The Clod and the Pebble – William Blake
Recognition came to Blake rather late, only when he was in his sixties. Blake was an ardent supporter of all radical movements that challenged the existing order in his time. In all his writings he railed against all forms of restrictions. The movements that touched him profoundly were the French Revolution, the American War of Independence and the Industrial revolution. He is now considered to be the true precursor of Romantics. The Clod and the Pebble was part of the Songs of Innocence and Experience which presented opposing views without the poet taking sides.
It is easy to read this poem as merely setting out two conflicting views of love. Readers are instinctively drawn to the clod’s view of love as it has elements of self-sacrifice and is in keeping with ideas of feminine love or the Christian definition of love. The pebble, on the other hand, is said to praise an aggressive and possessive love that seeks to overwhelm the object of love. Blake does not take sides in this debate on love. In fact, a closer reading makes it clear that neither the clod nor the pebble gets the notion of love right. Perfect love is neither completely acquiescent nor completely aggressive.
Though the clod is a shapeless lump of earth, it believes that love is essentially a compassionate and selfless emotion that “seeketh not itself to please”. The clod does not have an easy time as it gets “trodden with the cattle’s feet” again and again but it remains a perfect example of the Christian notion of self sacrificing love. It accepts whatever is happening to it as its lot and continues to be malleable and forgiving. For the clod, love is unconditional and it is capable of fashioning heaven within the confines of hell.
On the other hand, there’s the pebble. It is hard, it has a definite shape and nothing can crush it underfoot. It says, love is for it to take as it deems fit. The pebble is not pushed about and views love as “another’s loss of ease”. The pebble is a sadist that takes pleasure in another’s misery. And it is perfectly capable of turning Heaven into Hell. To both the clod and the pebble, its own view was the correct one.
Line 1. Love does not try to please itself. This poem was written in the 18th century and uses language that can be called archaic. Seeketh is an old form of “seek”. It means “seek” or “search”.
Line 2. It is not concerned about its own comforts. Hath is an old form of “has”.
Line 3. It is ready to sacrifice its comforts for another.
Line 4. Love can turn Hell’s sorrow into Heaven.
Line 5. These lines were sung by a lump of clay.
Line 6. It was repeatedly trampled by the hooves of cattle.
Line 7. Contrary to that, there was a pebble that lay at the bottom of a stream.
Line 8. It sang out these perfect lines.
Line 9. Love’s aim is only to please itself.
Line 10. It possesses another for its own joy.
Line 11. It takes pleasure in another’s discomfort.
Line 12. It can turn Heaven into Hell by its machinations.
This compact poem presents two conflicting views on love with the middle stanza acting as a link between them. The clod is shaped by outside influences and has a hard life generally but views love as being selfless and acquiescing. The pebble on the other hand is vain and arrogant. The pebble lies at the bottom of the brook continuously washed by water but it remains set in its opinion that love is only for oneself.
The poet personifies the clod and the pebble in order to present opposing views of love. The clod goes through negative experiences of being trodden by the hooves of cattle. It has no shape of its own but takes whatever shape it gets after being stamped underfoot. Nevertheless its view is a generous and enlightened one. The pebble on the contrary is hard and has a clear shape. It lies at the bottom of the brook. The stream itself represents the state of experience which washes over the pebble endlessly unable to change it. Personifying the clod and the pebble to represent the timeless views of love as being selfish or selfless is an interesting literary technique.