Black Women Writers @ Southwestern University

An English / Feminist Studies / Race & Ethnicity Studies Course Blog

Adam’s Curse; Woman’s Curse ?


Taking Black Women Writers has already disrupted all previously held worldviews concerning both women and the African American Community. I am reveling in the tensions and my mind whirls with thoughts of othering, gender roles, and racism. Along with this course, I am also taking Poetry. This week, our poetry class looked at Yeats’ poem, “Adam’s Curse” and I thought I would share it below, curious for your responses.

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 labor to be beautiful.’
I said, ‘It’s certain there is no fine thing   
Since Adam’s fall but needs much laboring.
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.
I have darkened the lines in particular to which I long to draw your attention;
What has Yeats done here?
I was shocked by how sexist this poem is – how Yeats characterizes women limiting them to striving after beauty and scrubbing floors.
What madness is this ?
As I read Beloved, I wonder how these themes for a woman fall true, and at how Toni Morrison smashes them completely. How different her and Yeats’ opinions of women are…
Sethe with her marred back, thick with knotted pain and abuse, is concerned with anything but laboring for beauty.
Denver, “resisted her urges to dress up” and still carries a dignity and grace that seem to have evaporated from Yeats’ characters entirely.
Personally, I’m grateful for the ways in which this course is exposing the washing of words to which I have long been accustomed, shocking me with the cold waves of a new perspective.

2 thoughts on “Adam’s Curse; Woman’s Curse ?

  1. I specifically decided to reply to this part of the poem that you bolded:
    “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 labor to be beautiful.’
    I said, ‘It’s certain there is no fine thing
    Since Adam’s fall but needs much laboring.”

    I know very little about Yeats, but I’m guessing he is part of that lovely crowd who blame Eve/women for the fall from Eden/everything bad. So not only does this poem assert that women cause the fall of humanity, the fall is specifically gendered as male. Therefore humanity is centered on maleness and women are not completely human. I wonder if Yeats thinks that women must do menial laboring in order to redeem themselves after what he believes Eve did in Eden?
    Side note: He also seems almost regretful that he must love a woman. But that could definitely just be my first reading of it. Brings into question that he might also be disdainful about being stuck in heteronormative society.

  2. I disagree. I don’t think that he is blaming Eve for the fall from Eden. I think he is trying to emphasize that women have had to bear burdens since the fall from Eden. As for blaming Eve for the fall from Eden, I have to argue that Adam was also to blame. Though Eve does eat fruit from the tree first, Adam does as well (arguably on his own accord). Adam knew the consequences of eating the fruit and could have refused (though his reaction to being offered the fruit is not clear). The burdens that Adam and Eve have to endure as a consequence to disobeying God are referred to in Genesis 3. Adam is told that he must now work hard for the food he eats and Eve is told that child labor will be painful. Thus, men and women must labor through the remaining generations.

    Yeats recognizes the labor of beauty for women but does not acknowledge the other burdens women may have. Yeats recognizes the expectation of women to work hard to be beautiful and “womanly” but seems to believe that these expectations have no negative implications or downsides. It seems to me that he is romanticizing women rather than sympathizing with them.

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