Blake’s poem explores the nature of love through the views of a personified lump of clay and pebble. Their views present love in diametrically opposed ways: with the clay believing love to be about selflessness, while the pebble considers love to be selfish.
However, through the associations of these two materials he leads us to think about a middle route and what love should really be.
Clod – lump;
Brook – small stream;
Warbled – a way of singing with constant changing of notes.
“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.”
William Blake (1757-1827)
William Blake is today remembered as one of Britain’s greatest ever (he was voted 38th in a BBC poll), but in the 18th and beginning of the 19th century, whilst he was alive, he was not particularly renowned. He was an artist, engraver, literary commentator and a poet, but very rarely did he attract a high profile.
Consider him an English and poetry version of Van Gogh; after his death he came to acclaim and is now generally regarded as one of the most important poets in history. His most famous work is probably Jerusalem, which is now the anthem for England’s rugby team.
What do you need to know about him in order to understand this poem? Not a great deal, but it may be useful to be aware that he is thought to have been an advocate for more freedom in relationships and many of his poems are seen as rebelling against monogamous marriage arrangements, which may link in with this poem too.
Also, it was published in 1794 in his collection of poetry entitled Songs of Innocence and Experience. This is relevant because many people have seen the clay to represent innocence and the pebble to represent experience in terms of their perception of love.
This poem is all our perception and approach to love. Although Blake doesn’t state his views directly, he is challenging our thoughts through the two opposing views. Both these views seem unreasonable and I feel they lead us to the conclusion that love has to incorporate a bit of both approach – at times being selfish and possessive, at times giving everything to another.
We have three four line stanzas (quatrains) in this poem, but the first and last are mirror reflections of each other.
In the opening quatrain we listen to the song of a lump of clay. The gist of this song is that love is about giving yourself to someone else and putting them before your self. It concludes with the idea that by loving someone and making their life easier, you help them to attain a state of heaven on earth, banishing the emotions that we’d associate with hell – things like loneliness and misery. This is clearly an innocent and pure perception of what love should be.
The final quatrain sees things differently. Love is not about another, but is a selfish desire to control and restrict another, making their life more difficult and wrecking our peaceful existence. This is very much the cynical perspective of the wounded lover.
As you can see, these views are complete opposites and potentially represent Blake’s own view on the subject – his marriage endured, but supposedly suffered from troubles related to his desire for other partners. However, I think his views are represented by what is not said.
We are asked to view these two different perspectives on love, but judging their validity requires us to examine the respective singers. The first view comes from the clod of clay, the second from a pebble. One is walked over and abused by others, the other is cold and hard. I’ll get into this a bit more below.
Language and techniques
The first thing I would talk about is the almost repetition of the first and third stanzas. You could argue that Blake shows these two perceptions of love to demonstrate the fine line between love, being controlling and being used by another person.
I like this interpretation. If the clay says love ‘seeketh not to please itself’ and the pebble argues that love ‘seeketh only to please itself’, then they are directly opposed. Does Blake want us to choose? I think not, I think he is really trying to say that we need to avoid viewing love in these terms. Love should be selfish in the respect that we should look to our personal happiness, but at the same time we cannot be selfish and not respect the freedom of those we love.
To further this interpretation, consider the two singers. Notice that Blake chooses to capitalise ‘Clod of Clay’ and ‘Pebble’, which is a method of personifying them. They are already personified by the fact they are singing. He does this because we then consider them as if they were humans.
If we consider the qualities of clay and relate them to humans, we should think about it being soft, malleable (easy to mould and change) and being considered largely insignificant. Not only this, but Blake tells us this clay is ‘trodden with the cattle’s feet’ suggesting that this person, or people with this attitude to love, are walked all over and taken advantage of. The word ‘trodden’ in particular, invokes ideas of being taken for granted and being abused. Also, Blake chooses to add the adjective ‘little’ to describe the clay, further diminishing its importance in the world.
In contrast, we have the pebble. Now pebbles are definitely more attractive given how smooth they are, but they are also cold and hard. This pebble is ‘of the brook’ and therefore, as an multisensory image, we can feel both its smooth contours coursed by the flow of water, but also its coldness. Human connotations here would be hard, cold and emotionless. This sounds like someone who has been hurt by love and is cynical about the emotion. Notice how this interpretation of love considers it to ‘bind’ which makes me think that this singer feels trapped by the love of another and to have lost their freedom.
The final thing that you might wish to comment on is the hyperbolic (over the top) conceptions of love. Both songs finish with the idea of love creating either a ‘Heaven in Hell’s despair’ (thus banishing all aspects of unhappiness for another and of greed within oneself) and the other creating a ‘Hell in Heaven’s despite’. To consider love as one of two extremes, causing eternal bliss or eternal misery, is hyperbolic and unrealistic. We can easily appreciate these twin aspects of love, in its ability to make us happy and miserable at certain times, but the truth is really between the two.
I hope I’ve been clear here on how important what has not been said, is to the poem. The views represented are the two poles of love, but Blake is trying to warn us not to stray to either extreme, but to find some middle ground.
The big thing here is the mirroring of the first and third stanzas. Blake has chosen to present these views almost identically to show their similarity, both are misguided perceptions of the emotion and lead to unhappiness – perceived (3rd stanza) or not (1st stanza – he claims he’s found heaven, but is ‘trodden with the feet of cattle’ – hmmm, doesn’t sound like my idea of heaven).
Clearly this switches from the optimism of the clay to the angry cynicism of the pebble. However, most interestingly in the middle Blake presents his information matter-of-factly. This calmness is a sign of how we should respond to the twin emotional power/perceptions of love.
Click here for another excellent little summary of the poem.