A Prayer for my Daughter by W. B. Yeats

Once more the storm is howling, and half hid
Under this cradle-hood and coverlid
My child sleeps on. There is no obstacle
But Gregory’s wood and one bare hill
Whereby the haystack- and roof-levelling wind,
Bred on the Atlantic, can be stayed;
And for an hour I have walked and prayed
Because of the great gloom that is in my mind.

I have walked and prayed for this young child an hour
And heard the sea-wind scream upon the tower,
And under the arches of the bridge, and scream
In the elms above the flooded stream;
Imagining in excited reverie
That the future years had come,
Dancing to a frenzied drum,
Out of the murderous innocence of the sea.

May she be granted beauty and yet not
Beauty to make a stranger’s eye distraught,
Or hers before a looking-glass, for such,
Being made beautiful overmuch,
Consider beauty a sufficient end,
Lose natural kindness and maybe
The heart-revealing intimacy
That chooses right, and never find a friend.

Helen being chosen found life flat and dull
And later had much trouble from a fool,
While that great Queen, that rose out of the spray,
Being fatherless could have her way
Yet chose a bandy-leggèd smith for man.
It’s certain that fine women eat
A crazy salad with their meat
Whereby the Horn of Plenty is undone.

In courtesy I’d have her chiefly learned;
Hearts are not had as a gift but hearts are earned
By those that are not entirely beautiful;
Yet many, that have played the fool
For beauty’s very self, has charm made wise,
And many a poor man that has roved,
Loved and thought himself beloved,
From a glad kindness cannot take his eyes.

May she become a flourishing hidden tree
That all her thoughts may like the linnet be,
And have no business but dispensing round
Their magnanimities of sound,
Nor but in merriment begin a chase,
Nor but in merriment a quarrel.
O may she live like some green laurel
Rooted in one dear perpetual place.

My mind, because the minds that I have loved,
The sort of beauty that I have approved,
Prosper but little, has dried up of late,
Yet knows that to be choked with hate
May well be of all evil chances chief.
If there’s no hatred in a mind
Assault and battery of the wind
Can never tear the linnet from the leaf.

An intellectual hatred is the worst,
So let her think opinions are accursed.
Have I not seen the loveliest woman born
Out of the mouth of Plenty’s horn,
Because of her opinionated mind
Barter that horn and every good
By quiet natures understood
For an old bellows full of angry wind?

Considering that, all hatred driven hence,
The soul recovers radical innocence
And learns at last that it is self-delighting,
Self-appeasing, self-affrighting,
And that its own sweet will is Heaven’s will;
She can, though every face should scowl
And every windy quarter howl
Or every bellows burst, be happy still.

And may her bridegroom bring her to a house
Where all’s accustomed, ceremonious;
For arrogance and hatred are the wares
Peddled in the thoroughfares.
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.

Summary

The poem is written against the backdrop of a raging storm. A violent storm from the Atlantic Ocean has come over the Irish countryside. The raging storm represents the state of unrest and chaos in a world rocked by the onset of the first World War, as well as of the upheaval in the Irish political scene. The poet’s daughter is peacefully sleeping through the storm. There is no obstacle to the storm, or, in other words, nothing to counter the force of the storm except the wood around the estate of Lady Gregory. The furious wind which brings haystack and roof to the ground, cannot overpower Gregory wood and one hill. The Gregory Estate in Yeats’ poem is symbolic of an ideal in the poet’s scheme of things. As you saw in the introduction, the poet found in the aristocratic way of life and the “country house ideal” a way of imposing order on chaos. The poet is in a perturbed state of mind, and has walked and prayed for an hour, wondering about what kind of future his little daughter would have in these troubled times.

As he prays for his little girl, the poet hears a fierce wind scream upon the tower, beneath the curved structure supporting the bridge and the tall trees above the overflowing stream. The intensity of the storm is suggestive of the contemporary situation of his troubled times. The poet imagines that the future years have come in response to some “frenzied drum”, out of the sea. The expression “murderous innocence” is an oxymoron. The sea is destructive when it brings high tides and storms; yet it is innocent because it is devoid of personal malice.

This is the first of a series of wishes that the poet confers upon his daughter. He would like his daughter to grow up to be a beautiful young woman; yet he does not want her to be so stunningly beautiful that she would have a devastating effect on men. Yeats is here conditioned by his own agonizing personal experience of his unrequited love for Mod Gonne. So he does not want her to be so extremely beautiful that she would “make a stranger’s eye distraught”; that is, he does not want her to be the cause of heart-break or anguish to men (as Maud Gonne had been to him). Nor does he want her to become conceited by her own beauty. In the poet’s opinion, people who are extremely beautiful lack natural kindness and warmth. He feels that without kindness and warmth, she would make wrong choices, and not find a true friend.

