Addressing his beloved, the speaker remembers sitting with her and “that beautiful mild woman, your close friend” at the end of summer, discussing poetry. He remarked then that a line of poetry may take hours to write, but if it does not seem the thought of a single moment, the poet’s work has been useless. The poet said that it would be better to “scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones / Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather,” for to write poetry is a task harder than these, yet less appreciated by the “bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen” of the world.
The “beautiful mild woman”—whose voice, the speaker notes, is so sweet and low it will cause many men heartache—replied that to be born a woman is to know that one must work at being beautiful, even though that kind of work is not discussed at school. The speaker answered by saying that since the fall of Adam, every fine thing has required “labouring.” He said that there have been lovers who spent time learning “precedents out of beautiful old books,” but now such study seems “an idle trade enough.”
At the mention of love, the speaker recalls, the group grew quiet, watching “the last embers of daylight die.” In the blue-green sky the moon rose, looking worn as a shell “washed by time’s waters as they rose and fell / About the stars and broke in days and years.” The speaker says that he spoke only for the ears of his beloved, that she was beautiful, and that he strove to love her “in the old high way of love.” It had all seemed happy, he says, “and yet we’d grown / As weary-hearted as that hollow moon.”
“Adam’s Curse” is written in heroic couplets, which is a name used to describe rhyming couplets in iambic pentameter. Some of the rhymes are full (years/ears) and some are only partial (clergymen/thereupon).
“Adam’s Curse” is an extraordinary poem; though it was written early in Yeats’s career (appearing in his 1904 collection In the Seven Woods), and though its stylistic simplicity is somewhat atypical for Yeats, it easily ranks among his best and most moving work. Within an emotional recollection of an evening spent with his beloved and her friend, Yeats frames a philosophical argument: that because of the curse of labor that God placed upon Adam when He expelled him from the Garden of Eden, every worthwhile human achievement (particularly those aimed at achieving beauty, whether in poetry, physical appearance, or love) requires hard work. The simple, speech-like rhythms of the iambic pentameter fulfill the poet’s dictate that a poetic line should seem “but a moment’s thought,” and the bittersweet emotional tone appears wholly organic, a natural result of the recollection. The speaker loves the woman to whom the poem is addressed, and speaks “only for [her] ears”; but though the scene seems happy, their hearts are as weary as shells worn by the waters of time.
Behind the natural, unsophisticated feel of the poem, of course, lies a great deal of hard work and structure—just as the poem’s speaker says must be true of poetry generally. (One of the most charming aspects of this poem is its mirroring of the aesthetic principles laid out by the speaker in the first stanza.) The discussion of work and beauty is divided into three progressive parts: the speaker’s claims about poetry, the friend’s claims about physical beauty, and the speaker’s claims about love. This last claim affords Yeats the chance both to hush the trio and to soften the mood of the poem, and the speaker looks outward to the rising moon, which becomes a metaphor for the effects of time on the human heart, a weariness presumably compounded by the labor of living “since Adam’s fall.”