This similarity noted, what then becomes evident is how the poets differ in their views, which is powerfully reflected in the lengths and styles of each work. As noted, Wordsworth’s poem is long, just as his tone is reverent and his language goes to classically poetic description and praise revealing emotion: “How oft, in spirit, have I turned to thee,/ O sylvan Wye! thou wanderer thro’ the woods” (ll 57-58). In striking contrast, Stevens presents only three short stanzas and expresses what may be called a clinical eye on his landscape. There is no joy or grandiose language, as the poet also dispenses with rhyme and relies on relatively ordinary expressions of nature: “The wilderness rose up to it,/ And sprawled around, no longer wild” (ll 5-6). In a sense, then, the brevity of Stevens’s poem greatly underscores his viewpoint, in that it is more a quick and distanced evaluation in relatively plain language. Wordsworth, conversely, seems almost unable to properly give sufficient voice to the impact of the landscape on his life, and its meaning for him. Consequently, actual structure, length, and language go to supporting how differently the poets present their impressions.
These striking differences in structure, length, and language then reinforce the completely opposing ideas of nature held by Wordsworth and Stevens. For the former, the abbey and the surrounding lands are a source of wonder and inspiration. He remembers how this landscape filled him with awe when he was young, and he finds it just as remarkable as he once again revisits it. In his reflections, the poet comprehends that the impressions made upon him as a boy were more primal, and are no longer the same because he has had experience of life: “That time is past,/ And all its aching joys are now no more” (ll 85-86). Nonetheless, returning to the scene brings a feeling as inspiring as that which he once knew as, as a man, he now perceives a spirit within the natural. Something human or divine exists here and is speaking to him: “In thy voice I catch/ The language of my former heart, and read/ My former pleasures in the shooting lights/ Of thy wild eyes” (ll 119-122). Importantly, this voice is an affirmation. Everything once known, which gave the poet a sense of natural beauty and meaning in life, has not vanished; there is more to feel and know, and it will guide him in the future as it did in the past. No such joy or awe is found, however, in Stevens. There is a kind of challenge, or even experiment, at the core of the brief verse. The poet places a jar on the hill and observes that it changes everything, which goes to humanity’s power over the natural. Somehow, this jar overwhelms what surrounds it: “The jar was round upon the ground/ And tall and of a port in air./ It took dominion everywhere” (ll 7-9). More importantly, the poet seems either unconcerned or even pleased by this demonstration of human power. As Wordsworth embraces all the natural and feels it as promoting his own humanity, Stevens merely comments upon the human ability to eclipse the natural, which he in no way presents as anything but raw and primal.
As poets of all ages often turn to nature as their subjects, so too do poets present vastly different ideas of what nature means to them. Wordsworth, invariably a classicist, explores the landscape of his beloved abbey and finds renewed inspiration from it. Stevens, clinical and somewhat detached, invests himself in a Tennessee landscape only to “test” the power of man to dominate it. Ultimately, then, Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” is as a deeply affectionate tribute to a natural scene of his past, whereas Wallace Stevens’s “Anecdote of the Jar” reflects an adversarial relationship between mankind and a raw landscape known to the poet.
- Stevens, Wallace. “Anecdote of the Jar.” Poetry Foundation. 2015. Web. 5 Dec. 2015.
- Wordsworth, William. “Tintern Abbey.” Poetry Foundation. 2015. Web. 5 Dec. 2015.