‘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’
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