A Prayer for my Daughter by W. B. Yeats – Explanation

A Prayer for my Daughter by W. B. Yeats

A word about Yeats and this poem ‘A Prayer for my daughter’ ….

William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) was an illustrious Irish poet, writer and playwright. He was a staunch Irish nationalist who continued to espouse this cause all his life. At the prime of his youth, at the age of 24, he met the woman Maud Gonne. She too was an ardent votary of the Irish cause. Yeats was enamored of her for her dedication, energy, and of course, her beauty. Yeats’s mind was swept with love for Maud Gonne. But, she remained aloof. Yeasts proposed to her as many as four times, but she declined to reciprocate. She chose to marry Major John MacBride. It left Yeats distraught and dejected. Later, Yeats married Georgie Hyde-Lees. She bore him two children, Anne and Michael. The memory of Maud Gonne remained etched in Yeats’s mind making her the muse for many of his great literary works later. This poem was written by Yeats when Anne was a tender infant. It expresses his love and concern for Anne. The First World War had just drawn to a close leaving a trail of death and destruction on Europe. Inside Ireland there was a surge of Irish nationalism and Catholicism. Life was hard in Ireland then. Want, unrest, upheaval and discontent made life hard for the ordinary citizens. There was frustration, angst and fear. Yeats did not escape this air of despondency. In this backdrop, he penned this poem for the little baby whom he loved so much.

Poem’s stanza-wise explanation

Stanza 1 .. 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.

The innocent little infant Anne is fast asleep in her cradle. The hood of the cradle half-covers the cradle. A furious storm coming from the Atlantic ocean batters everything outside the house. The bare hill and the woods bear the brunt of the storm. The hay stack and the roof can barely stand the thrust of the raging winds.

Anne, oblivious of the fury of nature outside, sleeps, but her father is filled with worries about her safety, and her rearing in the hard times that ahead. In reality, Yeats was strolling when these disturbing thoughts grip his mind. He imagines the storm as a symbol of the unraveling difficult times. He is deeply apprehensive about Anne’s upbringing. The cradle and its hood that partly cover it are the symbols of the limited security Yeats, as a father, can provide to Anne.

No reader of this poem will fail to notice the liberal use of metonyms, metaphors and other types of figures of speech in this poem.

Stanza 2 … 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.

The poet’s sense of gloom deepens as he continues his walk for about an hour. The weather, as conjured by his nervous mind, is violent and destructive. The nature appears to wreck its vengeance on man. A confluence of devastating forces is imagined as the “Flooded stream” that is going to wash away everything on its way. Even the strong elms trees are tossed around by the torment unleashed by the winds. The future, in its most hideous form confronts the author.

A little later, the poet sees some light, some respite from the traumatic hallucinations. He thinks of the days to come when Anne would grow up to a world of hope and possibilities. By saying, ‘That the future years had come, Dancing to a frenzied drum’, the author invokes optimism and a permanent respite from the doom and gloom of the prevailing difficult days.

Stanza 3 .. 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.

Yeats hopes that Anne would grow up to a beautiful damsel. But he does not like her to be a paragon of beauty. In Yeats’s view, extreme beauty could be harmful and ruinous for a woman. It might invite zealously, and sarcasm from others. It might make those people distraught, who aspire for her hands but, can’t get it. The spurned lover may, even, become vengeful towards her. Beauty that inspires wild passion in others is fraught. Beauty often misleads the beholder by giving a false sense that she is a gifted extra-ordinary person who has no need of any other desirable qualities. Such vainglorious feeling is unhelpful to a woman. The resulting arrogance may rob her of kindness.

Stanza 4 …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 this stanza, Yeats recounts the miserable fate that befell the Helen of Troy and Venus. Both were immensely beatiful, but carried huge load of curse and suffering. They were condemned to marry a “fool” (26) and a “bandy-leggèd smith” (29).

Stanza 5 …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.

The next stanza deals with what Yeats determines are very important womanly qualities such as courtesy, or kindness and civility. He asserts that men adore women who exude charm, kindness and gentle manners. Being exquisitely beautiful is not necessarily a very lovely woman’s prerequisite. “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” (33-35).

Stanza 6…. 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.

