Blake's "The Clod & the Pebble" - Innocence Vs Experience
Blake’s “The Clod & the Pebble” – Innocence Vs Experience
“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.”
William Blake (1757-1827)
The above truly unique and abundant in imagery love poem belongs to the sequence of poems Songs of Experience, which was written as a response to the Songs of Innocence.
In combination, these two groups of poems represent the world as it is envisioned by what Blake calls “two contrary states of the human soul.” As it is implied by the name of these poems, Songs of Innocence refer to the naive, pure and guileless feelings we all have during our childhood and youth years, whereas the Songs of Experience constitute the “voice of logic”, the experience gained through the hardships and ordeals during the mature years in one’s life. The voice of experience warns the innocent against the pain, injustice and cruelty of life and advises cautiousness.
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What is unique in this poem is that the two contrary visions are presented evenly in one poem. The Clod – the innocent and altruistic love – and the Pebble – the selfish and self-absorbed emotion – are given precisely the same extent in the poem to give their message to the reader and let them judge for themselves. It is interesting to note the existence of two separate and distinct entities even from the title of the poem. The reader is about to read a poem about “the clod and the pebble” and not about “the clod and pebble”. Therefore, it is almost obvious from the beginning that these two entities follow a different line of perspective.
The little Clod of Clay believes in true, selfless and altruistic love, in the love that one should give constantly, even at the expense of their ease. Where there is “Hell” due to sufferings, conflicts and turbulent periods, the true and unselfish love is able to build a “Heaven”. Upon reading the first stanza one could discern a possible allusion to the following well-known Bible verse,
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
(1 Corinthians 13: 4-7)
Another possible allusion to the Bible could be the down-trodden and humiliated (“Trodden with the cattle's feet”) Clod itself. It suffers, it is in constant pain and agony, it is perpetually stepped on and it will continue to be…But the Clod is aware of its place in the world. It is there to be stepped on and this does not seem to bother it so much so as to change its perspective on love. The Clod could be likened to a martyr, a saint who suffers an ignominious death after preaching his philosophy to an inimical audience. But, despite the hardships, the Clod is there, persevering to the truth and value of altruistic and giving love.
The second stanza acts as a narrator’s voice and shifts us from the Clod that “sings” to the “Pebble of the brook” which “warbles” its own theory of love. Through repetition (Love seeketh, to please), antithesis (not Itself-only Self, etc.) and common structure in the first and third stanzas, Blake makes the comparison and contrast between the Clod and the Pebble even more powerful.
The Pebble lives in the brook; in clear, fresh, moving water. In contrast to the malleability and youth (innocence) of the Clod, the Pebble is hard, aged and made strong through the years in the brook (a symbol of passing time). All these tears, the Pebble has gained wisdom and experience that render it almost indifferent to feelings, love and passion. The Pebble, speaking out of experience, seems to be selfish and possessive, capricious and vindictive. The Pebble’s love is about taking from the others and self-pleasure whereas the Clod’s love is about giving and offering joy and pleasure to others. Blake’s diction is powerful. “To bind another to its delight” denotes vindictiveness and wickedness. “Joys in another’s loss of ease” points to strong maliciousness. On the hand, one could support that the Pebble’s perspective has its sources to its pessimism, again in contrast to the Clod’s optimism. When the Pebble says that love “…builds a Hell in Heaven’s despite”, it means that love can cause havoc. It can create problems and heartache in a life that used to be serene and peaceful. To the Pebble, love has the potential to bring strong inner turmoil and suffering which, in turn, can render a person powerless, and prey to subjectivity, dreariness and destruction.
Which attitude should the reader follow? The Clod’s or the Pebble’s? An interpretation of the poem could be that both opposing views are mutually valid and true in themselves based on precisely the same extent they are each given within the poem. However, one could argue that this arrangement could allude to the stages of love as it is experienced in real life, beginning as a positive and optimistic emotion but eventually degenerating into a self-centered, destructive state.
Traditionally, the most powerful and insightful idea is given at the end of a piece of writing so that it will be the last thing the reader will remember from the written work. According to another interpretation, given the fact that the poem is a Song of Experience, it is worth noting that the final lines are given to the selfish, though experienced, Pebble, thus probably giving the message that its perspective is the most insightful and mature of the two.
Perhaps, after all, it is left to the reader to decide which viewpoint represents him, always according to his age, experiences in life and personality.
Blake William, “The Clod & the Pebble” (1794)
The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Seventh Edition, Volume 2