W William Butler Yeats

A Prayer For My Son by William Butler Yeats

‘A Prayer for my Son,’ written from the perspective of a father who wants to protect his son against all odds during the brewing war in Ireland. Read the poem with a complete analysis.

A Prayer For My Son by William Butler Yeats Visual Representation

The poem ‘A Prayer For My Son‘ by William Butler Yeats showcases the fear and anxiety of a parent bringing up his child in the dire circumstances of war and chaos. The use of metaphors and biblical allegory supports his strong belief that his son will achieve something in the future.

Yeats published this poem in the collection ‘The Tower’ in 1928, his first poetry collection after winning the Nobel Prize. The collection was well-received as Yeats held a mirror image of 19th century Ireland and its issues.

A Prayer For My Son
William Butler Yeats

Bid a strong ghost stand at the head
That my Michael may sleep sound,
Nor cry, nor turn in the bed
Till his morning meal come round;
And may departing twilight keep
All dread afar till morning’s back,
That his mother may not lack
Her fill of sleep.

Bid the ghost have sword in fist:
Some there are, for I avow
Such devilish things exist,
Who have planned his murder, for they know
Of some most haughty deed or thought
That waits upon his future days,
And would through hatred of the bays
Bring that to nought.

Though You can fashion everything
From nothing every day, and teach
The morning stars to sing,
You have lacked articulate speech
To tell Your simplest want, and known,
Wailing upon a woman’s knee,
All of that worst ignominy
Of flesh and bone;

And when through all the town there ran
The servants of Your enemy,
A woman and a man,
Unless the Holy Writings lie,
Hurried through the smooth and rough
And through the fertile and waste,
Protecting, till the danger past,
With human love.
A Prayer For My Son by William Butler Yeats


Summary

A Prayer For My Son‘ is written from the perspective of an anxious father who wants to protect his son during the time of War. Even though the time is disheartening, he hopes that he can protect his son with son despite all prevailing evils.

‘A Prayer For My Son’ expresses the anxiety of a parent who wants to protect his child. Yeats seeks the help of a Ghost to keep his son, Michael, away from the evil of the world. He says that the Ghost should stand by the cradle of the baby and keep him safe always. He also hopes that if his son gets a night of better sleep, his wife also could get some rest during the night. Yeats also adds that the Ghost should have a sword in its fists to ward off evil people who might attempt to end the young Michael’s life.

Yeats then expresses his discontent at God and mocks that God might be everywhere and might have power all over the world, but he cannot speak and express what he wants. When concluding, he speaks of how powerful human love is and the willpower to protect one’s kind. Therefore, even if God’s enemies attempt to rampage the Earth, humans will fight it with their love for one another.

Themes 

In  ‘A Prayer for my Son, ‘ Yeats highlights themes such as Human love, anxiety, and the pathos of war. He delineates the impact of war through the mental state of a father who wants to raise his child during the war. War can be destructive, and it can lead to both physical and mental damage to a person. However, Yeats is hopeful that human love will prevail and be more vital to protect their kind despite all the calamities and stress like a parent has the strength to protect their child. 

Structure and Setting

In  ‘A Prayer for my Son, ‘ Yeats highlights themes such as Human love, anxiety, and the pathos of war. He delineates the impact of war through the mental state of a father who wants to raise his child during the war. War can be destructive, and it can lead to both physical and mental damage to a person. However, Yeats is hopeful that human love will prevail and be more vital to protect their kind despite all the calamities and stress like a parent has the strength to protect their child. 

Structure and Setting

‘A Prayer for my Son’ by William Butler Yeats is a poem of 32 lines. It is arranged into four stanzas of eight lines each. The stanzas follow the rhyming pattern of ABABCDDC. Each stanza deals with different perspectives of the speaker about war and protecting his son. It is set is in revolutionary Ireland, where there were gunshots and chaos everywhere.

Detailed Analysis

Stanza One

Bid a strong ghost stand at the head
That my Michael may sleep sound,
Nor cry, nor turn in the bed
Till his morning meal come round;
And may departing twilight keep
All dread afar till morning’s back,
That his mother may not lack
Her fill of sleep.

The first stanza of ‘A Prayer for my Son’ speaks of Yeats’ fear over protecting his son. Using it as the setting for the poem, Yeats brings out the prevailing situation in Ireland. Michael, the second child of Yeats, was born when Ireland was fighting for its independence from the British. Considering how difficult it is to bring up a child during the war, he seeks a ghost for protection. He prays that the Ghost should stand by his child’s bed and must look after him. The Ghost should protect the child during his sleep so that the child’s mother can also have a sound sleep during the night.

Stanza Two

Bid the ghost have sword in fist:
Some there are, for I avow
Such devilish things exist,
Who have planned his murder, for they know
Of some most haughty deed or thought
That waits upon his future days,
And would through hatred of the bays
Bring that to nought.

In the second stanza, Yeats asks the Ghost to have a sword in its hand to protect and guard the child. He says that people are out there wishing to end this child’s life and prevent him from having a glorious future. Therefore, the Ghost must have a weapon at all times to fight against those evil people. 

Stanza Three

Though You can fashion everything
From nothing every day, and teach
The morning stars to sing,
You have lacked articulate speech
To tell Your simplest want, and known,
Wailing upon a woman’s knee,
All of that worst ignominy
Of flesh and bone;

In the third stanza, Yeats speaks about God. He mocks God for being all-powerful yet lacking the ability to speak what he wants. Further, even though God designs everything in the world, he cannot express his own needs. Yeats also attacks God by saying that God watches everything that happens in the world – all the chaos and confusion, birth and death, but he does not express what he means to achieve out of all these. 

