Study Guide

Adam's Curse

Adam's Curse Summary

Our speaker sits on a summer night with two women—one whom he addresses throughout the poem, and her friend, whom he describes as "mild" and beautiful. They discuss poetry, and the speaker says that good lines should take a lot of work to compose, but should look like they only took a moment. He thinks that this might be why people who do manual labor or have practical jobs think that poetry isn't real work, but he says it is actually harder to write a good poem than it is to scrub floors all day.

The beautiful friend says that this is similar to the way women learn to cultivate beauty while making it look effortless; it actually takes a lot work to be beautiful, too. The speaker agrees, saying that, since the fall of Adam, making good things has required labor. It's like love, he goes on to muse; people used to put work into wooing their crushes, but now society thinks that is idle work, too. At this mention of love, all three of them become sad and silent. The speaker stares at the moon, thinking how it seems hollow. As the poem ends, he compares the surface of the moon to the heart, which gets worn down and weary as time goes by.

  • Stanza 1

    Lines 1-3

    We sat together at one summer's end,
    That beautiful mild woman, your close friend,
    And you and I, and talked of poetry.

    • Our speaker sits with two women, one of whom he is addressing. They are just chilling, enjoying the evening, doing some chit-chatting about poetry. What, doesn't everyone do that?
    • The other woman is a beautiful friend of the woman he is speaking to, and they all seem to have an informal, comfortable relationship.
    • By using words like "mild," "beautiful," and "summer's end," Yeats does seem to be establishing a pleasant moment here. Let's see if that lasts

    Lines 4-6

    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. 

    • As the three chat about poems, the speaker says that some lines of poetry can take hours to write, but when you read them, they should appear to have been written with just a "moment's thought." Basically, if they don't look like the came easily to the poet, then they aren't good lines.
    • He also uses a metaphor for writing poetry by comparing it to "stitching and unstitching." He's saying that poetry is like sewing, and sometimes you have to undo your "stitches" to get them just right, just like you have to re-write your lines. Bottom line: it's a lot of work.
    • But in the end, it can't look like it took work, or it isn't good writing. That's a pretty critical view of poetry. Do you agree? 
    • In any case, his own lines might seem to have been written quickly, but if you check out the "Form and Meter" section, you'll see that there's a lot of background work going on, including the rhyming of the last words in each couplet (like "thought" and "naught" in lines 5-6). Judging by that, it would appear that Yeats the poet agreed with his speaker.

    Lines 7-9

    Better go down upon your marrow-bones
    And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones
    Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather; 

    • He says that it'd be better to work hard, doing physical labor. 
    • The "marrow-bones" imagery emphasizes this work; marrow is inside the bones, so to work so hard you reach the marrow would be to work very, very hard. Let's hope he isn't being literal (or the poem would quickly become a horror movie). 
    • "Paupers" are impoverished people. Our speaker's talking about menial (unglamorous) labor, done in all types of weather. It's pretty much the opposite of sitting at a nice desk and composing a poem. There, all the work is done in the mind.
    • So, why did the speaker jump from talking about poetry to talking about scrubbing floors? Let's read on…

    Lines 10-12

    For to articulate sweet sounds together
    Is to work harder than all these, and yet
    Be thought an idler by the noisy set 

    • To "articulate sweet sounds together" is to make these lines of poetry; after all, a sentence is just a bunch of sounds put together. 
    • The speaker's saying that writing these lines is harder than the manual labor he described in lines 7-9. That's quite a claim, right?
    • Most people wouldn't agree with him. The speaker says that writing is considered an "idle" type of work by society. He says that they are wrong. Though it might seem easy, it's actually pretty hard.'
    • The "noisy set" refers to people who like to make their opinions known. It sounds like he isn't a fan of those types of people. They are the ones that think writing poetry isn't real work.

    Lines 13-14

    Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen
    The martyrs call the world.' 

    • And who are these "noisy" people who don't think writing poetry is real work? Well, they're bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen—all members of professions that deal with everyday tasks. 
    • Now, the speaker isn't being literal here. Not every banker, schoolmaster, or clergyman thinks writing is useless. It's just that all those professions are considered "useful" by most of the world, whereas writing isn't always thought of in that way. 
    • And he calls the people who think this way "martyrs." A "martyr" is someone who dies for their beliefs. So… is he saying that those who work themselves to death because they believe manual labor is the only real work died for their beliefs? Hmm.
    • If so, you can see why they might not think poetry is a real profession. It isn't as physically taxing.
  • Stanza 2

    Lines 15-17

    And thereupon
    That beautiful mild woman for whose sake
    There's many a one shall find out all heartache 

    • Now, the beautiful friend is going to speak. But why does the speaker keep calling her "mild"? Perhaps she is calm, unlike those "noisy" people he referred to earlier.
    • He says that she is so beautiful that she causes (and will cause in the future) heartbreak for many people. She must be very desirable then. 
    • Notice that "thereupon" and "clergymen" from line 13 don't exactly rhyme? Yeats uses what's called a slant rhyme here, and he does it a couple of times. Check out the "Form and Meter" section, and keep your eyes peeled for more slant rhymes.

