Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
“A Prayer for My Daughter” is concerned with surviving the chaos of the modern world—the separation of reason from passion, or the surrender of reason to one’s own violence or the anarchy of the external world. The ascendancy of irrationality or animal instinct over reason and culture is vividly expressed in the widely quoted image of “The Second Coming” where “Turning and turning in the widening gyre/ The falcon cannot hear the falconer.”
Yeats thus far in his career had celebrated the mighty Irish heroes of both legend and the historical past and present—those courageous men and women who sacrificed themselves for their ideals. Now, however, the poet expresses a certain ambivalence toward those heroes. He understands that in the necessary sacrifice for a cause, one may surrender “heart” (“Too long a sacrifice/ Can make a stone of the heart,” he wrote in “Easter 1916”). In fact, any single-minded commitment—to political, social, or intellectual causes, even to beauty—may become obsessive and negate one’s more important personal and humane concerns. “A Prayer for My Daughter” proposes the means of rescuing the self, heart, and soul—true beauty—from a world of growing disorder and increasing human misery.