William Butler Yeats (b. June 13, 1865, d. Jan. 28, 1939) was a celebrated Irish poet, prose writer and dramatist. In 1889 he met a woman named Maud Gonne, who was brilliant, passionate and beautiful, and instantly fell in love. This love, however, was not reciprocated. His marriage proposal was turned down several times, yet he still joined the Irish nationalist cause with her because of her passion for Ireland and conviction. In 1903, she married Major John MacBride, an Irish soldier who shared her hatred for England. He finally married George Hyde-Lees in 1917 and had two children with her, a daughter and son. It is his daughter, Anne Butler Yeats (b. 1919), that the poem concerns. Author’s Name: William Butler Yeats Dates: 1865-1939
Country of Origin: Ireland Genres: Irish poet, dramatist and prose writer, Yeats was one of the greatest Englishlanguage poets of the 20th century. He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923. Brief Religious Heritage or Association: Born in Dublin to an Irish Protestant family, his father was a clergyman’s son who became a lawyer, and then eventually turned an Irish PreRaphaelite painter. His mother came from a wealthy family in the milling and shipping business. Yeats spent his early years in London and Slingo, a beautiful county on the west coast of Ireland, where his mother had grown up and which he later depicted in his poems. In 1881 the family returned to Dublin. While he grew up as a part of the Protestant Ascendancy, things began to shift in the 1890’s with the rise of nationalism and Catholicism. This political and religious upheaval profoundly shaped his life and work. Although his early work drew on the influences of Spenser and Shelley, he eventually became more drawn to Blake, and Celtic folklore and myth. In one of the most famous obsessive love affairs in literary history, Yeats pursued the beautiful, ardent and Catholic Irish nationalist Maud Gonne, proposing to her four different times (but alas, rejected each time). She stands as a muse to much of his writing. To his horror in 1903 she married fellow nationalist John MacBride, who was later executed by the
British. Yeats became a key figure in the “Irish Literary Revival”. He went on to marry Georgie Hyde-Lees, with whom he had a daughter, Anne, and a son, Michael. It is for these children that he wrote his poems “A Prayer for my Daughter” and “A Prayer for my Son,” respectively. In the 1920’s he actually served in the Irish senate. He owns a reputation for becoming quite a ladies’ man in his older age, finding an inspiring connection, he believed, between eroticism and creativity. While his Protestant religion and biblical metaphors never left him, he incorporated these more and more into a complicated personal system of symbols also greatly influenced by the occult, Oriental mysticism and related theories such as reincarnation. Random Fact from the Author’s Life: His 1922 poem “The Second Coming” contains some of the most quotable and potent lines in 20th century poetry, many of which were used by subsequent authors as book titles, e.g. Slouching towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion, and Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. Focus Text(s) for Discussion Here: the poem “A Prayer for my Daughter,” composed June 1919 and published 1921 in his collection Michael Robartes and the Dancer.
As a point of interest, Yeats’ poem “A Prayer for my Son” is also beautiful, and very specifically evocative of the vulnerability of the Christ child, and of the might of parental love that fears not the world, but only – rightly and truly – God. Suggested Edition of this Text/Biographies/Resources: The following books by Yeats scholar A. Norman Jeffares provide a helpful spectrum of his life and work: New Commentary on the Poems of W.B. Yeats (1984); W.B. Yeats (1988); W. B. Yeats: A New Biography by A. Norman Jeffares (2001); see also The Life of W.B. Yeats by Terence Brown (1999). OVERALL SYNOPSIS The first stanza of the poem contrasts the peaceful sleep of his innocent and beautiful daughter to the raging, violent storm outside.
“Once more the storm is howling, and half hid/Under this cradle-hood and coverlid/My child sleeps on” (1-3). Worried about the safety of his daughter, he is afraid that he will be unable to protect her from the storm and from the perils of the future. In the next stanza he begins to imagine a world for her to grow up in, a world in which he thinks she will be able to survive without being harmed or threatened. He pictures the future coming from the “murderous innocence of the sea” (16), contrasting his daughter’s innocence with the storm, which is innocent of what it does, being non-sentient. Yeats then goes on to hope that his daughter has beauty, but not enough to make a stranger become enamored of her or to makeher vain: “May she be granted beauty and yet not/Beauty to make a stranger’s eye distraught,/Or hers before a looking-glass” (17-19).