    Lines 18-21

    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.' 

    • Part of what will break so many people's hearts is her voice, he says, which is pleasant. In fact, by characterizing her voice as "sweet," Yeats is characterizing her personality, not just her looks. He wants us to know that she's not just a pretty face.
    • The woman speaks with her awesome voice, saying that there's something that all women know, and it isn't taught in schools.
    • So, what is this special knowledge? It takes work to be beautiful. 
    • She's comparing the work poets do within each line, which is supposed to look effortless, with the work women do to look beautiful, which is also supposed to look effortless.

    Lines 22-23

    I said, 'It's certain there is no fine thing
    Since Adam's fall but needs much labouring.

    • The speaker agrees. There hasn't been anything "fine" since the beginning of time that hasn't required work. 
    • The Adam he references is the first man ever created, according to the Bible. In the story of Adam, he and Eve are expelled from the Garden of Eden, which was a place of peace and beauty. They are expelled for disobeying God. So, maybe having to work to have anything "fine" is part of their (and mankind's) punishment.
    • The speaker's also saying that poetry is a "fine" and beautiful thing, and thus it takes a lot of work, too.

    Lines 24-27

    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; 

    • Once, he says, people who were in love spent a lot of effort reading and reciting quotes from different books.
    • Presumably, they did this in order to woo the object of their desire. We guess a bouquet of flowers didn't quite cut it.
    • Even love was one of the "fine" things worth plenty of work. These lovers showed it respect ("high courtesy") by working so hard and becoming educated ("learned") about love. They worked at it.

    Line 28

    Yet now it seems an idle trade enough.' 

    • But now, love is something that people consider to be an "idle trade," the same way they consider poetry to be an idle trade. 
    • Man, it sounds like chivalry really is dead.
  • Stanza 3

    Lines 29-30

    We sat grown quiet at the name of love;
    We saw the last embers of daylight die, 

    • The mention of "love" seems to have shut them up. We wonder why. Perhaps each of them has their own heartache to consider. 
    • As they sit and think, the sun finally goes down. Yeats uses a simile here to compare the sunset to the "last embers" of a fire burning out. 
    • Notice the change in tone at this point? Yeats uses words like "last" and "die" to turn the poem from its milder, peaceful tone to one that gets a little more serious, a little heavier.

    Lines 31-32

    And in the trembling blue-green of the sky
    A moon, worn as if it had been a shell 

    • The speaker describes the sky as "trembling blue-green." It sounds pretty, but how can a sky tremble? 
    • Perhaps a bit of personification is to blame, as the speaker gives a color combination the ability to feel nervous.
    • Remember how the mention of love made all three of the characters in the poem go silent? They seem to be feeling a little shaky as they consider the state of their love lives.
    • Ever notice how, when you are sad and heartbroken, even neutral things like the moon seem to be sad, too?
    • That's what's at work here. The speaker's sadness carries over into the way he sees the moon.
    • Here's another simile: the moon is compared to a shell, worn by the waves of the sea. That would make it nice and smooth, right?

    Lines 33-34

    Washed by time's waters as they rose and fell
    About the stars and broke in days and years. 

    • The speaker continues this moon imagery in these next lines. Instead of the sea washing over the shells to make them smooth, though, it's time that has washed over the moon to smooth it out. 
    • The mention of love made our speaker consider time, and how it passes. The moon imagery is a way to make us consider the physical marks of time.
    • Notice the sound play ("washed" and "waters") going on here? Check out the "Sound Check" for more on Yeats' sonic tricks.

    Lines 35-37

    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; 

    • Ah, so this is why he got so quiet when they mentioned love. Our speaker's in love with the woman to whom he is addressing this very poem. How does that revelation change your reading?
    • He's thinking about how beautiful she is as she sits right next to him. Gee, we hope her friend doesn't feel too awkward.
    • The speaker wants to love her the old-fashioned way that lovers used to, by studying books and learning quotes about love. 
    • He calls this way the "high" way because he considers it to be classier than the way lovers are in his time (wonder what he'd think about wooing someone via text message).

    Lines 38-39

    That it had all seemed happy, and yet we'd grown
    As weary-hearted as that hollow moon. 

    • We guess time hasn't been too kind to these two lovers. It had seemed happy at the beginning, but now, they're "weary-hearted." 
    • Our speaker uses the moon as a metaphor for how time changes our hearts, making them too tired to be chivalrous. 
    • Is the moon also a metaphor here for the art of love and poetry, which have also grown old?
    • Maybe—after all, the poem keeps reminding us that nobody thinks poetry or love are worthwhile endeavors anymore. Sad.