This week Meaghan Keeler shares a poem by William Blake
William Blake was born in 1757 in London, England. At age 10 his father sent him to art school, which would be his only experience of formal education. When he was 24 he married Catherine Boucher, the illiterate daughter of a market gardener. Not only did Blake teach her how to read and write but also how to engrave and print, skills he picked up after art school. In 1800 Blake moved to Felpham, on the Sussex seacoast, where he met and worked with a wealthy biographer named William Hayley. Hayley tried to convince Blake to conform to conventional artistry, but it didn’t work; Blake would later call Hayley the “enemy of [his] Spiritual Life.” As he grew older Blake returned to painting, and died in 1827 working on pictures for Dante’s Divine Comedy. Although he was not well-known as a poet during his life, Blake has gained a tremendous amount of respect from students, professors and readers alike.
The 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 sang 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.”
I first read this poem in a class I took a few semesters ago and I remember being drawn to it’s structure. Blake presents a poem with symmetry; you can almost draw a line in the middle and separate the two conflicting views. The quotes from both the clay and the pebble are eerily similar, using almost the same words to describe their opposing beliefs. But even with this rigid structure, the poem speaks to such large ideas. Blake is able to talk about the meaning of love and how our thinking and actions impact our feelings yet the poem itself barely takes up half of a page. (...)
We see the speaker touch on the two extremes of love: the side that gives and the side that takes. The images Blake uses mesh well with those he is trying to convey. First we have a clod of clay, finding out midway through the poem that it has been “trodden with cattle’s feet.” By mentioning that it has been walked on we see that the clay is willing to do whatever it takes, including sacrificing itself, for the person it loves. But it doesn’t just end there; the clay can’t even pick itself back up. It has been changed in an instant, stuck until someone else comes along and does it again.
In contrast to such a flexible object we get the image of a pebble in a brook. Even though the image itself is harder, the pebble is in water not on the ground. This shows that it too is not immune to the whims of love. Here the change is slower and thus reflects the kind of changes we experience in love coming gradually. Nothing has smashed the pebble, but instead we understand the progressive wearing away.
The speaker argues that when we love for another, we can build a heaven even when in hell. This idea makes me think of people in unhealthy relationships that know they are being taken advantage of, but still only see the good side of the person they are with. When people only look out for themselves in love, we are presented with the ability to turn any good situation bad. These two characteristics don’t make either view very appealing and leave most readers craving a happy medium: a love where we can live in heaven and appreciate it at the same time.
The views being discussed in “The Clod and the Pebble” are not limited to two different people. Blake himself was interested in a duality of existence, shown through the titles of his most famous works Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. This poem also could be a way to express what Blake called the “two contrary states of the human soul.” Maybe in the end we are all a little clay and a little pebble.