It is important to read this poem alongside another famous poem by Yeats, which was actually written just a few months before this poem, "The Second Coming." In this earlier work, Yeats sets out his prophecy of doom and gloom, anticipating the "Mere anarchy" and "blood-dimmed tide" that was set loose on the world due to political changes such as the Russian Revolution and the rise of fascism. Many critics view "A Prayer for My Daughter" as being a discussion of how to live and transcend such disturbing events.
The poem begins with an account of the speaker praying for his daughter in the midst of a "howling" storm because of a "great gloom" that dominates his mind. Having effectively prophesied a massive upheaval in the world order, now that he has a daughter, Yeats is concerned about the kind of world that she will grow up in. Note how the violence of nature finds a parallel in the violence that is to come as the speaker in the second stanza imagines the future years "Dancing to a frenzied drum" as the storm rages outside.
He prays that his daughter will develop the kind of characteristics that the women he loved did not possess. His former lover, Maud Gonne, was beautiful and aware of it and also fired by nationalistic fervour. Yeats prays that his daughter, by contrast, will be given beauty, but not too much, because too much beauty can lead to vanity and an inability to relate to others. He wishes her to learn "courtesy" and hopes that she can have a life marked by stability and security, becoming a "flourishing hidden tree." Above all he wants her to marry into a home where tradition dominates, for as he says:
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 an uncertain world with an uncertain future, therefore, Yeats seems to argue that the disturbing changes in the world can be overcome through a life lived focusing on traditional values and the importance of human kindness.