Adam’s Curse by William Butler Yeats

We sat together at one summer’s end,
That beautiful mild woman, your close friend,
And you and I, and talked of poetry.
I said, ‘A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.
Better go down upon your marrow-bones
And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones
Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather;
For to articulate sweet sounds together
Is to work harder than all these, and yet
Be thought an idler by the noisy set
Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen
The martyrs call the world.’
… And thereupon
That beautiful mild woman for whose sake
There’s many a one shall find out all heartache
On finding that her voice is sweet and low
Replied, ‘To be born woman is to know—
Although they do not talk of it at school—
That we must labour to be beautiful.’
I said, ‘It’s certain there is no fine thing
Since Adam’s fall but needs much labouring.
There have been lovers who thought love should be
So much compounded of high courtesy
That they would sigh and quote with learned looks
Precedents out of beautiful old books;
Yet now it seems an idle trade enough.’

We sat grown quiet at the name of love;
We saw the last embers of daylight die,
And in the trembling blue-green of the sky
A moon, worn as if it had been a shell
Washed by time’s waters as they rose and fell
About the stars and broke in days and years.

I had a thought for no one’s but your ears:
That you were beautiful, and that I strove
To love you in the old high way of love;
That it had all seemed happy, and yet we’d grown
As weary-hearted as that hollow moon.

William Butler Yeats

Note: Yeats wrote this poem after the marriage of Maud Gonne, his first true love, to Major John MacBride. In the poem, he relates a conversation he had with Kathleen, Maud’s sister. Was Yeats pained by the loss of Maud? Was Maud unable to give Yeats the love he so desired? Does Yeats think that he, like Adam, is being punished by God for his sin? Or does he feel that love today is as much of a struggle as it was in biblical times? Is love as difficult to attain as poetry is to write? Is Yeats using poetry to say what he failed to say to Maud? Or is he using it as part of the grieving/healing process? Your thoughts?

About Russell Boyle

Russell Boyle is a mathematics teacher, writer, and poet. His poetry anthologies are titled The Beginning, Footprints and Loneliness. Russell is the author of the Year 7 to 8 Mathematics Short-Answer Tasks, the Year 7 to 10 Mathematics Multiple-Choice Tasks, the Year 9 to 10 Extended-Response Tasks, the solutions to the Year 12 VCAA Mathematics Exams and the Web-Programming For Beginners series of courses. Sample poems and questions may be downloaded from http://russellboyle.com
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4 Responses to Adam’s Curse by William Butler Yeats

  1. russellboyle says:

    A wonderful interpretation, Carroll, and one that adds significantly to my understanding of this exceptional poem. I love your phrases “grief at our condition” and “born to die.” Thank you for commenting; I hope your words will inspire other readers of this page to do likewise. I too was unaware of this remarkable work until recently.

  2. I am hesitant to make a comment except to say that this remarkable poem is now my new favorite from Yeats. I can’t believe I’ve not seen it before, but now that I have I cannot keep away. What Yeats meant I do not know, but what it means when I read it, in my words, by Adam’s curse he meant the decay that infects all our lives, even our loves, death. Not punishment in the individual sense, but penalty in the universal sense, grief at our condition, born to die, to watch our best efforts mold, our best thoughts grow wearisome.
    You have done me a great service bringing this poem to my attention.

  3. todadwithlove says:

    Thank you for raising those questions that have illuminated much of the subterranean narratives. I am inclined to think that all the answers are in the affirmative, but I’d also like to add that when Maud said, “That we must labour to be beautiful”, she was perhaps saying that not only is poetry (and love) a struggle, to live (with excellence) is to struggle. In the end, however, this is a deeply poignant piece of lost love.

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