Stanza Four

And when through all the town there ran
The servants of Your enemy,
A woman and a man,
Unless the Holy Writings lie,
Hurried through the smooth and rough
And through the fertile and waste,
Protecting, till the danger past,
With human love.

Yeats makes a beautiful comparison in the last stanza. He compares Michael’s birth to the Biblical story of Mary and Joseph. When God’s enemies created obstacles in their path, Mary and Joseph protected their baby throughout the journey with their strong willpower, faith, and love. In the same way, Yeats says that no matter the evil forces and soldiers that try to kill his son, he will be protected because of the persistence of human love.


Literary Devices Used

Apostrophe

Apostrophe is a literary device used in a poem when the speaker addresses a person who is not present or a personified object. In the third stanza, Yeats addresses God and tells him how he does not speak despite all his power in the situation that prevailed in Ireland. 

Though You can fashion everything … You have lacked articulate speech.


Allusion

The Bible is a frequently referenced source of allusion in literature. Here, in the last stanza, Yeats alludes to the Biblical story of Mary and Joseph about his son Michael’s birth. When Jesus was born, there were many obstacles laid before. Similarly, when Michael was born, the situation in Ireland was chaotic. 


Satire

Yeats uses satire in his ‘A Prayer for my Son’ when he speaks of God’s inability to express his views or interfere with something as terrible as the wars in Ireland. So, he mocks God for being omnipotent yet lacking the capacity to speak. 


Irony

At the beginning of the poem, Yeats tells us that he has “BID a strong ghost stand at the head,” which is in contrast to his satire on God’s inability to voice out to the situation that was prevailing in Ireland. Ironically, he seeks a ghost over God to protect his son. It shows his failing faith in God, who has failed to stop the chaos in the world. 


Metaphor

Metaphorically, Yeats compares his son Michael’s birth to Jesus By referring to the story of Mary and Joseph. Like Mary and Joseph, who overcame many obstacles with human love, Yeats believes that he too has to protect his son with his love. 

…protecting, till the danger past,

With human love.


About William Butler Yeats

William Butler Yeats is one of the greatest poets of the 20th century. He was born in Ireland, but he later settled in England, and so he belongs to the Anglo-Irish community. His poems were very popular as they openly spoke about the conflicts of his time. He expresses the pathos of war in his works, and they are highly subjective. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in December 1923. 


Historical Context

Ireland in the early 20th century was constantly in chaos. Immediately after the end of the first World War, the Irish War of Independence broke out in 1919. It lasted for nearly two years, and finally, Ireland got independence from the British. Even after that, there was no peace in the country. The Irish Civil War broke out the following year, and there were constant fights between Northern and Southern Ireland.

Eventually, a treaty was signed between the two factions, but the loss and casualties were tremendous. During that time, the people of Ireland were living in a state of panic, and they had to look back at their shoulders every time they left their houses. Yeats captures this feeling of anxiety and fear through this poem and also in most of his works.

FAQs

Who is the speaker of the poem ‘A Prayer for my Son‘?

The speaker of the poem is the poet W. B. Yeats himself. As mentioned in the title it is written for his son Michael who has born recently before the publication of the poem.

What is Yeats’ opinion on God in the poem ‘A Prayer for my Son‘?

Yeats begins the poem with ‘Bid a strong ghost’ instead of an ‘angel.’ It creates an odd sense of his faith which is later answered in stanza three. He mocks God for being the most powerful, yet remains quiet all through the struggles of the world, keeping a blind eye to the prevailing cruelty.

Why does the poet make a prayer for his son in the poem ‘A Prayer for my Son‘?

Yeats, like any father during a time of calamity is deeply anxious about his son being murdered. He also shares his feel of knowing some people who want to murder his son in order to prevent him from becoming famous or rich in the future.

What significance does the year 1921 hold in Irish history?

In history, Ireland remained as the Irish Republic following the Easter Proclamation of 1916 until 1922. In 1921, under the Government of Ireland Act 1920, an autonomous Home Rule region (or constituent country) of the United Kingdom, was formed with the official name ‘Southern Ireland’ which later became the present time Ireland.


Similar Poetry

Yeats used his writing to express his attitudes toward Irish politics, War, as well as Irish cultural history. Many of Yeats’ poems throw light upon the impact caused by the Irish War of Independence and the Irish Civil War.  His perspectives on life and society can be better understood through some of his poems:

  • Sailing to Byzantium‘ gives the speaker’s decision to travel to Byzantium, and later from there to eternity, where age is not an issue, and he can transcend his physical life.
  • The Second Coming‘ is Yeats’ attempt to put into words what countless people of the time felt: it was the end of the world as they knew it and that nothing else would ever be the same again.
  • A Prayer for My Daughter‘ demonstrates Yeats’ concern and anxiety over the future wellbeing and prospects of his daughter.
  • The Tower‘ is a powerful poem that talks about Yeats deteriorating physical health and his growing passions in political and personal matters.      
  • Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen‘ is one of the best political poems that paint the picture of the Irish Civil War and its impact.

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A Prayer For My Son by William Butler Yeats Visual Representation
About
Miz Alb received her MA in English Literature. Her thirst for literature makes her explore through the nuances of it. She loves reading and writing poetry. She teaches English Language and Literature to the ESL students of tertiary level.
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