A Prayer for my Daughter by W. B. Yeats

 ‘A Prayer for my Daughter’ by W. B. Yeats demonstrates the poet’s concern and anxiety over the future wellbeing and prospects of his daughter Anne. He has written the poem in 1919, shortly after her birth and World War II. So the ongoing 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.

A Prayer for my Daughter by W. B. Yeats

 

Summary of A Prayer for My Daughter

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.

 

Form and Structure of A Prayer for My Daughter

The poem ‘A Prayer for My Daughter’, written in the lyric form containing ten eight-line stanzas.  The stanza form is the same as employed by him in ‘In memory of Major Robert Gregory’. Each stanza follows a regular rhyme scheme of “AABBCDDC”. The poem follows a metrical structure that alternates between “iambic pentameter” and “trochaic pentameter”. The poem is structured as a poet’s appeal to God and to his daughter on how he wants her to be like, as she grows up.

 

Theme and Settings of A Prayer for My Daughter

The poem ‘A Prayer for my Daughter’ portrays the theme of love and anxiety of a father, who has been blessed with a daughter. It also presents the poet’s hopes for his daughter and his expectation of her becoming a very beautiful woman, blessed with the attributes of a virtuous soul. The setting of the poem is uncertain for the poem is conceived in the mind of the poet. The speaker is the poet himself talking to his daughter. The poem is conversational and didactic in tone with varying emotions of gloom, uncertainty, hope, and fear.

 

Analysis of A Prayer for My Daughter

Stanza One

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 in Atlantic has no obstacles except the estate of Lady Gregory, referring to the poet’s patroness, 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.

 

Stanza Two

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 of ‘A Prayer for My Daughter’, Yeats worries about the future are further explained. 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.

 

Stanza Three

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 of ‘A Prayer for My Daughter’, 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 or vain 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.

 

Stanza Four

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 of ‘A Prayer for My Daughter’, Yeats substantiates his view 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 something stupid for salad, that they make a 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 stupid decisions.

 

Stanza Five

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 of ‘A Prayer for My Daughter’, 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.

 

Stanza Six

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 of ‘A Prayer for My Daughter’, Yeats continues to talk about his hopes and expectations for his daughter. As she grew 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.

 

Stanza Seven

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.

Yeats continues to talk about self-contentment women in stanza seven of ‘A prayer for my daughter’. 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.

 

Stanza Eight

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 of ‘A prayer for my daughter’, 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.

 

Stanza Nine

Considering that, all hatred driven hence,
The soul recovers radical innocence
And learns at last that it is self-delighting,
Self-appeasing, self-affrighting,
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 will would be that of heavens, for she has a clear mind.

 

Stanza Ten

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 of ‘A Prayer for my Daughter’, 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’.

 

About W. B. Yeats

William Butler Yeats was born as the eldest son of John Butler Yeats on June 13, 1865. He was considered one of the key figures of 20th-century literature. He helped to found the Abbey Theatre. His commendable contribution to poetry earned him appreciation from many great poets of the time. In his later years, he served two terms as a Senator of the Irish Free State before his demise on 28 January 1939.

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