The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 325

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.

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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.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 830

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 person who predicts the future.

There is also in the poem the echo of a specific Shakespearean sonnet, the seventy-third. In that sonnet, as in “Adam’s Curse,” a season (in Shakespeare’s case, autumn) and day are ending, but once again with crucial differences. The poet of the sonnet contemplates the positive intensifying effect that the coming end of his life has on his friend. His love has become “more strong,/ To love that well which [he] must leave ere long.” The powerful emotion that informs Yeats’s poem is negative, the overwhelming waning, the hollowing-out, of romantic lovers.

Like romantic love, the couplets and stanzas of iambic pentameter in the poem are throwbacks. As modernism emerged from late Victorian Romanticism, those technical features of poetry were being displaced by free verse, which had been invented by the American poet Walt Whitman in the mid-nineteenth century. As if to acknowledge that formal verse is of a piece with the fading season, day, and love itself in “Adam’s Curse,” Yeats’s couplets are diminished in effect, sometimes because they are parts of separate sentences. At other times, a thought flows through a rhyme to the next line, hiding both the rhyme and meter by not pausing as the line ends. Some rhymes are kept intentionally inexact, as slant or off-rhymes: “strove”-“love,” “grown”-“moon.” And because of the odd number of lines in some stanzas, three of the couplets are separated from one another by the gaps of thought between stanzas. The stanzas are not merely of different lengths, but in addition the second stanza ends partway through a line, and the third begins with the completion of that line, producing both a hemistiched line and hemistiched stanzas. In short, though the poem uses fixed forms of verse, it so uses them as to reinforce its suggestion that things are falling apart. Not only is the season ending; not only is day ending; but the forms of verse themselves are being diminished just like love.

The sense of loss, the close of something important, begins with the title of the poem, “Adam’s Curse,” invoking the loss of Eden and the condemnation of humanity to hard labor for all gains. This use of an earlier story or myth to enhance the reader’s understanding of a contemporary situation anticipates what Yeats’s fellow Irishman and novelist James Joyce would do in patterning the experiences of the people of Ulysses (1922) after those of the ancient Greek hero Odysseus. The “mythical method,” the poet and critic T. S. Eliot called it in “Ulysses, Order, and Myth” (1923), providing posterity with a useful critical term while mistakenly crediting Joyce with the invention of a technique that has been used for millennia. This much in any case is clear about Yeats’s poem: In its awareness of the craft that supports apparent naturalness, in its challenge to formal verse, even as it uses it, in its allusive approach to content, and in its clear-eyed disillusionment with romantic love, “Adam’s Curse” is modernist, written as though it were near the dawn of the period.

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Themes