In this stanza, the poet further extends the idea expressed in the previous stanza regarding very beautiful women by drawing upon myth and legend. He gives examples of extremely beautiful women who made life complicated for themselves and caused sufferings to others. According to Greek legend, Helen was famous for her immense physical beauty. Menelaus, the great Greek warrior and King of Sparta was attracted to her physical charms and married her. But after marriage she found life boring and dull as she was very proud of her beauty. She ran away with Paris, a Trojan Prince. Her flight to Troy led to a lengthy war between the Greeks and Trojans, and caused much bloodshed. Thus, Helen’s extraordinary beauty was the cause of much suffering to the fool Menelaus and to the Greeks and Trojans as well. This is how Yeats uses myth to support his view that woman should not have outstanding beauty; by implication, his daughter should have beauty, but not be extremely beautiful.

Next, the poet refers to Aphrodite, “that great Queen”, the goddess of love in Greek mythology, who was said to have arisen from the sea. She was beautiful but not wise in the choice of her husband: she married Vulcan, god of fire and patron of smiths, who was lame. Thus, according to the poet’s view, since highly beautiful women cause destruction and make wrong choices, he feels that such women eat some crazy salad with their food, and undo “the Horn of Plenty”. According to Greek mythology, the Horn of Plenty is a symbol of abundance.

The poet upholds courtesy as a virtue he would like his daughter to cultivate when she grows up. While exceptionally beautiful women manage to capture hearts easily as a gift, the not-so- beautiful woman has to “earn” the affections of the other person, according to the poet. Here again, Yeats draws upon his personal experiences. In this stanza he contrasts the beautiful Maud Gonne, whose haunting beauty caused the poet to “play the fool””, with a quiet charm, “glad kindness” and courtesy that he found in his wife Georgie. He would like his daughter to grow up and imbibe the qualities of glad kindness and courtesy like her mother.

In this stanza the poet wishes his daughter to be like a flourishing tree and her thoughts to be like a linnet. According to the well-known critic B. Rajan, the tree here represents “a tree of self-fulfilment, of inner life around which thoughts cluster like linnets.” The poet wishes to see his daughter grow up to have a joyful, fulfilled life. He would like her thoughts to be as joyful and innocent as that of the bird linnet. The linnet’s song is suggestive of its magnanimity or generosity. He would like his daughter to be motivated not by malice to begin a chase or a quarrel, but by innocent cheerfulness and fun. The poet prays that his daughter would imbibe rootedness and stability in her life like an evergreen laurel tree, rooted in one place. The tree “also comes to stand for constancy and for the life of tradition” — values which Yeats upheld in life.

The poet reflects on the fact that his mind has dried up of late, because of the agonies he suffered due to some people he loved. (Again, he has Maud Gonne in mind). Yet he knows that to be filled with hatred or bitterness towards others is incorrect. He wishes to bestow upon his daughter a mind free from hatred, because such an innocent mind, which is devoid of bitterness, can remain unaffected by the storms and vicissitudes of life.

This stanza has been the subject of much criticism by some feminist writers, chiefly because the poet wants his daughter to think that “opinions are accursed”. Some critics feel that it is gender bias towards a girl child that has prompted such a view. Again, the poet is conditioned by his painful memory of Maud Gonne. Maud had very strong intellectual opinions, as a result of which she gave up every good thing that quiet-natured people only can understand. It is because of her intellect and “opinionated mind” that Maud (who, according to the poet, was the “loveliest woman born”), had strong political opinions and became a political agitator and propagandist. It is the poet’ wish as a protective parent, that his daughter should have a quiet nature, instead of such a dynamic intellectual nature.

Further developing the concept of obliterating hatred from one’s life, the poet asserts that the soul recovers its fundamental innocence when a human being drives out all hatred from his/her mind. Such a person will discover that a soul that has recovered “its radical innocence” is capable of finding delight and fulfillment in life. The sweet will of an innocent soul is in harmony with heaven’s will. The poet wants his daughter to achieve such a state of life, whereby by setting herself free from hatred, she would lead a happy and peaceful life, without being affected by adverse circumstances, such as hostility from other people or other storms of life.

In the last stanza Yeats expresses the hope that his daughter would be married in an aristocratic family. As you read in the Introduction, Yeats came to believe in the aristocratic way of life as an ideal. He saw aristocracy, customs and ceremony as means of rendering order in a world of chaos. So, the poet wishes his daughter to settle down in a family that is aristocratic, and uphold the values of ceremony and custom. The aristocratic way of life is contrasted with the crudity of the common masses. The plebian and commonplace attitudes upheld by socialists give rise to “arrogance and hatred”, according to the poet which are “paddled” in the thoroughfares. He believes that his daughter shall find innocence and beauty through custom and ceremony. Yeats believes that ceremony and custom are emblems of abundance and peace in life.

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