‘Adam’s Curse’ was published in 1904 in Yeats’s poetic collection In the Seven Woods. The poem explores themes of writing, hard work, and time. It was written during a period of time in Yeats’s life that was quite influential. He had attempted, unsuccessfully, to court and woo the woman he loved, Maud Gonne. She ended up marrying someone else. Now, many readers and scholars see some of that rejection in Yeats’s ‘Adam’s Curse’.
The poem takes place on a summer’s day, awards the end of the season. Three friends, including the speaker, are outside talking about poetry, hard work, and beauty. The speaker describes how as a poet no one understands how hard it is to write. He thinks that it would actually be easier to be a laborer. Then, at least, he wouldn’t have to be called “idle” by schoolmasters and bankers.
As the poem continues one of the speaker’s companions adds that it is also very hard work to be a woman and be beautiful. This leads the speaker to consider love and the way love has transformed over the centuries. The poem ends on a solemn note as the speaker reveals his love for the intended listener of the poem.
Yeats makes use of a number of important themes in this poem. As mentioned above, a reader can enjoy exploring those of time, love, and writing. The latter starts out as the most obvious in the text. Yeats spends the most time in ‘Adam’s Curse’ exploring writing, other’s perceptions of writers, and how much easier it would be to just do physically hard work. As the poem progresses, other themes, such as those of love and time, come to the forefront. By the end, Yeats has focused on how time has transformed the way relationships are established and maintained–something he wishes to change.
‘Adam’s Curse’ by William Butler Yeats is a three-stanza poem that is separated into uneven sets of lines. The first two stanzas are fourteen lines long and the third stanza is only eleven. Yeats makes use of a very simple, and almost entirely consistent rhyme scheme of AABBCC, changing end sounds from line to line. These are known as heroic couplets.
Some of these rhymes, such as “school” and “beautiful” in stanza one are half-rhymes rather than full, or perfect, rhymes. Half-rhyme, also known as slant or partial rhyme, is seen through the repetition of assonance or consonance. This means that either a vowel or consonant sound is reused within one line or multiple lines of verse.
Yeats makes use of several literary devices in ‘Adam’s Curse’. These include but are not limited to enjambment, alliteration, and imagery. The latter, imagery, refers to the elements of a poem that engage a reader’s senses. Traditionally, the word “image” is related to visual sights, things that a reader can imagine seeing, but imagery is much more than that. It is something one can sense with their five senses.
There is a good example at the end of the poem when the speaker describes the setting. The lines read: “We saw the last embers of daylight die, / And in the trembling blue-green of the sky”. This line leads into a wonderful example of a simile in which the speaker compares the moon to a shell worn smooth by the sea.
Enjambment occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For example, the transition between lines seven and eight of stanza one as well as lines one and two of stanza two.
Lastly, alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “pavement” and “pauper” in lines eight and nine of stanza one as well as “love” and “lovers” in line ten of stanza two.
Analysis, Stanza by Stanza
We sat together at one summer’s end,
That beautiful mild woman, your close friend,
And you and I, and talked of poetry.
I said, ‘A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.
Better go down upon your marrow-bones
And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones
Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather;
For to articulate sweet sounds together
Is to work harder than all these, and yet
Be thought an idler by the noisy set
Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen
The martyrs call the world.’
‘Adam’s Curse’ opens with a description of the setting and who the speaker is with. He’s sitting, at the end of summer, with two women. It is one of these women to whom he addresses ‘Adam’s Curse’. Her friend is described as “That beautiful mild woman”. The three are sitting and talking about poetry and the speaker is thinking about how one line of poetry can take hours to write. It is only the good ones that after an hour’s work feel as though they were written in a moment’s thought.
Yeats uses a metaphor to compare this process to “stitching and unstitching”. Writing is like putting something together and then taking it apart again. When considering how much work writing is, Yeats suggests that it would be easier and better to do physical labor instead. The word is part of the “marrow” of one’s bones, that’s how deep it goes. Some of this labor is the breaking of stones and the scrubbing of kitchen floors, like a pauper would do.
The speaker believes that writing is even harder than these terrible labors. To “articular sweet sounds” is a difficult task. What’s even harder is that while writing one is thought as “idle” by those who have jobs like “banker, schoolmaster, and clergymen”. It is only a fellow writer who can understand how hard writing is.
That beautiful mild woman for whose sake
There’s many a one shall find out all heartache
On finding that her voice is sweet and low
Replied, ‘To be born woman is to know—
Although they do not talk of it at school—
That we must labour to be beautiful.’
I said, ‘It’s certain there is no fine thing
Since Adam’s fall but needs much labouring.
There have been lovers who thought love should be
So much compounded of high courtesy
That they would sigh and quote with learned looks
Precedents out of beautiful old books;
Yet now it seems an idle trade enough.’
In the second stanza of ‘Adam’s Curse,’ the speaker begins by telling the reader that the beautiful mild woman is going to speak. She’s quieter than the “martyrs” that he mentioned in the last stanza. He knows that this woman is sure to create much heartache among those who love her in the future.
Just as the speaker suggested that poetry is work that goes unacknowledged, the woman chimes in with something similar. She knows that being a woman is harder work than any man could understand. It takes a lot of work to be beautiful, and effortlessly so. This mirrors what Yeats’s speaker said about poetry.
The speaker responds halfway through this stanza to say yes, this is the case. It is at this point that Adam, as in Adam and Eve, comes into the stanza. He recalls Adam’s fall from grace as the marker of the end of fine things. There is has been nothing fine since then that did not come with labor. In the past, people who loved one another worked hard to woo the object of their affection. They read books and learned their quotes. Love was hard work too. But, things have changed. Love, the speaker says, is just “idle trade”.
We sat grown quiet at the name of love;
We saw the last embers of daylight die,
And in the trembling blue-green of the sky
A moon, worn as if it had been a shell
Washed by time’s waters as they rose and fell
About the stars and broke in days and years.
I had a thought for no one’s but your ears:
That you were beautiful, and that I strove
To love you in the old high way of love;
That it had all seemed happy, and yet we’d grown
As weary-hearted as that hollow moon.
In the third and final stanza of ‘Adam’s Curse,’ the speaker zooms back and describes the scene in full. He describes how they all sat quietly “at the name of love”. After the speaker described love in this way they were stunned into silence for a time while they contemplated it. They watched the “embers of daylight die” and the sky change colors. The moon came out “as if it had been a shell / Washed by time’s waters”. This is a great example of a simile. Here, he is comparing it to a shell that’s been worn smooth by the waters of the ocean.
The imagery continues as he describes the moon. It has been washed smooth not by the water but rather by time itself. Love led the speaker down a thoughtful path. Now, as he considers time, the poem comes to a conclusion (along with the end of the day and the end of summer).
The last lines reveal why everyone got so quiet at the end of the poem. He’s in love with a woman to whom he has been speaking. When he spoke, he spoke for her “ears”. He thought about her beauty and sought to love her as lovers did in the past. The speaker wants to find that old way of loving that took time and effort. But, it might be beyond him. They are as the moon is, “weary-hearted” and rubbed smooth by time.