Reading Blake: ‘The Clod and the Pebble’, ‘The Sick Rose’, ‘The Tyger’. 1. ‘The Clod and the Pebble’. Blake’s choice of clod and pebble as mouthpieces for opposing conceptions of love is carefully calculated. Half the work of the poem is already done in the title if we allow the associations of these words to flow freely. However symbolic a poet’s use of a word may be, that symbolism retains and depends on the literal meaning and common associations. In Blake’s less successful later poems works may be given private or esoteric meanings. The clod is soft, shapeless, malleable, passive, downtrodden. The pebble is hard, shapely, impermeable. As soon as these associations are placed within a context of sexual love, the clod is the selfless female, the pebble the selfish male. They are contraries [see the previous essay], but in a fallen world where the contraries can only remain irreconcilable opposites, locked into a relationship where one does all the giving and the other all the taking. A shallow or too hasty reading of this poem might well lead us to suppose that we are intended simply to approve the clod’s innocent and Christian definition of love and reject the pebble’s cynicism and wicked selfishness, but as we have seen, this is never what Blake intends. The poem offers no possibility of a compromise. The clod tries to inhabit the world of innocence, to ignore the existence of pebbles (or even cows), to ‘build a Heaven in Hell’s despair’. The heaven built by the clod might be morally impeccable, but it is impossible to imagine much happening there in the way of delight. But even if it could find a like-minded partner in love, such selfless love could not progress towards a viable balanced relationship such as marriage symbolizes. The clod seems to have nothing to bring to the relationship but its own subjugation and degradation. A clod clearly cannot serve as an image of something we are meant to admire. Applied to a human being the word suggests a complete absence of energy, creativeness, character, self-esteem; it is lumpen, undifferentiated, spiritless. D.H.Lawrence suggests that for every murderer there is a murderee, that is, someone who, while not actively or consciously wanting to be murdered, subconsciously accepts the role and provokes or collaborates in the murder. In fact in the pebble the clod has found its ideal partner; the masochist has found the sadist. To say that Blake does not approve of the clod is not to say that he approves of the pebble. In adopting a self-sacrificial role the clod is misguided, dousing its own divine spark. The pebble glories in its own evil, like Iago. It is better to be too soft than too hard. What is perhaps surprising is that the pebble should offer its own heartlessness as a definition of love. From an early age Blake had his own highly developed sense of evil. The greatest evil seemed to him to be to deprive another of freedom. He could see around him plenty of examples of the exploitation of children and the poor. But more insidious were the ‘mind-forg’d manacles’ with which men sought, often in the name of Christian love or parental care, to bind children with rules and duties and creeds to save them from their own bodies and desires, which they were taught to see as sinful. Joy in almost any form was suspect. The child was thus deprived of the freedom to be itself, the freedom to be
fully male or female, and the freedom to be fully human. Blake finds the motives of parents, nurses, schoolteachers, priests, beadles, ‘guardians of the poor’, to be suspect or selfish. And sexual love is no exception when it manifests itself in the desire to possess the beloved exclusively, to ensure that the beloved has no life beyond providing whatever delights the master. At the age of fourteen Blake wrote one of the great poems of the language on this theme: How sweet I roam’d from field to field, And tasted all the summer’s pride, ‘Till I the prince of love beheld, Who in the sunny...
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