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“A Prayer For My Daughter” by Yeats is a prime example of the tenets of the Modernist period in literature. It contains many of the elements that define Modernism. The modernist movement was developed in reaction against Romanticism and Realism, as such, it counters many of the principles that guided the writing of poetry in those periods.
For instance, while Romanticism discounted form, structure, and literary devices because of the belief in the poet's inspiration from Imagination, Modernists paid a great deal of attention to form, structure and literary devices. For this reason, as David L. White of WSCC says, modernist poetry places heavy emphasis on the literary devices, especially imagery and symbolism. An example of symbolism from Yeats' poem is the wished for comparison of the sleeping daughter to a linnet. A linnet is a plain, brownish finch songbird: its inner song is more important than its outer adornment of feathers. An example of imagery is the description of the storm in the early lines:
… 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;
This leads to another point. Modernist poets are concerned with illustrating the inner realms of the psyche's visions and reality along with the impact on psychological impressions of events and external realities, whereas Realists were intent on describing as accurately as possible the external realities of the world: the shift is from external to internal.
Yeats certainly demonstrates this Modernist principle in this poem. He begins with "for an hour I have walked and prayed," progresses to lamenting the beauty that may "Lose natural kindness," then claims that for his daughter, "In courtesy I'd have her chiefly learned" because "hearts are earned." Yeats concludes by focusing on the birth of "innocence and beauty."
This ties back to the earlier point that for Modernists structure was a guiding principle. This explains the structure of the poem being built around a conceit that contrasts his hopes for his daughter against Classical allusions emphasizing Helen of Troy, Aphrodite, Hephaestus, and the Horn of Plenty of Greek mythology:
Helen [of Troy] being chosen found life flat and dull
And later had much trouble from a fool,
While that great Queen [Aphrodite], that rose out of the spray,
Being fatherless could have her way
Yet chose a bandy-legged smith [Hephaestus] for man.
It's certain that fine women eat
A crazy salad with their meat
Whereby the Horn of plenty is undone.
Do read Dr. White’s description of the full details important to Modernism to uncover even more ways Yeats’ poem exemplifies the Modernist poetic period.
William Butler Yeats' early poetry was lyrical, sensitive and beautiful, and some of his most-loved works were written during this period. Later, as world and home events darkened and the world turned in a more menacing way, his thoughts turned (like many other writer's reflections) to the harsh realities of modern life and war. In 'A Prayer For My Daughter' the beauty and innocence of a vulnerable infant is juxtaposed with a threatening and pitiless storm outside. The beloved natural world of his earlier writing has turned against him and become more like Wordsworth's threatening dangerous environment. He worries that his daughter will be like an old flame of his - so beautiful she will carelessly break hearts, and hopes her looks will be more temperate. His approach is much more modern as he tackles subtle political references to the pros and cons of throwing away the perceived 'civilizing influence' that overthrowing a hated English oppressor might bring. His underlying anxiety, lack of hope and cynicism about these new world issues mark his subsequent works with the stamp of modernism.
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