The Prayer for My Daughter -W. B. Yeats
"A Prayer for my Daughter" is a poem by William Butler Yeats written in 1919 and published in 1921 as part of Yeats' collection Michael Robartes and the Dancer. It is written to Anne, his daughter with Georgie Hyde Lees. It speaks about the poet’s family. It demonstrates his concern and anxiety over the future wellbeing and prospects of his daughter, Anne. Yeats wrote ‘A Prayer for my Daughter’ in 1919, shortly after his daughter’s birth and World War II. So, the on-going unsettling feel is visible in the background and the poet’s mind. The poem appeared for the first time in his poetry collection, Michael Robartes and the Dancer in 1921.
W. B. Yeats in his ten-stanza poem, ‘A Prayer for my Daughter’ questions how best to raise his daughter. Though by 1919, the war was over, in Ireland it yet turned normal. So, he ponders how she will survive the difficult times ahead, in the politically turbulent times. The poem not only expresses the helplessness of Yeats as a father but all fathers who had to walk through this situation. He wants to give his daughter a life of beauty and innocence, safety, and security. He further wants her to be well- mannered and full of humility free from intellectual hatred and being strongly opinionated. Finally, he wants her to get married into an aristocratic family which is rooted in spirituality and traditional values.
Once more the storm is howling, and half hid
Under this cradle-hood and coverlid
My child sleeps on. There is no obstacle
But Gregory’s wood and one bare hill
Whereby the haystack- and roof-levelling wind,
Bred on the Atlantic, can be stayed;
And for an hour I have walked and prayed
Because of the great gloom that is in my mind.
The poem ‘A Prayer for My Daughter’ opens with the image of the child sleeping in a cradle half hidden by its hood. The child sleeps innocently amidst the “howling storm” outside, but Yeats couldn’t settle down due to the storm inside. The storm howling symbolizes destruction mentioned by the poet in his ‘The Second Coming’. The wind bred on the Atlantic has no obstacles except the estate of Gregory, and a bare hill. The direct impact of the wind, meaning to the force of the outside world, especially on his daughter, worries the poet. Because of this great gloom he walked and prayed for his daughter to be protected from the physical storm outside and the political storm brewing across Ireland.
I have walked and prayed for this young child an hour
And heard the sea-wind scream upon the tower,
And under the arches of the bridge, and scream
In the elms above the flooded stream;
Imagining in excited reverie
That the future years had come,
Dancing to a frenzied drum,
Out of the murderous innocence of the sea.
In the second stanza, he hears the sea screaming upon the tower, under the bridge and elms above the flooded stream. The onomatopoeia word “Scream” and the “flooded stream” symbolize the poet’s overwhelming anxiety for his daughter. Also, it refers to the great flood in the Bible. Due to his haunting fear, he imagines the future coming out of sea and dances to the frenzied drum, referring to war and bloodshed. In the last line, the poet employs paradox “murderous innocence” to contrast the world and his daughter, which also recalls the images of “blood-dimmed tide” in ‘The Second Coming’.
May she be granted beauty and yet not
Beauty to make a stranger’s eye distraught,
Or hers before a looking-glass, for such,
Being made beautiful overmuch,
Consider beauty a sufficient end,
Lose natural kindness and maybe
The heart-revealing intimacy
That chooses right, and never find a friend.
In the third stanza, Yeats prays for his daughter to be gifted with beauty. At the same time, he doesn’t want her beauty to distraught or makes her dependent on her beauty for everything. Further, he doesn’t want her to become proud that she spends all day staring at the mirror and fails to have natural companionships. The poet implies, too much beauty to be a dangerous one, that he wants her to be beautiful enough to secure a husband.
Helen being chosen found life flat and dull
And later had much trouble from a fool,
While that great Queen, that rose out of the spray,
Being fatherless could have her way
Yet chose a bandy-leggèd smith for man.
It’s certain that fine women eat
A crazy salad with their meat
Whereby the Horn of Plenty is undone.
In stanza four, Yeats describes on how excessive beauty has always been a source of trouble and destruction. He turns to Helen in Greek mythology, considered to be the most beautiful woman on earth, brought the doom upon her, and many others. The image of Helen evokes another figure Aphrodite, who rose out of the spray. The union of Aphrodite with Hephaestus bandy-legged Smith brings to mind the Maud Gonne-McBride episode. It makes the poet wonder if the beautiful women eat crazy salad with their meat, that they make stupid decision which brings misery forever. “The rich Horn of Plenty” is suggestive of courtesy, aristocracy, and ceremony, that is lost by those women who make crazy decisions.
