What is the background and main theme of the poem "A Prayer for my Daughter" by W. B. Yeats

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

This poem was written two days after the birth of Yeats's daughter Anne, who arrived in the world on on February 26, 1919. The Irish were fighting the English for independence, and Yeats was staying at the ancient (fifteenhth century) Thoor Ballylee Castle in Ireland, a tower castle that represented to Yeats a more stable period of history.

In the poem, Yeats sees his infant daughter as caught between two possible realities: the first is the storm that had been "howling" in Irish politics (not to mention idea of the "gracious" past being overturned by the recently-ended carnage of World War I). The second is the opposite reality: what he calls "ceremony" and "custom." These virtues are represented to him by the tower in which he is staying.

Yeats wishes that his daughter won't be too beautiful or intelligent but, instead, that she be gracious. He writes:

In courtesy I'd have her chiefly learned;
Hearts are not had as a gift but hearts are earned

In other words, in today's language, he would like her to have high emotional intelligence and good people skills. He wants her to avoid the "hate" he sees all around.

He wishes for her the safety and security that the ancient tower represents. He wants her to marry into tradition and find a stable way of life:

And may her bridegroom bring her to a house
Where all's accustomed, ceremonious

Yeats seeks safety in the past; his ideas for his daughter seem sexist by today's standards but are meant to represent a dream of stability in an insecure world.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Yeats's poem begins with a description of a storm howling outside while his newborn daughters lies, partially covered by a blanket, in her cradle, ostensibly protected from the outside world.  The reader becomes aware that the storm is actually a metaphor for the struggle for Ireland's independence, a political situation that overshadows the joy of his daughter's birth.  Thematically, many women have pegged this work by Yeats as being sexist and offensive, inasmuch as he describes his hopes for her future, which, if all goes well, will include a large home and sizable income brought into her life, of course, by a good match with a suitable husband--in other words, these critics believe Yeats was doing nothing more than endorsing the ideals of 19th century womanhood as his daughter's birthright.   

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
Soaring plane image

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial