MondayPoem: Adam’s Curse

By Robert Pinsky for Slate:

Poetry can resemble incantation, but sometimes it also resembles conversation. Certain poems combine the two—the cadences of speech intertwined with the forms of song in a varying way that heightens the feeling. As in a screenplay or in fiction, the things that people in a poem say can seem natural, even spontaneous, yet also work to propel the emotional action along its arc.

The casual surface of speech and the inward energy of art have a clear relation in “Adam’s Curse” by William Butler Yeats (1865-1939). A couple and their friend are together at the end of a summer day. In the poem, two of them speak, first about poetry and then about love. All of the poem’s distinct narrative parts—the setting, the dialogue, the stunning and unspoken conclusion—are conveyed in the strict form of rhymed couplets throughout. I have read the poem many times, for many years, and every time, something in me is hypnotized by the dance of sentence and rhyme. Always, in a certain way, the conclusion startles me. How can the familiar be somehow surprising? It seems to be a principle of art; and in this case, the masterful, unshowy rhyming seems to be a part of it. The couplet rhyme profoundly drives and tempers the gradually gathering emotional force of the poem in ways beyond analysis.

Yeats’ dialogue creates many nuances of tone. It is even a little funny at times: The poet’s self-conscious self-pity about how hard he works (he does most of the talking) is exaggerated with a smile, and his categories for the nonpoet or nonmartyr “world” have a similar, mildly absurd sweeping quality: bankers, schoolmasters, clergymen … This is not wit, exactly, but the slightly comical tone friends might use sitting together on a summer evening. I hear the same lightness of touch when the woman says, “Although they do not talk of it at school.” The smile comes closest to laughter when the poet in effect mocks himself gently, speaking of those lovers who “sigh and quote with learned looks/ Precedents out of beautiful old books.” The plain monosyllables of “old books” are droll in the context of these lovers. (Yeats may feel that he has been such a lover in his day.)

The plainest, most straightforward language in the poem, in some ways, comes at the very end—final words, not uttered in the conversation, are more private and more urgent than what has come before. After the almost florid, almost conventionally poetic description of the sunset, the courtly hint of a love triangle falls away. The descriptive language of the summer twilight falls away. The dialogue itself falls away—all yielding to the idea that this concluding thought is “only for your ears.” That closing passage of interior thoughts, what in fiction might be called “omniscient narration,” makes the poem feel, to me, as though not simply heard but overheard.

“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.

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Will Our Universe Collide With a Neighboring One?

From Discover:

Relaxing on an idyllic beach on Grand Cayman Island in the Caribbean, Anthony Aguirre vividly describes the worst natural disaster he can imagine. It is, in fact, probably the worst natural disaster that anyone could imagine. An asteroid impact would be small potatoes compared with this kind of event: a catastrophic encounter with an entire other universe.

As an alien cosmos came crashing into ours, its outer boundary would look like a wall racing forward at nearly the speed of light; behind that wall would lie a set of physical laws totally different from ours that would wreck everything they touched in our universe. “If we could see things in ultraslow motion, we’d see a big mirror in the sky rushing toward us because light would be reflected by the wall,” says Aguirre, a youthful physicist at the University of California at Santa Cruz. “After that we wouldn’t see anything—because we’d all be dead.”

There is a sober purpose behind this apocalyptic glee. Aguirre is one of a growing cadre of cosmologists who theorize that our universe is just one of many in a “multiverse” of universes. In their effort to grasp the implications of this idea, they have been calculating the odds that universes could interact with their neighbors or even smash into each other. While investigating what kind of gruesome end might result, they have stumbled upon a few surprises. There are tantalizing hints that our universe has already survived such a collision—and bears the scars to prove it.

Aguirre has organized a conference on Grand Cayman to address just such mind-boggling matters. The conversations here venture into multiverse mishaps and other matters of cosmological genesis and destruction. At first blush the setting seems incongruous: The tropical sun beats down dreamily, the smell of broken coconuts drifts from beneath the palm trees, and the ocean roars rhythmically in the background. But the locale is perhaps fitting. The winds are strong for this time of year, reminding the locals of hurricane Ivan, which devastated the capital city of George Town in 2004, lifting whole apartment blocks and transporting buildings across streets. In nature, peace and violence are never far from each other.

Much of today’s interest in multiple universes stems from concepts developed in the early 1980s by the pioneering cosmologists Alan Guth at MIT and Andrei Linde, then at the Lebedev Physical Institute in Moscow. Guth proposed that our universe went through an incredibly rapid growth spurt, known as inflation, in the first 10-30 second or so after the Big Bang. Such extreme expansion, driven by a powerful repulsive energy that quickly dissipated as the universe cooled, would solve many mysteries. Most notably, inflation could explain why the cosmos as we see it today is amazingly uniform in all directions. If space was stretched mightily during those first instants of existence, any extreme lumpiness or hot and cold spots would have immediately been smoothed out. This theory was modified by Linde, who had hit on a similar idea independently. Inflation made so much sense that it quickly became a part of the mainstream model of cosmology.

Soon after, Linde and Alex Vilenkin at Tufts University came to the startling realization that inflation may not have been a onetime event. If it could happen once, it could—and indeed should—happen again and again for eternity. Stranger still, every eruption of inflation would create a new bubble of space and energy. The result: an infinite progression of new universes, each bursting forth with its own laws of physics.

In such a bubbling multiverse of universes, it seems inevitable that universes would sometimes collide. But for decades cosmologists neglected this possibility, reckoning that the odds were small and that if it happened, the results would be irrelevant because anyone and anything near the collision would be annihilated.

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