Poem Analysis

Posted by Ragan Glover

William Blake’s “The CLOD and the PEBBLE” provides two thought-provoking interpretations regarding love. The first, which is given by a clod of clay, reasons that love is selfless and that “Love seeketh not Itself to please.” The second, which is given by a pebble, is that love is selfish and that “Love seeketh only Self to please.” Because the word love is personified throughout the poem, it is reasonable to believe that Blake was speaking not specifically of love, but of human nature in general. Furthermore, by examining the symbolism and artwork of this poem, the audience will better understand the contrasting interpretations of love given by the clod and the pebble.

The clod of clay, which speaks first in the poem, represents a naïve perception of the world. The clod of clay also offers a sort of “self-denying version of love” (Essick). “The clod is pliable…and therefore is chosen quite appropriately to represent unselfish love” (Damon). They clod symbolizes innocence to the experience of love. The pebble displays a sense of hope and selflessness, which based on the pebble’s perspective, diminish with experience. In the poem, the clod of clay is “trodden with cattle’s feet” which represents it true, self-sacrificing nature. However, as stated in the previous stanza, despite its sacrifices the clod of clay makes a “heaven in hell’s despair.”
The last stanza of Blake’s poem discusses the pebble, which is considered “hard and selfish” (Damon). The pebble symbolizes experience in love which is very different from the inexperienced clod of clay. The pebble offers a version of love that is based on fulfilling the needs of the self over others.  The pebble looks “to please the self using the beloved as a mean to that end even if this includes bondage and the beloved’s “loss of ease”” (Essick). The last line of the stanza states that the pebble “builds a hell in heaven’s despite.” This statement indicates that the pebble seems to lack the hope that the clod of clay holds onto so dearly. It seems that the experience of love has taught the pebble to build a barrier of defense and hurt others, rather than being hurt.

Accompanying the poem is the artwork that Blake used to further convey his message. The artwork consists of sheep and cows, both of which are considered cattle in his time, a sitting and a leaping frog, and a worm. The cows in the artwork are also considered to represent experience, whereas the sheep represent innocence (Wickstead). The idea that cattle are representative of experience is perhaps attributed to their rugged nature. Sheep are perhaps more delicate cattle, much like the clod of clay is more delicate than the hard pebble. Beyond the cattle, the artwork is not considered to have much more symbolism. In fact, Blake did not even color this piece or art, nor did he include it in his original copy of Songs of Innocence and Experience. Reasoning behind this is suggested to be that the message was “too far developed” for Songs of Innocence and Experience (Wickstead). Instead, Blake chose two other poems that consisted of similar, but less powerful meaning to complete the original copy. Furthermore, the choice to color the artwork and to include it in later printed editions of Songs of Innocence and Experience was made after the death of William Blake.

The message conveyed by the poem “The CLOD and the PEBBLE” is dependent on personal interpretation of love. Blake’s presentation of the clod of clay and the pebble through symbolism demonstrates how the perspective on love can depend on life experience. Following that idea, one who has experienced and perhaps been “hardened” by love might believe that love is selfish and by believing so, act selfishly. However, one who is new and perhaps “soft” to the experience of love, might believe that love is selfless and continue to believe so until he or she is hardened by experience of love. Regardless of interpretation, the poem presents a very old and important question - Are things what we make them or does experience make us?