Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 404

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In form, style, material content, and meaning, “Adam’s Curse” is about the end of a certain set of values and the need for another. Both temporal ends in the poem, the conclusion of summer and the close of the day, mark the waning of something else, the poet’s chivalric love of “you” (Maud) that remains unspecified until the last stanza. Almost twenty years before the disillusionment of World War I set in, Yeats was disillusioned. Love, which the high Victorian poet Mathew Arnold in “Dover Beach” (1867) thought a safe harbor for those troubled by religious doubt and disillusionment with what were once seen as promising industrial and political revolutions, strikes Yeats as empty, as hollow as the rest.

For a dozen years, Yeats had been cherishing an unrequited romantic love of Maud, who steadfastly rejected his proposals, but as the twentieth century dawned he was growing more realistic. His poetry, originally characterized by dreamy ideals, mysticism, and a heroic Celtic past, replete with great kings, legendary leaders, deep loves, tragic events, and fairies, was becoming specific in its references and more earthy in its vision. Though he went on proposing marriage to Maud and even her daughter in the years that followed, in “Adam’s Curse” Yeats reveals an awareness that what he dreamt of would not materialize. The poem sets this awareness in the poet’s recollection of a discussion during their meeting of what it takes to produce fine poetry and beauty in this fallen world.

Humans, whether by God or simply as a result of the natural state of things, are condemned to labor “like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather.” Those in control of capital, those in control of what officially passes for knowledge, and those who claim to have insight into the spiritual issues of human life denigrate poets, the real seekers after truth and creators of beauty in this fallen world. In accordance with their awareness of the condition of the world in which they find themselves, Yeats implicitly asserts, poets must mute their instruments and present images that accord with the nature of what they perceive, in language that fits their perceptions. Yet, still, the accurate presentation of that world in words and with images that bring it vividly before the senses, no matter how disillusioning, is beautiful, and the recognition of the painful truths of the human condition is liberating and exhilarating.