A Prayer for My Daughter

by William Butler Yeats

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The Poem

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Anne Butler Yeats, the poet’s first child, was born on February 26, 1919, only a month after William Butler Yeats completed “The Second Coming,” his apocalyptic vision of violence and anarchy. Four months later, he composed “A Prayer for My Daughter,” in which he expanded his belief that a return to tradition and ceremony remained the single means of avoiding the earlier poem’s “blood-dimmed tide” now “loosed upon the world.” Yeats prays that his daughter may cultivate self-regard and independence and that she may marry into a home that respects ritual and ceremony. Only in these ways, he believes, can she find the innocence and peace to transcend the impending cataclysm of physical and spiritual chaos that he had foreseen in “The Second Coming.”

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;/ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,” he had written in “The Second Coming,” prophesying the rise of fascism in Europe and recalling the bloodshed of both the Russian Revolution (1917) and the Irish Easter Rebellion (1916). These powerful images refer as well to the emotional, psychological, and spiritual disintegration that accompanies international and social crisis. If Yeats’s vision of the violent and lawless modern world had prompted “The Second Coming,” it was the possibility of transcending such a world that prompted “A Prayer for My Daughter”; the two poems can be read as companion pieces.

It is well acknowledged that the bulk of Yeats’s great work drew upon the events of his life. “A Prayer for My Daughter” is one of his most exquisite personal poems, for here Yeats prays that his daughter may shun those very qualities that characterized the woman he loved throughout most of his life. Maud Gonne, whom he had met when he was twenty-two, and whom he wooed unsuccessfully for nearly thirty years, was both an actress and political activist. Yeats not only shared some of Maud’s political and professional interests but also, because of his unabating love for her, wrote a body of love (and political) poems about the exaltation and dejection incumbent upon wooing “a proud woman not kindred of his soul” (“A Dialogue of Self and Soul”).

Yet if Yeats celebrated Maud’s beauty and nationalistic fervor, he also immortalized her unhappiness and single-mindedness—those personal qualities that ultimately destroyed Maud and many others who had similarly fought for Irish freedom in the early years of the twentieth century. It was only in 1917, and at the age of fifty-two, that Yeats turned to another woman, Georgie Hyde-Lees, and married. Georgie was a woman of decidedly less beauty and flair than Maud, but she was also a woman who, as one sees in “A Prayer for My Daughter,” was worthy of celebration. Her “charm” finally “made [him] wise,” as did her virtuous “glad kindness.” Georgie, it would appear, embodied those qualities of generosity and self-sufficiency that he hoped to see perpetuated in their daughter.

The first two of the poem’s ten stanzas describe the violence of the outer world. “Once more,” he begins, “the storm is howling,” and nothing can stop the “screaming” wind that threatens to level nature (the woods and haystacks) and civilization (the roofs and his tower). He listens to the howling “sea-wind scream,” along with the storm in the “elms above the flooded streams.” He then imagines “in excited reverie” that his daughter has grown to adulthood. The prayer begins in the following, third stanza: “May she be granted. . . .” First, he would have her granted physical beauty—but not Maud’s excessive beauty, for this not only makes men “distraught,” but, more important, leads its possessor to...

(This entire section contains 795 words.)

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vanity and indifference to others. Overly beautiful women ignore the cultivation of natural kindness and thus lose the capability of recognizing and retaining true friendship.

Of her various personal virtues, he would have her cultivate (“learn”) “courtesy.” Yeats suggests that kindness and generosity breed trust and affection between people. Yeats would also wish his daughter a life of stability and deep-rootedness—that is, a quiet life away from noisy thoroughfares—an immersion in a world that is distant from intellectual, political, financial, or emotional struggle. Planted in such an environment, she might cultivate her own personal worth and, most important, her soul. Contact with the soul would give her a sense of self-measure, pleasure, and ultimate peace; she might thus transcend the chaotic external world and achieve a kind of existential triumph. She would realize that the soul’s “own sweet will is Heaven’s will.” Many of Yeats’s later poems repeat this notion that self-mastery is humankind’s greatest achievement (when the “soul clap[s] its hands and sing[s]/ and louder sing[s],” as he expresses it in “Sailing to Byzantium”). This alone provides a means of transcending external contingency.

Forms and Devices

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After first reestablishing the mood of “The Second Coming,” Yeats builds a series of images that contrast the virtues he would wish for his daughter and a set of specifics associated with Maud. He sets “custom” and “ceremony” against “hatred” and “arrogance,” and “radical innocence” against “murderous innocence.” So too he opposes the “horn of plenty” and an “old bellows full of angry wind”; the “flourishing hidden tree” and “the wares/ Peddled in the thoroughfares”; the “linnet [firmly planted on] the leaf” and the screaming “sea-wind,” along with “flooded stream”; and “magnanimities of sound” and “scowl[s] [from] every windy quarter.”

In using the traditional image of the cornucopia, an emblem of bounty or fecundity, he says of Maud Gonne that although he has “seen the loveliest woman born/ Out of the mouth of Plenty’s horn,” she, like Helen of Troy and Venus, was overly beautiful (“chosen”) and vain, and she lacked the necessary qualities to choose an appropriate man to love. (“Helen,” although “chosen,” also “found life flat and dull,” and in preferring Paris to Menelaus, later “had much trouble from a fool.”) Similarly, Venus, the “great Queen” who “rose out of the spray,” who might also have chosen any man, selected the bandy-legged Vulcan for her husband. The erratic and eccentric behavior of such “chosen” women inevitably leads to their own undoing: “It’s certain that fine women eat/ A crazy salad with their meat/ Whereby the Horn of Plenty is undone.”

In wishing that his daughter live a life filled with tradition and that she have deep roots, he proceeds to another traditional image, the tree—in fact, the laurel tree, usually associated with victory. Yeats would want his child to entertain only magnanimous and beautiful thoughts, and he would have her “dispense” them “round” like the melodies of the linnet bird. The opposite kind of behavior, one filled with intellectual hatred, neither sustains itself nor soothes the tribulations of the external world. Again expanding images from “The Second Coming,” he continues: “Assault and battery of the wind/ Can never tear the linnet from the leaf.” Although people might “scowl” at her and “every windy quarter howl,” she could remain “happy still.”

Finally, Yeats would have a bridegroom bring his daughter to a traditional home, “where all’s accustomed [and] ceremonious,” rather than to a life in the “thoroughfares,” for, as he explains in a rhetorical question, how can one be free to cultivate the virtues of selfhood and soul if she must worry about concrete matters of survival: “How but in custom and in ceremony/ Are innocence and [true] beauty born?”

Having thus far explained his two abstractions (“ceremony” and “custom”), and having established the metaphoric possibilities of the cornucopia and tree, he concludes the poem by connecting his images in a summary statement: “Ceremony’s a name for the rich horn,/ And custom for the spreading laurel tree.”