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.