W.B. Yeats' "Adam's Curse"
Though written only two years after the first version of "The Shadowy Waters", W.B. Yeats' poem "Adam's Curse" can be seen as an example of a dramatic transformation of Yeats' poetic works: a movement away from the rich mythology of Ireland's Celtic past and towards a more accessible poesy focused on the external world. Despite this turn in focus towards the world around him, Yeats retains his interest in symbolism, and one aspect of his change in style is internalization of the symbolic scheme that underlies his poetry. Whereas more mythological works like "The Shadowy Waters" betray a spiritual syncretism not unlike that of the Golden Dawn, "Adam's Curse" and its more realistic fellows offer a view of the world in which symbolic systems are submerged, creating an undercurrent of meaning which lends depth to the outward circumstances, but which is itself not immediately accessible to the lay or academic reader. In a metaphorical sense, then, Yeats seems in these later poems to achieve a doubling of audience, an equivocation which addresses the initiate and the lay reader simultaneously.
This doubling of the audience is achieved first through the invocation of an implied reader in the text itself. When Yeats sets the scene he writes: "That beautiful mild woman, your close friend,/ And you and I, and talked of poetry" (2-3).
The two women present become symbolic of the different sorts of readers the poet is addressing, "that beautiful mild woman" standing in for the average intelligent reader and the "you" (who is not described in physical characteristics until the poem's last stanza) representing Maud Gonne, the poet's long-beloved fellow initiate. This doubling of the implied reader is then replicated in a doubling of meaning, so that what I will call exoteric readings can be discerned arising out of the dialogue between Yeats and the "beautiful mild woman" while esoteric meanings can be read beneath the symbols that arise around the woman.
The first stanza may be read on an exoteric level as an equating of the roles of the poet and the woman. The poet's "stitching and unstitching" (6) can be seen as a feminine labour, the production of the text as equal to that of the textile: such that though one knows that the product is a labour of much work and time, it can all be apprehended at once, as a finished work. The instanteity of such work makes both the poet seem "an idler by the noisy set/ Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen/ The martyrs call the world" (12-14). The work of the poet and the woman are thus set against the works of the world, as spiritual labours comparable to the efforts martyrs put forth in their obstinate quests for salvation. To "articulate sweet sounds together" (10) is thus equivalent to the work of weaving, of composing the "golden net" of fate woven by the Ever-living in "The Shadowy Waters". Later in "Adam's Curse" Yeats extends the conflation of the poet and the...