The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 795 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 484 words.)