“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.”
The clod and the pebble by William Blake
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William Blake was an English poet writing in the Romantic period. Romanticism, was a literary/arts movement that reacted against the over-rationalisation and machinations¹ of Enlightenment thinking². My understanding of Romanticism is that it gave priority to the emotional and subjective, valued a return to nature³, placed worth on folk traditions (though many (most?) of Romantic writers/artists still came from the higher classes), and created an ideal world apart from the reality of everyday life.
This last aspect of Romanticism is particularly important in understanding Blake’s verse. Throughout his childhood he experienced visions and visitations that largely affected his work. His material life was also characterised by suffering, enemies and financial strain, a life that one would want to escape from. A quote of his encapsulates his Romantic orientation: “I must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s”4.
This poem, The clod and the pebble, is included in Blake’s collection, Songs of experience. The collection, written four years after his Songs of innocence, was in part a reaction to his previous work. The two were later collated as a single work, Songs of innocence and experience. Whereas the poems around innocence paint a picture of what it means to be naive, innocent and young, taking joy in all things, being without responsibility and approaching life spontaneously, the later poems focus on those who are ‘experienced’, that is, knowing the struggles of life and the responsibility that comes with it.
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What follows now is an analysis of the poem. If you don’t get the poem yet, you may want to read it a couple more times and try your hand, otherwise I’m giving you all the answers. One of the sad reasons that poetry isn’t as valued by modern society as it has been in the past is that people no longer work for it. You need to work to understand and appreciate poetry so if I’m going to give you all the answers then you’re only perpetuating its death…
For me this poem speaks of love in a rational sense versus love in an experiential sense. Notice that the smooth-bodied Pebble, having a clearly relatively easier life than the betrodden Clod, is pessimistic towards love. His love is a selfish love, love for one’s own means only, a love which he, in his comfortable lifestlye, would have long been a part of. The Clod, however, having not only a rougher life of being continually stood upon, but also made up of a less noble substance, can testify that love is good and it is selfless. The poem brings to light the discrepancy between the ideal and the real. In the ideal sense, love does not exist: Everyone is out to serve their own interests and anything purported to be loving is only the substance of myth. Nietzshe writes along similar lines in Thus spoke Zarathustra, “You crowd together with your neighbour and have beautiful words for it. But I tell you: Your love of your neighbour is your bad love of yourselves. You flee to your neighbour away from yourselves and would like to make a virtue of it: but I see through your ‘selflessness'”. The real, the actual loving, cannot be justified by words, because the world of words is dominated by idealists. The Clod has no time for the ideal; he rather spends his time in the real, in the action of loving, and if anyone wish to contend with him, they must contend also in the real. They must show by their actions that love is nothing, else their words are nothing. The cattle will not listen to the Pebble’s definition of love; rather they know the Clod’s definition of love through experience as he has given himself for them to tread upon day in and day out.
A very interesting structural feature of the poem is that the Pebble has the last word. The poem opens beautifully, giving us a definition of what it means to love. Why does Blake choose the counter-resolution of ending instead with the Pebble’s cynical definition of love? Firstly I think this is indicative of the silent nature of love. The Pebble’s voice gives the lasting impression of the poem while the Clod retains his sacrificial love. He has no time to debate on the meaning of love; he is too busy loving. His opening dialogue was not reactionary; rather he was spontaneously speaking out in joy of the love he had experienced in giving. The Pebble, on hearing this, then reacts with pessimism. Secondly, this indicates the persistence of the ideal in our thinking, persistence because the poem ends on this note, when our real lives run counter to what we think or idealise.
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This is a note on metre in Blake’s poem. Most people will find this part quite boring (there are no pictures) so I give you full permission to skip ahead of it =)
The majority of this poem is written in iambic tetrameter, having four feet per line (tetrameter), each foot consisting of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable (iambic): “Love SEEK-eth NOT it-SELF to PLEASE”. Blake however omits the unstressed syllable at the beginning of line two, three and four in the second stanza. This does not greatly interrupt the flow of the poem, as each line still contains the same number of stressed beats. I don’t think it would’ve have been difficult for Blake to include some unstressed syllables in the stanza either, for example: “Be-TROD-den WITH the CAT-tle’s FEET, /But HEARD a PEB-ble OF the BROOK /And WAR-bled OUT these MET-res MEET” (The extra syllables to complete the iambs have been indicated in bold).
I would conclude that Blake either omitted the syllables out of carelessness or choice. If choice, then possibly he is indicating action in a break from the dialogue by focussing on the distinction between the Clod and the Pebble. This affect is achieved because the absence of the preceding unstressed syllable speeds the lines a up a tad and begins them more aggressively. Also contributing to this is the fact that two of these lines begin with a verb. On the other hand, carelessness I think is more probable. But maybe that’s not the right word. There is a simplicity about Blake’s verse in the volume in which this poem is included, Songs of innocence and experience. Blake was probably not too concerned about meeting metrical convention as he was in communicating his ideas through his metaphorical aphorisms. Perhaps ‘carefreeness’ is more aptly applied in this sense than carelessness. This possibility is reinforced by the extra unstressed syllable in line two of the third stanza: “To BIND a-NO-ther to ITS de-LIGHT”.
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I have a few poems in mind that I would like to explore. I am open to requests, depending on the depth and quality of the poem! Ha!
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¹A clever pun
²While it’s still fashionable to bag the Enlightenment, I will remain on that bandwagon
³Wordsworth, a true lover of nature, epitomises this tenet of Romanticism. His famous poem, The world is too much with us, is a good example of this.
4This for me has a similar ring to Voltaire’s “If God did not exist it would be necessary to invent him”. Blake refers to Voltaire both directly and indirectly in his poetry. This poem of his addressing Voltaire is an example of the anti-rationalist heart of Romanticism.