Study Guide

Adam's Curse Analysis

By William Butler Yeats

  • Sound Check

    Yeats has plenty of tricks up his sleeve. In some ways, he's a lot like a rapper. Don't believe us? Read on as we break down the sonic devices in "Adam's Curse."

    Assonance

    Assonance is the repeated use of vowel sounds. Eminem himself uses this one all the time to give his lines a sense of beat and flow. Check out Yeats' flow below:

    Washed by time's waters as they rose and fell (33)

    It's the "ah" sounds in "washed" and "waters" that create assonance. Here's another example:

    That you were beautiful, and that I strove 

    In that line, the long U in "you" and "beautiful" creates the assonance, the short rhyming echo in the line. But that's not all that's happening here…

    Alliteration

    Alliteration is the repetition of initial consonant sounds, and it's another clever sonic trick. For example:

    We saw the last embers of daylight die, (30)

    In this line, the D sound in "daylight" and "die" create alliteration. Too many of those and you'll be tongue-tied. Check out the L sounds here, as well:

    That they would sigh and quote with learned looks (26)

    So, why sweat the technique here? What's Yeats up to with this assonance and alliteration? One idea is that, in a way, he's showing off. Let's face it: in a poem discussing how hard it is to write poetry, you better bring your A game as proof. In this case, Yeats is pulling out all the poetic stops to indicate just how much thought and technique can fit into a single line of verse. So are you convinced? Well, you should be.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    At first, the "curse" of Adam prepares us to read a horror poem, or maybe just a poem about magic spells. The title isn't one about that kind of curse, though. Adam, the first man in the Bible, was expelled from the Garden of Eden—the place of all things beautiful and lovely. Before he was expelled, he had it pretty good, according to Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament. He and Eve got to enjoy living rent-free in a beautiful place, without disease, problems, or even clothes. So when they disobeyed God and got banished forever, things got rough for the first time. Yeats says that, since Adam's expulsion from the Garden of Eden, things that are beautiful and "fine" (like poetry) will now take a whole lot of work to produce before mankind can enjoy them. This is the "curse" of Adam promised in our title.

  • Setting

    The poem is set during a clear evening at the end of summer, and our three friends think it is the perfect time to sit outside and discuss poetry and love (who doesn't love to sit under the stars and talk about deep stuff?). The poem is timeless in some ways, actually. The speaker is sad that his society considers poetry writing to be idle work compared to what a banker, schoolteacher, or laborer does. Guess what—plenty of people feel the same way today. But, fortunately for the speaker, it's also a society where people are able to educate themselves about poetry and the "old ways" of love, much like our own. The poem may be set more than a century ago, but the discussion could still very easily happen in our own modern setting.

  • Speaker

    The speaker is both a lover and poet. Not only that, but he's a big believer in the value of both. Throughout the poem he bemoans the lack of respect many people have for the work that goes into both writing and wooing the object of their desire. Love and poetry deserve respect, he believes, and he's sad to see that respect vanishing. He's pretty old-school; he likes his poetry well-crafted and his love affairs full of quotes. We can guess that he's well-educated in both topics, and likes to talk about them.

    We know a bit about his personal life, too. The speaker loves, or at least once loved, one of the women he is speaking to in the poem. It doesn't seem to have gone well (much like Yeats' decades-long love for the object of his desire, an Irish lass named Maud). We get this sense because, when the topic of conversation turns to love, he becomes silent and sad, musing about his heart's weariness. Poor guy.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (3) Base Camp

    Though the speaker believes poetry should take a lot of work, he believes that the lines themselves are supposed to look effortless. Apparently Yeats agrees. It's a relatively smooth poem to read, with few perplexing words or stumbling blocks in our way and only an occasional symbol to ponder.

  • Calling Card

    Well-Crafted Devices

    Yeats likes to work behind-the-scenes to make his poetry have a particular sound. His lines are embedded with conscious meter, rhyme, and wordplay, which make for a musical experience. "Adam's Curse" is written in heroic couplets, which are pretty old-school. But W.B. manages to keep it fresh each time. Check out "Lake Isle of Innisfree" and "Leda and the Swan" to see some variations of his line-crafting. Who said poetry isn't hard work?

  • Form and Meter

    Heroic Couplets

    Heroic couplets, most popular in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, are rhyming pairs of verse in iambic pentameter. Say what? Don't worry; we'll break it all down for you Shmoopers, starting with meter.

