Adam's Curse (poem)
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Adam's Curse is a poem written by William Butler Yeats. In the poem, Yeats describes the difficulty of creating something beautiful. The title alludes to the book of Genesis, evoking the fall of man and the separation of work and pleasure. Yeats originally included the poem in the volume, In the Seven Woods, published in 1903.
The poem is composed of three stanzas of heroic couplets (19 couplets total). Some of the rhymes are full (years/ears) and some are only partial (clergymen/thereupon). Ostensibly collaborating with one another, the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd stanzas are linked by an informal slant-rhyme scheme (e.g., “summer’s end | clergymen | thereupon;” “trade enough | name of love;” “yet we’d grown | hollow moon”).
A quasi-sonnet appears with the 1st stanza, which is perhaps an allusion/homage to the “precedents out of beautiful old books” and the formalism of the eras preceding Yeats.[improper synthesis?] Of its fourteen lines, the first thirteen are unbroken while the last is made of three iambs. These, in turn, are fulfilled through enjambment and bleed into the first line of the 2nd stanza (i.e. “The martyrs call the world. | And thereupon.”).
The 2nd stanza shares its first line with the last of the 1st stanza and maintains a similar form of non-repeating couplets. Its final line lies roughly coupled with the first line of the 3rd stanza (i.e. the slant rhyme between “enough” and “love”).
The 3rd and final stanza differs from its predecessors in its length. Constructed from eleven lines (five heroic couplets), the 3rd is significantly shorter than the others.
Yeats serves as arbiter for his profession, condemning the view that beauty in art (and, subsequently, everywhere else) comes naturally. Rather, he supports the idea that beauty can only come about through great mental ardor. Pitting himself with the "martyrs," the poet speaks through a victim's perspective and provides evidence to support his claim. Yeats' poem, though at times mock-serious, makes a subtle plea for greater understanding of the creative process and those that make it their "trade."
Text of the poem
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.'
. . . . . . . . . And thereupon
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.'
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.
- Cullingford, Elizabeth Butler. Susan Dick, Declan Kiberd, et al., ed. "Labour and Memory in the Love Poetry of W. B. Yeats" in Essays for Richard Ellman. McGill-Queen's P.
- Ramazani, Jahan, Richard Ellmann, and Robert O'Clair. The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry. 3rd ed. Vol. 1. London: Norton, 2003. pp. 100