Anachan's Corner

One woman's journey through marriage, motherhood, and the classroom…

A Little Yeats

Written By: Anachan - Jul• 05•16

William Butler Yeats was an Irish poet of some acclaim, whose work I first ran across in a book of . . . well, of Irish poetry. Somehow, I managed to stumble onto his poem entitled “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 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.


What first captured me was his description of the process of writing poetry. “Yes!” I thought, with some delight. “Yes! That’s what it is. The poem must seem as if it just flowed from the pen, but a good poem has had much thought and consideration put into it before the poet will decide it is fit for outside consumption.”
When I was younger, I actually used to think that poetry should just flow from the poet’s mind through her pen and onto the paper. My approach to writing was, therefore, something akin to rolling the dice. (“Tonight, perhaps something good will come from my pen. It didn’t last night, but tonight is a new night.”) Now, however, I recognize how much work goes into a decent poem, regardless of ability or “talent.” And, with poetry, the work may never be actually completed. (This is why I find myself altering poems I wrote previously, when I feel a line is inadequate. Walt Whitman actually revised his Leaves of Grass until the time he died.)

As I reread the poem yet again, I recognized that there was much more wisdom entailed within: In order for anything to be valuable, work must be put into it.

The title, “Adam’s Curse,” hearkens back to Genesis chapter 3, in the Old Testament of the Bible. Adam and Eve, in the Garden of Eden, have just partaken of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, which had been forbidden to them, and the Lord has appeared to them to mete out the consequences. Among other things, as he instructs the couple they will have to leave the Garden and go out into the world, he tells Adam, “By the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat thy bread.” In other words, unlike the Garden, wherein fruits grew spontaneiously and were readily available, if Adam and Eve wanted to eat, they would have to work.

Likewise, as Yeats points out, nothing good or worthwhile in this world comes without effort. (And, he notes, perhaps he should have put more effort into something he hoped to value.)

This ought to be obvious. Whether it is a woman’s beauty, which definitely takes effort, from all our machinations in order to perfect hair, make-up, and wardrobe, not to mention working out to maintain our figures, in addition to the social graces we must learn . . . or whether it is writing a poem . . . or creating a lasting relationship . . . All things which become valuable (or beautiful, as the poet states) require work. As I tell my children and my students, “Nothing worth having is free.”

But many people, particularly young people, think, as I did, that everything depends on talent. (Or luck. Or both. Roll the dice.) When faced with the assignment to write an essay or a research paper about a potential career, many of the students want to choose careers in sports or performance. They give lip service to the idea that, yes, they would have to work for these careers, but they do not actually put in the real effort which would be required of them, perhaps even eariler than their current age, if they intend to reach the level of which they dream.

Even one of my daughters, as a high school student, repeatedly brushed off the cautions we gave her about her desire to be a singer. “Honey,” we told her, “it is entirely possible you could be a singer, but you would have to pay the price. There is a price, and only you can decide if that price is worth it.”

We told her of other performers, who practiced their guitars after school until their fingers bled. We told her of people who kept trying over and over and over, after failure after failure after failure, facing down people who told them they could never make it, until they finally had one small chance. And even then, sometimes that small chance didn’t pan out.

“If you are willing to put in the work,” we said, “you might be able to reach this goal. (Because in the performance arena, there is an element of luck, too.) However, what you are doing now, watching YouTube videos for most of the afternoon, will not get you there, no matter how much talent you have.”

The irony of the title “Adam’s Curse” is that although many people do view the requirement to work as a curse of some sort, it is actually through work that we gain our greatest joys. For instance, with my poetry writing, I have found I actually enjoy the work of searching for a phrase or a word or an idea to build upon. There’s something wonderful about struggling and succeeding to produce something about which one can feel satisfaction. Have you seen the face of a teenager as he received his first paycheck from his first job? How about the elation a student feels when she has struggled on a trigonometry assignment and found she earned full credit? What smiles break forth as a track relay team realizes they had a state-qualifying time? Our self-esteem does not come from accomplishing things which were easy, but from meeting and surpassing challenges which require us to work.

Yeats does an excellent job of communicating this idea in his poem. Each time I read it, I can’t help but admire his turn of phrase, the way he leads to the idea as in a casual conversation, and the way he applies it to his own situation. And although I can’t remember exactly how many times I have read it, I return to it again and again.


Postscript: Ok, ok, there are those who might say that air and a view of the mountains are worth having, and they don’t cost anything. I would beg to differ, however. Clean air does require some effort, although maybe not by the individual, and a view of the mountains comes with a cost, whether it is real estate value or, in my case, having to drive an hour to get to a grocery store.

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