The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

William Butler Yeats’s “Adam’s Curse,” written in six uneven stanzas of iambic pentameter rhymed couplets, recounts one of the poet’s meetings with Maud Gonne, a free-spirited Irish patriot and sometime actress who was just returning from an extended trip abroad. Maud’s sister, the “beautiful mild” Kathleen, was the third person present, but the personal situation is mildly altered in the poem. Maud, identified only as “you,” is said to be the younger woman’s “close friend” rather than sister.

After setting the scene—three friends at twilight on a late summer evening—the poem turns to a conversation that took place between the poet and his beloved’s beautiful young woman friend. He remembers observing that although the writing of poetry is more difficult than physical work, the product of a poet’s labors has to appear effortless. The friend, gentle of voice, with the kind of mild, seemingly natural attractiveness destined to break men’s hearts, responded that the beauty of women is also the product of studied effort. That observation led the poet to remark that all human accomplishments since the biblical fall of Adam have entailed hard labor. Even love was once regarded as an exalted experience that required the gathering of precedents from the old poetic world of chivalry. It was treated as a profound matter, to be studied and approached reverently. Now, like the writing of poetry, it is considered idle.

Maud, referred to only as “you,” remained silent, and the word “love” silenced the speakers. The three watched the vestiges of daylight fade. The moon, apparently hollowed out by time’s tide breaking in waves of days and years over the earth, drew the poet’s special attention.

In that silence, he later confessed, he thought “you” beautiful. He wanted to love Maud chivalrously. Once, loving her had seemed joyous and fortunate, but now, like the hollow moon, she and he were exhausted by love.

Adam's Curse Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

There is a sense that “Adam’s Curse,” like one of William Wordsworth’s meditative poems—“Tintern Abbey,” for example—resulted from the contemplation in tranquility of powerful emotions that accompanied an important but seemingly trivial event. That sense places the poem in a Romantic tradition Wordsworth made explicit in his preface to the second edition (1800) of Lyrical Ballads, but with a crucial difference.

Wordsworth and his fellow poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge first published Lyrical Ballads in 1798, a little more than a hundred years before Yeats’s poem. The nineteenth century was about to begin, and English Romanticism was on the rise, replacing the comparatively stiff neoclassicism of the previous century. Wordsworth and Coleridge were attempting to introduce deep feeling and natural expression into poetry because the work of the neoclassical poets seemed to them too cerebral and formal. At the start of the twentieth century, Yeats was troubled that apparently natural emotions and appearances are illusory.

Yeats’s conversational tone appears relaxed. However, as his seemingly easy observation that poetry—unless it seems “a moment’s thought,/ Our stitching and unstitching has been naught”—reveals by its technical perfection, studied labor is required in order to produce the appearance of ease, in the Renaissance called sprezzatura.

There is in “Adam’s Curse” a subtle invocation of courtly Renaissance sonnet-making and challenges to it. The overriding issue in William Shakespeare’s Sonnets (1609) is a love triangle. The sonnet writer’s female lover seduces his young male friend. In Yeats’s poem, there is no such deception, but the poet, though in love with the older woman, is clearly attracted to the younger woman’s voice and beauty. The importance of her presence between two mature lovers is underscored by his anticipation of the effect she will have on other men. Obviously, there was some such effect on the...

(The entire section is 830 words.)