    Meter

    Meter is the rhythm of the syllables and words in a line. For example:

    We sat together at one summer's end (1)

    Notice where the syllables are stressed? It sounds like "daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM" when read aloud. Try it again:

    We sat together at one summer's end (1)

    Each "daDUM" is considered a foot in the line—the building block of the line's rhythm. There are many types of feet, but one made up of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable is called an iamb. Since there are five feet in each line, it's written in iambic pentameter (penta- means five). There are many types of meter, but iambic pentameter is the most widely used in poetry.

    So why use it here? Well, the popularity of this form in some ways make perfect sense for a poem about how unappreciated poetry and poets are. Iambic pentameter is the classic poetic meter, so Yeats is putting forth his lament with all the force of poetry's tradition behind it. He's invoking all the greats with this choice: Milton, Shakespeare, Spenser—you name it.

    This form also allows him to put the poem together with something called heroic couplets. No, they aren't rocking capes or shooting lasers out of their eyes. So, what makes these so heroic? Rhyme—read on all about it…

    Rhyme

    First up, a couplet is just two lines of poetry. In "Adam's Curse," each couplet rhymes. Check it out:

    Better go down upon your marrow-bones
    And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones
    (7-8)

    Two lines of rhyming iambic pentameter are called a heroic couplet, a testament to a perfection of form—as well as the hard work of writing well-wrought poetry, as our speaker points out. Sometimes, however, the words are slant rhymes, or half rhymes. For example:

    That you were beautiful, and that I strove
    To love you in the old high way of love;
    (36-37)

    "Strove" and "love" aren't quite rhyming, but they're almost there. In much the same way, the speaker seems to be subtly emphasizing how his love for the girl also doesn't quite get there. Sure, they "seemed" happy, but they were really just "weary" in the end—bummer. The perfect end rhymes give us a sense of that happiness, and of poetry's perfection. The slant rhymes remind us, though, that this love was never quite attained, and that people have no time for poetry these days anyway. Thanks for cheering us up, W.B.

  • The Beautiful, Mild Woman

    • The speaker sits with two women—one is his love interest and the other is her friend, whom he introduces in line 2 as the "beautiful, mild woman." For a poem that bemoans the lack of "fine" things that take work to produce, the woman represents someone who still appreciates both. She speaks in line 16, drawing a comparison between the work that goes into poetry and the work that goes into physical beauty, which she describes as a "labour." She remains quiet for the remainder of the poem, falling silent as the others do at the mention of love. By drawing attention to her lovely, pleasant qualities, though, Yeats uses her as a symbol of beautiful things that require work to produce, but that also fall prey to the passage of time.
  • Poetry and Love

    • Poetry is hard, argues the speaker in the first stanza; line 6 refers to the necessity of "stitching and unstitching" in order to make the lines perfect. But it can't look like it was hard work. In line 5 the speaker says that a poem must look like it was created with "a moment's thought." The same goes for love, he argues, which he focuses on in the second stanza. The speaker thinks it should be a labor, one that requires study and memorization. In the old days, lovers with "high courtesy" would "sigh and quote with learned looks" from "beautiful old books" (25-27). Love's work is similar to the work that poets do, and the speaker's respect for both is echoed throughout the poem.
  • The Moon

    • Just as the speaker and the two women become quiet at the mention of love, he notices the moon "in the trembling blue-green of the sky" (31). As he says in lines 32-33, it seems worn, like a seashell "washed by time's waters." This mirrors how he feels when considering his love life, which time has negatively affected. The poem ends in line 29 when the speaker says he feels "as weary-hearted as that hollow moon." In this way, Yeats is using the moon as a symbol of the heart, worn out by time.
  • Work and Idle Play

    • Ever since the fall of man, says the speaker in line 23, we have all had to work for the good things in life. But some of those good things, like poetry, require work that doesn't look like work—at least when compared to physical labor. In lines 8-9, the speaker says it'd be better for poets to "scrub a kitchen pavement and break stones," because the world sees this type of labor as more legitimate than "articulating sweet sounds" the way a poet does. The "bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen" (13) are considered to be the real workers. But, as the speaker argues in lines 22-23, mankind has needed to labor to make something "fine" and beautiful since Adam was banished from the Garden of Eden. Therefore, as something beautiful, poetry requires work, too, even if the world thinks it is an "idle trade" (28).
  • Steaminess Rating

    G

    While there's discussion of love, not much actual loving goes on here. We're guessing, in a poem that wishes wooing still involved "high courtesy," that even if there was a bit of risqué behavior, it wouldn't be too explicitly mentioned.

  • Allusions

    Literary and Philosophical References

    The title "Adam's Curse"and the line "Since Adam's fall" (23) both refer to the story of Adam in Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament.