Experience – The Clod and the Pebble

D. Clod and the Pebble‘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.’

So sung a little clod of clay,
Trodden with the cattle’s feet,
But a pebble of the brook
Warbled out these metres meet:

‘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.’

Summary

This poem looks at two different forms of natural material – soft clay and hard stone – and the two different approaches to life that they represent. A lump of clay sings that love is totally concerned with the good of others, and should be oblivious to its own needs. By acting in this way, it creates heaven in the midst of the despair of hell. A pebble in the brook sings that love is totally directed towards itself. It is cruel and possessive, and creates hell in the midst of heaven.

The contraries in this poem seem total and irresolvable; it’s a poem about an unresolved opposition.

Speaker

A. Songs of ExperienceThe opening stanza spoken by the clod reads like the sort of confident assertion that might be heard in a sermon. It echoes a well-known passage from the Bible about love, (1 Corinthians 13:4-7). It comes as something of a surprise to learn the identity of its speaker. Expectations are further undermined by the pebble. The diction ‘warbled’ and ‘metres meet (fitting or appropriate)’ is characteristic 18th century language which might have lead the reader to anticipate another improving and decorous ‘moral fable’. Furthermore, the pebble in the brook appears to have a more appealing situation. Readers might anticipate an opinion to match the more appealing nature of the pebble. They are unprepared for the deeply cynical view of love which the pebble articulates.

Language and tone

  • The tone of the opening stanza, with its biblical echo, is confident, evident also in the assured use of paradox in the fourth line and reinforced by the use of repetition in ‘not itself … / nor for itself … / But for another’. Blake is employing the rhetorical device of repeating three ideas (sometimes called ‘the rule of three).
  • The alliteration in ‘little clod of clay’ highlights the identity of the speaker. It also underlines the contrast between its position as a small thing that is trodden on by cattle and the loftiness of the way in which it sings. There is pathos in the word ‘little’; it does not necessarily make the clod appear more attractive, only more vulnerable.
  • ‘Warbled’ and ‘metres meet’ make the pebble sound delicate and refined. This intensifies the impact of its harsh message. It may also serve to suggest the real heartlessness that can lie beneath a decorous and charming manner.
  • Words are symetrically patterned in first and last stanzas. A balance between the two positions is maintained in the poem. This underlines the comparison between the two kinds of love. The vocabularly used by the pebble makes its view of love seem more attractive in many ways.. ‘Delight’ and ‘joy’ seem only to figure in its expereinec. This is emphasised by the position of ‘Joys’, which is placed emphatically at the beginning of the line, and by its use as a a verb. Joy here is not simply felt or received, it is actively undergone and experienced.
  • The clod’s love appears to have no pleasure to accompany it, other than the awareness of ‘building heaven’ and its ability to ‘sing’. Having the views of the pebble placed after those of the clod also gives weight to the latter argument. While the reader is predisposed to agree with the clod which articulates more acceptable views about love the poetic techniques force the reader to at least seriously consider the pebble’s views, which, after all, represent the truth about what passes for love in society.

Oppositions

Two sets of opposites exist in the poem and these are reinforced by contradictory terms: love, please, care, Heaven, sung, delight, joy, on the one hand, and despair, Clod, trodden, bind, loss, Hell, on the other.
At the end of the poem, readers are left in a dilemma. The pebble does, indeed, seem better off than the clod, even though its view may be repellent. They may agree with the clod’s sentiment but feel unable to embrace its fate. What questions does this produce in the reader’s mind. The reader is made to think about the following:

Clod of clay – little, trodden on, but possibly not very bright

Pebble – exists in an easier environment, soothed by water

A too easy, superficial acceptance of selfless love which is unaware of the cost

Human attraction to the fruits of selfish love.

Both heavenly and hellish attitudes are aspects of human experience

It is the choices made by individuals that create heaven and hell in their lives.

Structure and texture

  • The ABAB rhyme pattern of stanza one and three reinforces the impression of self-contained, undisputed opinions or maxims. The middle stanza breaks this pattern because lines 1 and 3 do not rhyme. We are jolted from our expectations of pattern and harmony. The change from iambic to trochaic metre in the line beginning ‘Trodden’ also emphasises the battered state of the clay.

Imagery and Symbolism

  • Clod of clay – view of love of the weak and downtrodden ; self-obliterating view of love (women?)
  • Pebble – view of love of hard and privileged; domineering notion of love, based on binding another to its wishes (men?)
  • Love – In the clod’s description of love, Blake makes use of the imagery of Paul’s ‘hymn to love’ (1 Corinthians 13:4-7). New Testament teaching in general emphasises that true love includes being completely humble, gentle and patient, ‘bearing with one another’ (Ephesians 4:2) and being devoted to others, honouring them above the self (Romans 12:10). Blake’s readers would be familiar with this teaching and thus associate the clod’s statements with ideal Christian love.
  • For another gives its ease – The idea of sacrificing personal liberty for the sake of others would remind Blake’s readers of Jesus who gave his life for others. According to John’s Gospel, this is the greatest demonstration of love (John 15:13) and is the motivation for Christians to love others (Ephesians 5:2), including those who disregard them (Luke 6:27-35). This association would elevate the worth of the clod.
  • Clay – The image of clay personified may allude to the biblical idea that God is the ‘potter’ who has fashioned humanity from the earth (see Isaiah 64:8). As such, it is not up to the clay to protest at how it is used (Isaiah29:16) but to accept its role (Romans 9:21). Blake echoes the lowly status associated with clay in the clod’s selflessness and submission to the ‘cattle’s feet’. Clod can also means fool.
  • Heaven and hell – In traditional Christianity, heaven and hell are states to which people are sent after death. Heaven means eternally dwelling in the presence of God, the fate of the faithful. Hell means eternally being removed from God’s presence and is thus a place of punishment for those who have rebelled.
  • Build heaven – The apparent paradox of creating heaven out of hell echoes the paradoxical Christian teaching that new life is achieved through death (John 12:24-5).

Themes

The contraries of existence

  • According to Blake, ‘contraries’ are facts about the world and about the nature of the creative force behind it. For example, ferocious power and energy exist alongside what is fragile and tender. Desturctive splits between what are understood as forces of good and forces of evil are created when either one of these dimensions is excluded from the picture. Neither the clod’s nor the pebble’s position is sufficient, therefore. What is required, perhaps, is a the sort of love that is articulated by the clod but which is toughened and made resilient by a knowledge of experience.
  • In The Clod and the Pebble, human experience includes both heaven and hell. It is people’s choices that mean their current life is heavenly and/or hellish. Both the powerful energies within the world and the energies and instincts within human beings are necessary and beautiful. They become destructive when they are denied or seen as the only factor in life and experience.