Yeats hopes that his daughter grows up to embody wisdom, joy and reticence. Yeats wants her to live in a protected place, away from gloom, danger and destruction. He certainly does not want her to be exposed to the turmoil and frenzy he had conjured up at the beginning of the poem. He uses the idea and image of a deep-rooted and stable sprawling tree to express the safety and security needed for his daughter. Yeats writes, “O may she live like some green laurel/Rooted in one dear perpetual place” (47-48). 

Stanza 7….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.

In the next stanza Yeats introspects, and wryly concludes that his mind is “dried up of late” (51), which is weathering away. However, quite steadfastly, he keeps the temptation of ‘hate’ away. He knows that a mind afflicted by hate is doomed, because the smouldering cinders of hatred consume the noble creativity of mind. In the line “to be choked with hate/May well be of all evil chances chief” (52-53), he asserts this with conviction. 

Stanza 8 … 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?

In this stanza, Yeats unravels his feelings relating to the woman who spurned his love four times – Maud Gonne. The wound and the rancor Maud inflicted on his mind comes to the fore in this stanza.

Maud, a very ravishing woman as per Yeats, not only rejected his courtship, but went on to marry MacBride. Yeats could not reconcile to this all his life. Maud, according to Yeats, was a highly gifted woman, who was showered with gifts from “Plenty’s horn” (60). Sadly, her “opinionated mind” made her to squander all those precious things on Major MacBride. Maud’s fiercely-held convictions and fiery idealism made her too ‘opinionated’. This imparted a negative aura to her personality. Hence, Yeats felt his daughter must not be ‘opinionated’.

Stanza 9 … 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.

Yeats then fondly hopes that his daughter becomes as beautiful as Maud, but does not get the latter’s haughtiness and arrogance. He wants his daughter to submit to Heaven’s will with a smiling face. Her soul must imbibe “radical innocence” (66) or be ‘rooted innocence’ (akin to that of a tree). Such values would bring abundant happiness for her and all those who eschew hatred.

Stanza 10 (Last stanza) …… 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.

The poem ends with an imaginary climax. Yeats, as the loving father, imagines the marriage of his daughter. She goes to live in her husband’s home as per the set norms of “custom” and “ceremony” (77). She enjoys the safety and security of her cozy home in sharp contrast to the decrepit crumbling house described at the outset of the poem. She does not have to face the violent storm. He closes his prayer by returning to the image of the horn and the tree, as sources of custom. Such optimism might bring deliverance to the world.

Poetic devices used in the poem….

a. Onomatopoeia (the use of words that sound like the thing that they are describing) – howling, scream, spray, choke, scowl, howl

b. Repetition (saying the same thing many times) – in the ninth stanza: self-appeasing, self-delighting, and self-affrighting

c. Alliteration (the use of several words together that begin with the same sound or letter in order to make a special effect) – howling, and half hid, cradle-hood and coverlid, great gloom,sea-wind scream, being made beautiful, like the linnet, live like, linnet from the leaf, hatred driven hence, recovers radical, bellows burst, bridegroom bring, find a friend

d. Assonance (similarity in the vowel sounds of words that are close together in a poem)-walked and prayed, young-hour, such-overmuch, trouble- fool, with-meat, yet-that-played, beauty-very, poor-roved, loved-thought-beloved, hidden-tree, dried-late, linnet-leaf, should-scowl, quarter-bowl, hatred-wares, spreading laurel tree.

Figures of speech used in the poem ….

a. Metaphor- Ceremony is used for the Plenty’s horn, custom is used for the spreading laurel tree, linnet is used for good faith, and laurel is used for having a victorious life

b. Personification- Sea-wind scream-human being, years…dancing-human being, frenzied drum, human being, angry wind- human being,

c. Simile- “all her thoughts may like the linnet be”, “may she live like some green laurel”

d. Juxtaposition– “murderous innocence”

e. Imagery– The “storm” is representing the dangerous outside forces, may be the future that she will encounter with soon. The “cradle” is representing his daughter’s babyhood. The sea is the source of the wind and logically is the source of “future years” as well. The “murderous innocence” is attributed to the sea and represents poet’s daughter and the outside world which waits for her. He uses the imagery “dried” for his mind to explain how the bad ideas are rooted in his mind. And also he uses the “horn” as ceremony and the “tree” as custom.

Readers’ comments welcome. 

 

 

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