Literature

A Short Analysis of William Blake’s ‘The Clod and the Pebble’

A close reading of Blake’s classic poem by Dr Oliver Tearle

‘The Clod and the Pebble’ is a William Blake poem that first appeared in his 1794 volume Songs of Experience, the companion-piece to his 1789 collection Songs of Innocence. The poem stages a conversation between a clod of clay and a pebble to make a point about the nature of love. Before we proceed to an analysis of ‘The Clod and the Pebble’, here’s a reminder of the poem.

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 Hells despair.

So sang a little Clod of Clay
Trodden with the cattles 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 anothers loss of ease.
And builds a Hell in Heavens despite.

(We quote the poem with the original spelling and punctuation used by Blake.)

The Clod and the Pebble: summary

In summary, ‘The Clod and the Pebble’ begins with a clod or lump of clay declaring that love is about selflessness: love is about giving yourself to someone else. Love is a positive force which can take the ‘hell’ of despair and turn it into a joyous heaven both for the lover and the beloved. This clod of clay in the earth has been trodden down by the feet of cows (we may imagine the clod being in a field full of cattle). It is, quite literally, downtrodden. Yet it sings in praise of love as an altruistic force.

Once the clod of clay has offered this view, however, a pebble in the stream declares the opposing view: that love is entirely selfish and makes a lover bend the other person to their desires, rather than seeking to serve the other’s wishes.

Love revels in the fact that it inconveniences the other person because it is all about the lover getting what they want. In being this way, selfish love turns a heaven into hell.

The Clod and the Pebble: analysis

How should we analyse this curious little poem, which borders on a moral lesson? Does the clod represent passivity and victimhood (‘trodden with the cattle’s feet’ as it is), and does it offer a naïve notion of love?

And by contrast, is the pebble too stony-hearted, too cold and hard, when it professes that the true nature of love is taking rather than giving, selfishness rather than selflessness? The pebble has it better than the clod: it is gently covered and bathed by the waters of the brook – a symbol of flux and continual movement, compared with the clod of clay lodged in the earth, which represents permanence and stability. Thus the pebble, in declaring love to be selfish, is perhaps drawing our attention to the idea of love as something which changes over time: the selfish lover moves from one partner to the next, whereas the faithful and selfless lover remains loyal to one beloved.

A clod of clay is, of course, softer than a pebble, and what’s more, it’s malleable, capable of being bent into a different shape (much as it sees love as a willingness to be bent to another’s will), but since it has literally been trodden underfoot, its view of love shouldn’t be taken as authoritative.

So sang a little Clod of Clay
Trodden with the cattles feet:
But a Pebble of the brook
Warbled out these metres meet.

But by contrast, there is something too smooth, and smooth-talking, about the pebble (a pebble is literally smooth usually, of course), a quality Blake brilliantly captures in his line ‘Warbled out these metres meet’, where ‘metres meet’ is too neat, the alliteration and assonance too easily won, suggesting the pebble’s definition of love is too glib, and perhaps a little specious; and this is to say nothing of the onomatopoetic insincerity of its warbling, as if the pebble is a smooth-talking crooner.

As D. G. Gillham observes in his study William Blake, the pebble and the clod can be said to contrast each other in their relation to the cattle: whereas the clod submits itself to be trodden underfoot, the pebble is more likely to graze the feet of cattle or cause a cow to stumble. The pebble is out for itself and doesn’t care who gets hurt; the clod doesn’t care if it gets hurt as long as others are happy.

Neither the Clod nor the Pebble, then, offers a favourable view of love. One is too submissive and the other too selfish. The clod is lacking in any individuality or personality: it is merely part of the wider earth from which it sprang. By contrast, the pebble is a standalone piece of stone, and too hard to accept any outside influences: the waters of the brook merely pass over it. It is too individual to love. No man is an island, as John Donne memorably said.

But instead, Blake presents two contrasting views of love whereby one serves as the inverse or mirror-image of the other. The Clod and the Pebble are a binary pair: selfless/selfish, giving/taking, heaven/hell. But this does not mean we are meant to analyse the Clod’s selfless, giving, and heavenly view of love as the ideal: there is something too passive, too literally downtrodden about it.

And it is worth bearing in mind that when Blake refers to Love in this poem, he is not thinking narrowly in terms of romantic love, but thinking about the broader idea of human charity and empathy. As Gillham observes in his analysis of the poem, in terms of political systems too many pebbles leads to tyrannical rule, but it is the surfeit of clods which enables the pebbles to seize power, because the submissive clods allow themselves to be trampled underfoot, economically and politically.

Neither the clod nor the pebble is alive, in contrast to the cattle that walk over them. They may sing, but they cannot think, or feel what it is truly to love. Clay is malleable, but too malleable; stone is firm, but too hard. The true nature of love, Blake seems to suggest, lies somewhere in between.

If you found this analysis of ‘The Clod and the Pebble’ interesting, you might also enjoy our commentary on Blake’s ‘The Sick Rose’ and our thoughts on his ‘London’. If you’re looking for a good edition of Blake’s work, we recommend Selected Poetry (Oxford World’s Classics).

The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.

7 Comments

  1. Pingback: The clod and the pebble; an interesting perspective on love – Bright, shiny objects!

  2. excellent insights—handy for AP

    • Although Blake had the good fortune to have a happy marriage he was sceptical about the institution, seeing it as too often as a self-centred power struggle. He famously said that if he found his wife unfaithful he wouldn’t get into a rage; he wouldn’t be angry! Love is the most overused word in the English Language (any language?) and often it has the overtone of possessiveness.

  3. Clay, soft and malleable and pebble, smooth and hard – if love is not what they claim it to be, what else is it?

  4. Pingback: 10 of the Best William Blake Poems | Interesting Literature

  5. Pingback: A Short Analysis of William Blake’s ‘The Clod and the Pebble’ – worldtraveller70

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