In the three-stanza poem, The Clod and the Pebble, William Blake takes on the subject of love and its meaning for two separate things, one being a “Clod” and another being a “Pebble.” These two items represent two types of people whose opinions on love distinctly contrast with one another. “The Clod” speaks of love as a pure thing that knows no selfishness, something that causes the one under the emotion’s sway to focus their attention and efforts on the recipient of that love. In contrast, “the Pebble” sees love as purely selfish, something that can be used to gain wanted things from the person with whom the love is shared. While objects are expressed to have these beliefs, they represent humans who share similar mentalities.
Possibly the most interesting thing to note about this poem, though, is that Blake never offers a declaration of which belief is valid in his eyes, leaving the poem as a general commentary that more than one idea of love exists rather than a definite statement about how love should be.
The Clod and the Pebble Analysis
Love seeketh not itself to please,
Nor for itself hath any care,
But for another gives its ease,
And builds a Heaven in Hell’s despair.
Herein, the reader encounters the simple and sweet concept of love that will later be accredited to “a little Clod of Clay,” and it is one that is “giv[ing]” and unwilful. In fact, to the person who holds this view on love, a more selfless concept would be hard to come by since it does not care to “please…itself” and actually does not worry over itself at all as “for itself [it] hath no care.”
As an emotion cannot have these traits, it is clear that Blake is referring to the person who is in love and how that person’s mentality stands in connection with the person for which they “care.” That person would focus their attention and concern on their love’s needs instead of thinking of their own wants and needs, and the consequence would be their love is provided “ease” from the relationship. In essence, a person who loves in this manner builds as good and comfortable of a life as is possible for their love. Even when times are so rough that they fall under the category of “Hell’s despair,” this selfless love would strive to provide their love “Heaven.”
The language choice in this stanza reflects that tenderness as well in the letters used in the words because so many of those letters are vowels or soft-sounding consonants. Most of these words begin and end with letter sounds that lack the cutting edge of stronger consonants, so this gentle approach is clear even down to the letters that build the lines.
So sung a little Clod of Clay
Trodden with the cattle’s feet,
But a Pebble of the brook
Warbled out these metres meet:
The first thing noted in this stanza is who gave the soft and selfless opinion on love, and the description of that object provides evidence as to who Blake believes would be the kind of person to hold such a tender view. As was noted in the first stanza’s analysis, this object singing of a selfless love is “a little Clod of Clay.” The label of “little” has a connotation of smallness and innocence, like a small child or puppy that needs to grow and learn. From that frame of mind, to Blake, those inexperienced in love would hold this belief, but the next line of the stanza provides further clarity to override this notion.
This “Clod of Clay” has been “[t]rodden with the cattle’s feet,” which would not have been the case if the “Clod” were completely new in existence. Time had to have passed in order for it to be pushed into the ground in this manner, and although the experience does not sound pleasant, it is still an experience. With this new information, the reader can assume that Blake is referring to those who hold to their innocent concept of the emotion despite enduring struggles brought on by it. They have known love and have suffered, but they still believe it to be beautiful and selfless.
The ending half of this stanza turns the focus from the “Clod” to the “Pebble,” and although what the Pebble believes is delayed until the final stanza, the reader can already gain a sense of understanding in regard to what the “Pebble” believes about love. For instance, whereas as the “Clod” “sung” his opinion, the “Pebble” “[w]arbled out” his take on the matter. While “[w]arble” is a verb linked to singing, it has a connotation of being unsteady, as in the notes vary as the tune progresses. In that simple verb choice then, there is evidence that the “Pebble” does not hold the same idea as the “Clod” that love is a perpetual state of selflessness. The texture of the verb choice, as well, lacks the smooth elegance of “sung,” as if choosing a less attractive-sounding verb is a representation of a less attractive view of love.
Also worth noting is that the line that first introduces this “Pebble” steps away from the primary usage of words beginning with softer letters. In place of soft “h” sounds or “f” introductions to words are harsher “b” and “p” entries into the vocabulary, drawing the reader into a harsher outlook on love simply by letter choice.
The choice of using the “Pebble,” additionally, represents a specific kind of person, one who will not bend like the “Clod” under normal pressure. Rather, the “Pebble” will keep its shape even if tossed into a stream to be forgotten, and the water will have to maneuver around it to keep with its journey. The “Pebble” will not give, but will force other objects to bend around its existence, like a person who is headstrong and harshly independent.
Love seeketh only self to please,
To bind another to its delight,
Joys in another’s loss of ease,
And builds a Hell in Heaven’s despite.
In order to fully express how contrary the view of love from the “Pebble” is, Blake has actually duplicated the central ideas from the first stanza, often providing similar or exact phrasing from what the “Clod” believes. Whereas the “Clod” insists that “[l]ove seeketh not itself to please,” the “Pebble” claims that “[l]ove seeketh only self to please.” This is a complete reversal of ideas since in the opinion of the “Clod,” love never thinks of “itself,” but for the “Pebble,” love “only” concerns “itself” with its own needs and wants. There is no middle ground between these two ideas since Blake does not say that there is any maneuvering room for either one. There is either selfless or selfish without room to argue between these beliefs on love.
Beyond the selfishness that causes someone “[t]o bind another to [their] delight,” love to the “Pebble” is about taking away from that person for the sake of selfish “[j]oys.” No matter what “loss of ease” the loved one must endure, what matters in love for the “Pebble” is that the self is happy and content. With this approach to love, it is no surprise that the result for the person for whom the love is felt is a life of unhappiness, one where “Hell” is experienced where “Heaven” should be. In fact, noting the situation as “Heaven’s despite” is telling since “despite” has a negative feel connected to disgust and anger. When the “Heaven” of love is made into a place of suffering because selfishness taints it so, a harsh reality is created.
While it would be easy to argue that Blake is commenting that this scenario is too harsh to be the applicable way to love, reminiscing about the negative world of the “Clod” can contradict that concept. Remember that the “Clod” had been trampled on and bent to become something he is not. As lovely of a heart as his selfless take on love hints, continuously being walked over and reshaped is not a great life either. Perhaps, then, Blake is pointing out that both extremes are faulted, but without a specific declaration, this theory remains uncertain.
What is certain, though, is that this poem is a vivid expression of two opposing views of love, and through wording, letter sounds, and contradictory phrasing, Blake does a superb job at highlighting those differences. Whatever level of selfishness or selflessness is correct, these two stances both come with their own faults and find little common ground.
About William Blake
William Blake was an English poet born in 1757 who explored more than one artistic pursuit in his life. In addition to writing, for instance, he attended drawing school and dabbled in engraving. Still, in spite of these other pursuits, few of his lingering life accomplishments can compare to his method of weaving words together into vivid images of deep subjects. He is a poet who even those who do not love poetry can appreciate, and he has ties to The Divine Comedy illustrations that he was pursuing near his time of death in 1827.