How does William Butler Yeats deal with such issues as time, tradition, and art in his poem "Adam's Curse"?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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In his poem “Adam’s Curse,” William Butler Yeats deals with such issues as time, tradition, and art in a number of ways, including the following:

  • TIME: The poem describes events that occurred in the past (1), and so time is immediately important as an issue. The speaker reflects on the past and its relationship to the present, and indeed he reflects on the relationship between the relatively recent past and the very distant past (the past involving Adam in the Garden of Eden).  The speaker also discusses time in relation to art: a single line of poetry, he says, may take hours to conceive, and yet to be effective it must appear to have been a spontaneous thought:

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. (4-6)

Good, effective poetic writing, he contends, takes time (10-11); it cannot be hurried. By the very end of the poem, time again becomes an important theme (28-33), and in fact the reference to the changing moon in the very last line of the poem reminds us once more of the crucial theme of time.

  • TRADITION: Most of the references to tradition in the poem allude to traditions of courtship or of “making love” (in the old-fashioned, non-sexual senses of that term).  These allusions occur especially in the second half of the poem, particularly in lines 23-27 and in line 36. The poem also alludes in its second half to the “tradition” of labor that has been humanity’s curse since the time of Adam (21-22). Yet the poem manages to associate labor with beauty (especially the beauty of art and poetry) and with love and courtship, so that “Adam’s curse” does not seem to be an especially heavy burden to bear, at least in the ways it is presented in this poem. Indeed, the title of the poem seems almost whimsical and ironic.
  • ART: Poetry was an explicit topic of discussion in the past meeting the speaker describes, and the speaker makes clear his opinion that good poetry is the result of conscious and deliberate artfulness and skill (“stitching and unstitching” [6]). As he puts it later in the poem, the successful articulation of “sweet sounds together” is the result of hard work (10-11). Later, a female speaker makes clear that achieving and maintaining feminine beauty also requires an art of its own (18-20). The speaker responds by claiming that in fact making anything “fine” or beautiful requires the kind of labor known as art (22).

In all these ways, then, Yeats manages to weave together the themes of art, time, and tradition, so that they comment upon one another and cannot be easily separated.


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