Adam’s Curse: William Butler Yeats on Original Sin

We made a good run in Genesis… all of two and a half chapters before finding ourselves on the business end of a curse leveled at us by omnipotent God. Don’t you hate it when that happens? As a matter of fact, we have been hating it ever since. As a defining feature of our earthly existence, the curse of original sin effects a profound disintegration—that is to say, it undoes integrity of flesh and spirit and places at odds our reason, will, and appetite. We experience that disintegration most obviously when we choose to sin even though we know better, but divisions like this haunt almost every aspect of our lives.

The Irish poet William Butler Yeats considers these divisions in his early twentieth century poem “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.” Their conversation wonders at the work it takes in our postlapsarian world to craft something beautiful: “it’s certain there is no fine thing / Since Adam’s fall but needs much labouring,” and is impatient with the positivism and practicality that often marginalize the contemplative work involved in making something beautiful. The tension here between what is practical and what is contemplative announces one of the divisions in the human heart that originate in the fall. It seems that though we can aspire toward the beautiful and contemplative, we are nevertheless yoked to labor and fatigue. Even conversation, like the one Yeats describes here, suffers from this tension between the ideal and the practical. Thought—so capable of transcendence—is nevertheless governed by the fan belts and alternators of grammar. The Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz summarizes: “Words, as the material for externalizing the mysterious current, are at the same time an obstacle.”

If Yeats can acknowledge the fissures between ideal and real, he is also more capable than most of approaching the ideal. Between the third and fourth stanzas of the poem he incorporates a caesura, a break in the discourse, a gulf in which silence lives. When speech begins again, it is as if in a new poem, or as if in poetry for the first time. The stanza ushers in a contemplative mode, first positing silence: “We had grown quiet at the name of love,” and proceeding only with the interior voice. The conversation continues, but not on the plane of normal vocal language: this speaking voice is strictly interior and exists only as a thought expressed in silence: “I had a thought for no one’s but your ears.” As if defying the restriction of operating through language, Yeats reaches for the safety of contemplation, toward ideal space where real love and revelation exist. His fellow modernist Wallace Stevens would call it a “true interior to which to return / A home against one’s self, a darkness.” The Carthusians might call it the cloister—this is where lovers truly speak to one another.

As always, before long the fall with its divisions intervenes. When we encounter it here, in this sacrosanct sphere, its presence is appalling. Yeats writes of time as a wave of unified being that breaks across the heavens into the piecemeal reality of our temporal experience: “time’s waters as they rose and fell / about the stars and broke in days and years.” Before it reached our experience, time was perfect unified eternity. But in our experience, bound by imperfectability, it necessarily reaches us only in pieces we can comprehend. And what of love in this decaying state?

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.

Part of the human tragedy is our capacity to imagine the perfect and to desire it. But one glimpse of the moon reminds Yeats of how incapable we are of fulfilling our imaginings and desires. If time can only come to us in truncated and halting bits, if the moon as we see it is subject to constant revision, what hope is there for a perfectly achieved human love? And having once imagined a perfect love, can we settle for anything less?

The impression of a disintegrated state dominates “Adam’s Curse.” A fall, by necessity, includes two states; in this case, the ideal for which humanity was born, and the incompleteness in which we now subsist. Yeats describes our painful capacity to imagine the ideal, the “old high way of love,” while remaining too broken to achieve it. But this is not simply a poetic expression of the doctrine of original sin. Yeats’ diagnosis is more particular. The incapacity to achieve the ideal of love is not an eternal, unchanging absolute; on the contrary, he describes it as something into which “we’d grown / As weary-hearted as that hollow moon.” Apparently the fall is a work in progress, a state of consuming weariness, or to borrow Walker Percy’s name for it, a malaise which grows, like an abscess, through time.

If only Adam’s curse was the imperative to work hard through life. But Yeats reminds us that our work on earth always takes place in relation to dashed hopes and failed ideals—and that is what hurts. We are the practical creatures with a contemplative capacity; the physical-spiritual beings that are subject to a kaleidoscopic variety of suffering contained within ourselves. It’s no surprise then that our salvation comes in the form of abject failure—a king with no kingdom murdered by a gaggle of petty church politicians. Given the nature of our curse, could we tolerate salvation any other way?


*Originally published in Crisis Magazine

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