Poet's Pick April 2
W. B. Yeats: "Adam's Curse"
Selected by Jessica Greenbaum
National Poetry Month 2013

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Jessica Greenbaum's Poetry Month Pick, April 2, 2013

"Adam’s Curse"
by William Butler Yeats (1865–1939)

We sat together at one summer’s end,
That beautiful mild woman, your close friend,
And you and I, and talked of poetry.
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.
Better go down upon your marrow-bones
And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones
Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather;
For to articulate sweet sounds together
Is to work harder than all these, and yet
Be thought an idler by the noisy set
Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen
The martyrs call the world.”

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

I said: “It’s certain there is no fine thing
Since Adam’s fall but needs much labouring.
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;
Yet now it seems an idle trade enough.”

We sat grown quiet at the name of love;
We saw the last embers of daylight die,
And in the trembling blue-green of the sky
A moon, worn as if it had been a shell
Washed by time’s waters as they rose and fell
About the stars and broke in days and years.

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

 

* Jessica Greenbaum Comments:
Our scholars and gatekeepers of poetry—Alice Quinn and Helen Vendler, of late—urge us to memorize poems for apprenticeship and communion with them. Vendler has been cited as saying that you don’t own a poem until you memorize it, and Quinn prizes memorization for offering “a great sense of how the thing is made, the sounds, how the words are chiming, a great sense of the current of the thought and the beautiful labor poems achieve.”

Alas, for some of us less-disciplined slackers who are not memorizers—just renters—“owning” a loved poem seems to happen to us. In the case of “Adam’s Curse,” (“We sat together at one summer’s end, / That beautiful mild woman, your close friend, / And you and I, and talked of poetry...”) I can barely say the name of the thing before it begins to unspool, deliciously. And you mention the title and other people start reciting it at once! The poem’s 39 lines miraculously compose lyric, argument, intellect, passion, rhythm, cadence, dramatic arc and conversational parlance into something with such essential, primal beauty, we suspect the poem itself might have sprung whole in the Garden of Eden, the first in the line of poems.

Yeats’ reach when he published it in 1904 hardly strains to touch us a century later. When he says, “’A line will take us hours maybe; / Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought, / Our stitching and unstitching has been naught”—wee ha! He’s talking shop with us! And better still, we get to yench and grumble with the master—and little else unites souls than complaining together. When he quips that no matter the isolated discipline of sitting by yourself in a room articulating “sweet sounds together”, poets might as well be day laborers sweating it out under the barbarous sun, I’m like, Yo—have you been reading my mail? Despite the fact that writing is not the same as hard labor, this formal-as-a-sitting-room poem says that writing poems still counts as challenging work whose social status remains inverse to the task. We are well aware, he says, that we are “thought an idler by the noisy set / Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen / The martyrs call the world.” Occupy the page! Try being a poet without a major institution as your employer and see where you fall in the class system. I love a good protest poem. And Yeats is protesting all of it—the whole human condition.

Which must be why I memorized it without trying. The inextricable labors of work, beauty and love, well. You don’t have to call Dr. Freud to come back to these every single day of your life, especially as you move into late middle age as a woman. (Is it time for make up now?)

But (sound the amateur alarms! I’ve always been a little perplexed by how to understand the stanzas. We start with a possible sonnet—and the break in the fourteenth line reminds us of the famous line break in his sonnet (that would come years later), “Leda and the Swan,” when the speaker moves from the story—“And Agamemnon dead” to the question that affects that story: “Being so caught up” in Zeus’ powers had Leda seen the future? In both poems these unique broken lines seem to step down into a slightly removed territory, like a sunken living room—into a differentiated part of conscious living. In “Adam’s Curse,” if you count the fragmented line “And thereupon” as part of a next grouping, you can consider the next fourteen lines another (sort of) sonnet, and then we are left with the last eleven lines, as resigned and diminished as the passage’s content, but progressively more beautiful, so that as the poem is dying out, the images and sounds are crescendoing and receding like the tide they describe. Lights down to black, spotlight up on crescent moon, left dangling.

Mopey by dint of its story—the lovers’ courtship cannot reach a higher level than the sheer desire for a higher level—we ride down the lines like a log flume Yeats crafted to avenge and ameliorate life’s ouster from perfect satisfaction and Eden. I must have memorized “Adam’s Curse” with the hope that communing with nineteen couplets that “seem a moment’s thought” might help me write lines that offer a sense of the natural. Surely I want to be able to mope this splendidly, and Yeats says if we try our human hardest, even while emulating descent, beauty may carry our efforts above time’s flood line.


About Jessica Greenbaum:
Jessica Greenbaum is the author of The Two Yvonnes and Inventing Difficulty. Her poems and essays have appeared in the New Yorker, the Nation, Poetry, Southwest Review, and elsewhere. She is the poetry editor of upstreet.


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