Essay: Adam’s Curse – Yeats

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  • Subject area(s): Literature essays
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  • Published on: July 10, 2019
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  • Adam's Curse - Yeats
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‘Adam’s Curse’ centres itself around William Butler Yeats’s frustration at those who undermine the hard work and dedication required to compose poetry. A narrator, assumed to be Yeats, speaks under the moon to two women, discussing the laborious ‘stitching and unstitching’ required for poetics, female beauty and for love itself, lamenting at how all three go unnoticed, as, to be successful, beauty must appear effortless and ‘not seem a moment’s thought’.

The title itself refers to the book of Genesis, with ‘Adam’s Curse’ being mankind having to endure ‘painful toil’ on ‘cursed ground’ , in order to scrape a living following Adam’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Denis Donoghue argues ‘The force of the grim, dragging words in “Adam’s curse”- “labor,” “labouring,” “strove,” “trade,” “hollow,” and “weary-hearted”- incriminates nature and culture alike, darkens our sense of both.” Therefore, an audience can connote that Yeats believes ‘Adam’s Curse’ is still active during his current day with him incriminating the modern working culture of ‘the noisy set’ who must ‘scrub’ upon ‘marrow – bones’ in order to make a living, whereas his creative mind able to ‘articulate sweet sounds’ sees him labelled ‘idle’. ‘Adam’s Curse’ stretches further than Yeats’s work, however, and into his love life. Curtis Bradford labelled Yeats as ‘the last courtly lover. He met Maud Gonne in 1889; he first proposed in 1891, last proposed in 1916’ connoting that Yeats is feeling the same rejection and isolation Adam did when he was cast out of Eden and the personification of nature in the third stanza mirrors the heartache of Yeats’s lost love. The ‘moon, worn as if it had been a shell’ reflects the state of Yeats’s heart, broken and weary and also reinforces Donoghue’s argument of nature, as well as culture been incriminated, as ‘Adam’s Curse’ has debilitated even the moon and the natural world.

The early imagery of the poem itself is full of contradictions: in stanza one, whilst attempting to explain the benevolence and spirituality of poetry, Yeats instead must use practical work as a reference point. The mechanical descriptions of ‘stitching and unstitching’ poetry in order to achieve perfection is similar to the conventional labour of the ‘bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen’ that Yeats despises. This implies that, despite being able to articulate and construct such delicate imagery in his poems, Yeats must instead compare his hard work to the labour of ‘old paupers’, as the back- breaking work of having to “scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones” is the only pain of labour these women, and his audience, will understand. Therefore, his use of imagery ties into the main theme of the poem, that his work, in poetry and love, goes unnoticed whilst conventionally useful toil is recognised, appreciated and is even becoming the symbol of hard endeavour.

Critic, David Ward , offers a differing interpretation of Yeats’s oxymoronic imagery, citing the use of phrases such as ‘idle trade’ are merely to do with Yeats’s common technique of creating ‘interlocking, yet contradictory meanings in the readers’ mind’ in order to ‘force the reader to shift the mental strategies he might have used to interpret the text and those he uses to perceive his experience of the world around him’. Ward also references how Yeats himself in 1917 claimed ‘that “spiritual instructors” began talking to him; this, combined with Yeats’s ‘ambivalent relationship’ with modern audiences, causes the tone the narrator takes when talking of poetry to become entitled and pompous as it reflects Yeats’s own ‘transcendent’ views and becomes semi- autobiographical:

‘Like and old pauper, in all kinds of weather;
For articulate sweet sounds together
Is to work harder than all these, and yet
Be thought an idler by the noisy set’

The idea of an entitled narrator is reinforced through these lines with simile, assonance and enjambment all being deployed within the space of a few short lines as well as continuously throughout the rest of the poem. From these techniques, it can be inferred that Yeats is boasting his poetic mind, whilst pulling out all the stops to justify his claims that he does indeed ‘work harder than all… the noisy set’. However, although entitled, it can be seen that Yeats and his narrator both do truly love poetry, with the poet deploying every poetic tradition in order to defend his profession. For example, the poem is written in 3 stanzas, using conventional iambic pentameter and heroic couplets; Yeats is using the very basis of poetry in order to defend its cause from those who call it an “idle trade”. Furthermore, this use of meter combined with the aforementioned assonance, alliteration and enjambment, create the flowing effortless beauty that make a line in a poem ‘not seem a moment’s thought’. Therefore, it can be suggested that, despite his delusions of grandeur, Yeats’s manipulation of sound and meter causes the narrator to appear sincere in his arguments as he genuinely does believe all he is saying and is clearly saddened by the decaying state poetry finds itself in.

Whilst entitled regarding poetry, love humanises the narrator in the latter stages of the poem. The conversational diction causes most of the poem to be dialogue, but, in stanza three, all grows ‘quiet at the name of love’. The effect of this is to establish love as an equaliser, lost love is a sentiment the majority can empathise with and so all talk of labours of poetry and female beauty are nullified as love is given a moments silence. All of a sudden, the imagery of the poem becomes much darker, what once was a pleasant scene at ‘one summer’s end’, is now filled with ominous imagery and daylight is said to ‘die’. Yeats is signalling to the emptiness of a world without love: all three sit and reflect upon their love life and descriptions of the beautiful scenery of ‘stars’, ‘waters’ and the ‘moon’ become melancholic, as Yeats bemoans through his poetry at a world without the high arts of poetry and courting.

Graham Martin regards ‘Adam’s Curse’ as being ‘a self- sacrificial keeping of faith with eternal values despised by the ‘noisy set’ and this idea is prevalent in the final stanza. Despite the narrator striving ‘to love’ the ‘mild, beautiful woman’, he cannot, as love, for him, can only be conducted in the ‘old high way’ of courting, which is becoming a lost art. In this sense Yeats is very self- sacrificial as his attempts to keep poetry and courtship afloat in the modern day as it has seen him be viewed as ‘idle and his heart to have grown ‘weary’. The entirety of the poem has frequent half – rhymes but the final stanza sees this technique intensified, symbolising the slow death of poetry, Yeats, after countless hours of ‘much labouring’ behind poetry and courtship has seen his work undermined and his love rejected and tamed by modern practicality. The audience can sense a deflation of the narrator’s character in the final stanzas, his attitude, once so stoic in its protection of the fine arts has developed into one of hopelessness and the mere thought of his lost love Maud has left Yeats ‘As weary hearted as that moon’. Therefore,

In conclusion, ‘Adam’s Curse’ deals with a variety of Yeats’s emotional issues and revolves around ideas surrounding poetry, beauty, love and religion. Yeats is able to modernise ‘Adam’s curse’ and attaches it to how poetry and courtship are both losing their recognition. Just as poetry and love have lost recognition, Yeats has lost his love, Maud, and the devastating effects of this are predominant in the final stanzas, this once beautiful scene is shown as isolating and cold, and the once voluble characters become silent, suggesting that ‘Adam’s Curse’ may not be the hard work regarding labour, but the work needed in order to make relationships succeed.

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