In courtesy I’d have her chiefly learned;
Hearts are not had as a gift but hearts are earned
By those that are not entirely beautiful;
Yet many, that have played the fool
For beauty’s very self, has charm made wise,
And many a poor man that has roved,
Loved and thought himself beloved,
From a glad kindness cannot take his eyes.
In stanza five, the poet continues with what he wants his daughter to possess more than mere beauty. He wants his daughter to learn to be compassionate and kind. Many times, men who believed to love and loved by the beautiful women faced disappointment compared to those found love in the modest yet compassionate women. Moreover, he says modest and courteous people attract hearts than those with beauty, referring to his own marriage. Ultimately, he makes it clear that he wants his daughter to be an agreeable young woman than an arrogant beauty.
May she become a flourishing hidden tree
That all her thoughts may like the linnet be,
And have no business but dispensing round
Their magnanimities of sound,
Nor but in merriment begin a chase,
Nor but in merriment a quarrel.
O may she live like some green laurel
Rooted in one dear perpetual place.
In stanza six, Yeats continues to talk about his hopes and expectations for his daughter. As she grow up, he wants her to be happy and content. He wants her to become “a flourishing hidden tree” and her thoughts like a “linnet” referring to its innocence and cheerfulness. Like a linnet, he wants her to be satisfied in herself, and infect others with her happiness. Further, he wants her to live like a “laurel” rooted in a particular place. The poet reveals his wish on his daughter being rooted in the tradition.
My mind, because the minds that I have loved,
The sort of beauty that I have approved,
Prosper but little, has dried up of late,
Yet knows that to be choked with hate
May well be of all evil chances chief.
If there’s no hatred in a mind
Assault and battery of the wind
Can never tear the linnet from the leaf.
Here, Yeats continues to talk about self-contentment women. He believes that kind, self-contained, traditionally rooted women are incorruptible. The poet considers hatred to be the cause of all evil and prays that her to be left off that evil. Further, he believes that a soul free from hatred will preserve its innocence and hatred. Just as the storm outside can’t tear leaves from sturdy trees, turmoil and war can’t break a strong woman.
An intellectual hatred is the worst,
So let her think opinions are accursed.
Have I not seen the loveliest woman born
Out of the mouth of Plenty’s horn,
Because of her opinionated mind
Barter that horn and every good
By quiet natures understood
For an old bellows full of angry wind?
In stanza eight, the poet implores his daughter to shun passion and wild feelings that he considered as the weakness of beautiful women. She must be temperate because people who love deeply, could hate deeply too. Hate destroys people and makes them do cruel things, especially intellectual hatred which is worst of all kinds. The poet reflects upon his emotional state when Maud Gonne rejected him to marry John Macbride. He wants his daughter to experience neither the disappointment nor hatred.
Considering that, all hatred driven hence,
The soul recovers radical innocence
And learns at last that it is self-delighting,
And that its own sweet will is Heaven’s will;
She can, though every face should scowl
And every windy quarter howl
Or every bellows burst, be happy still.
The ninth stanza continues to describe the impact of hatred and the benefit of staying away from hatred. Once hatred is driven out, the soul could recover its innocence. Then the soul would be free to explore and find that it is “self-delighting”, “Self-appeasing” and “self-affrighting”. According to the poet, the ideal woman makes everyone happy and comfortable, despite all storms of misfortunes that come in her way. She is a stronghold for people around her and her would be that of heavens, for she has a clear mind.
And may her bridegroom bring her to a house
Where all’s accustomed, ceremonious;
For arrogance and hatred are the wares
Peddled in the thoroughfares.
How but in custom and in ceremony
Are innocence and beauty born?
Ceremony’s a name for the rich horn,
And custom for the spreading laurel tree.
In the last stanza, the poet expresses his final wish. He prays that his daughter to be married to a good husband who takes her to a home with aristocratic values and traditions. There, he believes that neither arrogance nor hatred of common folks could be found, but morality and purity. Further, the poet does not want her to live a decadent life. He concludes by stating that his daughter would be rooted in spiritual values like a ‘laurel tree’.