Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 744
“Adam’s Curse” was first published in the Monthly Review of December, 1902, and first collected in In the Seven Woods (1903). The poem is an important example of Yeats’s mature style in the making. The subject matter of Yeats’s early poetry tended to deal with abstractions, such as love, truth, and beauty. Missing from these early poems is a sense of the poet dealing with actual experiences of the actual world. Even the early verse’s conception of Ireland is extremely romantic.
While in “Adam’s Curse” Yeats continues to acknowledge the power of romance, his attitude toward that power is now considerably changed. First, the poem draws on Yeats’s own direct experience. The three people mentioned in the poem are real. The basis for the poem is a conversation that Yeats had with “that beautiful mild woman” and is addressed to a third person who was also present at the time. This third person, the “you” of the poem, is Maud Gonne; the “mild woman” is her sister, Mrs. Kathleen Pilcher. While “Adam’s Curse” draws on elements of Yeats’s life, the poet had not lost interest in the Irish mythological figures that featured so prominently in his early work; Yeats never abandoned this interest. At the same time, however, the presence of intimate acquaintances in a private setting and the reconstruction of their after-dinner conversation represents a breakthrough in candor and immediacy for Yeats.
Second, “Adam’s Curse” is significant because of the manner in which the poet uses his new materials. His altered attitude to romance is expressed in his critical treatment of the subject. This criticism forms the closing lines of the poem. Yet these lines do not have a dramatic or climactic effect. On the contrary, they reveal the poet’s weariness of romantic love, leaving the reader with a sense of his isolation and lack of fulfillment. This strong suggestion of personal loss comes from the realization that love will not conquer all. Love, too, is subject to change, and so are lovers. This thought brings the poet depressingly down to earth.
In addition, Yeats’s technique is more sophisticated in “Adam’s Curse” than it is in many of his earlier poems. The decision to open the poem with what appear to be direct quotes from the remembered conversation greatly adds to the reader’s sense of the immediacy, directness, spontaneity, and candor of actual experience. The informal character of conversation is conveyed by letting the lines run into each other. The first part of the poem reads as though it is written in sentences rather than in poetic lines. The poet draws attention to this effect by the poem’s form, which consists of one long stanza and two shorter ones. Because of this arrangement, the poem can be described as having, in effect, two parts, even though Yeats does not number or identify those parts.
There is a deliberate sense of disproportion between the parts, which is intended to suggest the problem of duality, which is the poem’s theme. Seeing the poem in two parts also draws attention to how Yeats has separated speech from silence, exposition from reflection, and the conversational interlude from the larger emotional context. This strategy of separation underlines the variety of ways in which “Adam’s Curse” concentrates on the dual character of human experience. The overall effect of the verbal and technical accomplishments of “Adam’s Curse” is to make the poet’s concerns more accessible. The poem’s theme is still basically abstract, but its abstract nature is brought closer to the reader.
The theme, broadly speaking, addresses the discrepancy between appearance and reality. The poet, says Yeats in the first conversational extract, can slave to perfect a line of poetry yet be considered an idler by the world at large. Similarly, says Mrs. Pilcher, to appear beautiful is the result of hard work. These facts of life are, to the poet, a version of Adam’s curse, a reference to the fact that Adam was not only expelled from the ideal existence of paradise but also condemned to earn his bread by the sweat of his brow. Even love requires deliberate effort. Yet that thought reminds the poet that, try as he might, he has failed to perfect his love for Maud Gonne. The reality of life lies in commitment rather than in achievement, though such a realization dampens the spirit of idealism.
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