My favourite WB Yeats poem: Fiona Shaw on 'Adam's Curse'

Actress Fiona Shaw talks about her love for Yeats' poem Adam's Curse, and why it reminds her of a Chekhov play

Why Fiona Shaw chose this poem

I was introduced to Adam’s Curse by Roy Foster, who asked me to learn it for the publication of the first volume of his Yeats biography. As I recited it I could see it happening in the room in front of me. It starts like a Chekhov play: three characters in a room, two men talking about writing, and then the woman speaks. She is like Edna O’Brien, in my mind beautiful and combative.

“To be born woman is to know

Although they do not talk of it at school


that we must labour to be beautiful.”

And then the poem falls away as the writer collapses inward. Silence in the room, but we are with him in his mind and the roar of his passion. And then they are lost, “as weary-hearted as that hollow moon”. A perfect journey from one part of his mind to the other: the intellect to the heart. Who cares about writing when there is love?

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.