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(b) Paying close attention to language and form, write a critical appreciation of the following poem, considering William Blake’s presentation of love in the poem ‘The Clod and the Pebble’.
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 sung a little Clod of Clay 5
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, 10
Joys in another’s loss of ease,
And builds a Hell in Heaven’s despite.”
The ostensible cuteness of the poem The Clod and the Pebble perhaps masks a more morbid and deeply cynical assessment of love by the poet William Blake. Initially, the contrast between the clod and the pebble’s speeches on love might encourage a positive response to the clod’s optimism about how love can rescue us from even the most hellish position. The pebble’s pessimism about love, on the other hand, is unpleasant and unsettling, but it’s also a more accurate reflection of the brutal nature of the world as it is depicted in the poem. Blake’s presentation of love, then, is ambivalent. While the ideal that love is able to overcome any circumstance is appealing, it might not be a realistic assessment in the context of the world’s cruelty.
Blake’s personification of the clod and the pebble captures two very different human experiences. We are told that the clod is “trodden with the cattle’s feet.” With the word “trodden” Blake captures the experience of continual hardship, and being repeatedly downtrodden, subjugated and abused. There is also tactile imagery of weight and pressure from the “cattle’s feet,” restricting the clod and forcing it into a new shape. In this way, the clod is described as though it experiences human suffering. It makes us think about someone who has had to become flexible to fit the continual hardship of their circumstances – reflected in the physical properties of a soft clod of clay. It is then pleasantly surprising that the clod sings about love in the most optimistic way.
On the one hand, the clod’s optimism concerning love is deeply admirable, and the parallel structure used to present this speech alongside the pebble’s emphasises that optimism in the most appealing way. The clod states that love “builds a Heaven in Hell’s despair,” while the pebble states that it “builds a Hell in Heaven’s despite.” The clod speaks from the context of a hellish existence that entails pain and suffering, and endows love with the capacity to transcend such an experience and create a heavenly existence of joy and happiness. The pebble, on the other hand, speaks from a comparatively heavenly existence and instead endows love with the capacity to corrupt that existence with the pain and suffering suggested by the word “Hell.” Our feeling that the clod is admirably optimistic ten evolves into a feeling that we too want and even believe that love will rescue and provide solace to this figure.
Conversely, the parallel structure also helps to emphasise the pebble’s pessimism. The clod declares that “love seeketh not itself,” while the pebble answers that “love seeketh only self.” The phrases “not itself” and “only self” create a clear juxtaposition here of the two views of love. The first underscores it as essentially selfless, while the other underscores it as absolutely and solely selfish. Moreover, while the clod sings happily about how love “for another gives its ease” the pebble responds with how love “joys in another’s loss of ease.” The clod’s words suggest an action of willing self-sacrifice, while the pebble’s words suggest a selfish acquisition that leaves another diminished. Of course, the pebble’s view means that there is no hope for the clod and that love in fact provides no Heaven.
Furthemore, the pebble’s assessment of love is deeply cynical and ugly. It is, however, true to both its own experience and that of the clod. The clod is “trodden” upon while the pebble is “of the brook.” We imagine a gentle and tranquil existence within the soft current of a stream. Traditionally, however, rivers also symbolise a journey from innocence to worldliness. The water represents the experience that flows over us during life, leaving us more aware. This experience has left the pebble implacable. We imagine someone who has become hardened from experience – and this is reflected in the physical properties of the pebble. Now the water is forced to bend around the pebble, just as the clod must bend around the feet of the cattle. This is a depiction of the world’s harshness and cruelty, and we cannot help but appreciate that it is the pebble’s assessment of love that more accurately reflects it.
To conclude, perhaps the poem is as much about idealism and realism as it is about love. Love, after all, is subject to our tendency to be both idealistic and realistic. Ultimately though, it seems that the depiction of the world as harsh and brutal confirms a negative view of love as equally harsh and brutal. At the very least, the poem encourages us to be ambivalent of love and not suppose it to be a kind of saviour capable of transcending all.