Here he is obviously drawing upon his experiences with Maud, whom he and others thought to be “outrageously beautiful” but who had lost kindness and intimacy. Next Yeats draws upon the classical examples of Helen of Troy and Venus, both of whom were extremely beautiful but found misfortune because of their beauty, marrying a “fool” (26) and a “bandy-leggèd smith” (29). The next stanza deals with what Yeats determines is a very important quality: courtesy, or kindness and civility. He then goes on to state that love is truly earned not by the entirely beautiful, but by those with less beauty but with more charm and kindness. “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). Yeats then goes on to say that he wishes his daughter to become wise and merry, but to keep both traits hidden, and live in a protected place, his ideal of home, and a place contrasted to the home in the opening that might not protect her from the storm.
He uses the image of a hidden tree with deep roots to describe this: “O may she live like some green laurel/Rooted in one dear perpetual place” (47-48). In the next stanza Yeats turns to himself, and mentions that his mind is “dried up of late” (51) and fading away, but refuses to hate, which he believes will bring doom, stating “to be choked with hate/May well be of all evil chances chief” (52-53). The following stanza is the most personal, dealing with Maud, saying that although she was the prettiest woman and was showered with gifts from “Plenty’s horn” (60), her “opinionated mind” led her to give all those gifts to “an old bellows full of angry wind” (64) (Major MacBride). Because of her strong opinions, Yeats decides that too much opinion in a woman is harmful.
Yeats then imagines his daughter receiving the same gifts that Maud received, but driving out hatred and accepting Heaven’s will as her own, and her soul regaining its “radical innocence” (66) or rooted innocence (once again returning to the image of the tree), leading to happiness her and all others who drive out hatred. The poem ends with the imagined marriage of his daughter and the house that her groom provides for her, embodying “custom” and “ceremony” (77), is once again the opposite of the fragile house in the beginning of the poem that Yeats fears will not protect her from a storm. He closes his prayer by returning to the image of the horn and the tree, as sources of ceremony and custom which he hopes will redeem the world.
SUMMARY William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), the celebrated Irish poet, the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923, needs no introduction. The Irish identity was very strong in him and as an active member of the Irish National Revival, he tried his best to add Celtic legends to evoke the glorious past of his land. In a time when the world was much fragmented, he endeavored to create a unified perspective of things that is cohesive and all encompassing. The poem is an intense expression of how Yeats felt after his daughter Anne was born although the ideas conveyed go far beyond the personal. Theme of the Poem The poem portrays how a father, who has been blessed with a daughter, prays for the future happiness and welfare of her. The poet hopes that instead of growing up to be a very beautiful woman, his daughter should be blessed with the attributes of a virtuous and great soul.
She should be well-mannered and full of humility rather than being strongly opinionated, to avoid intellectual detestation because that can drown her in misery. Summary In the beginning, Yeats talks about the storm having commenced brewing in the seas. Between his newly born daughter and the sea, there stand a bare hill and Gregory’s woods which might not thwart the storm from reaching the helpless infant. The father is naturally worried as he senses the gale striking the tower and the undersides of the bridges. To his mind, the storm presages the future of her daughter having arrived with a rage, mounting from the seeming innocence of the sea. As a father, the poet wishes beauty for her daughter but not such voluptuousness that would engross others to distraction or make her vain. He does not want her daughter to be bereft of kindness nor does he want her to fail in choosing the persons with whom she will be friendly. The father shudders at the thought of her daughter’s turning to be another Helen of Troy, who couldn’t help being unfaithful as she was so beautiful.
Some lovely women like the queen who had not had her father imposing useful restraints upon her, chose an ordinary smith with warped legs, instead of marrying a handsome yet virtuous man matching her handsome looks and social standing. It is strange how exquisitely beautiful women often choose ‘a crazy salad’ (an undeserving husband) to go ‘with their meat’ (rich food or their great beauty). His daughter should realize that she should be deserving of winning human hearts. She should not be like those crafty women who employ their charms to use people to their advantage. It is true that men fall head over heels for stunning females but it is really the compassion of the women which they get enamored by in the end. The father in the poet is keen that her daughter should be like a tree giving succour and shade to people when she grows up and her feelings should be like the sweet song of the linnet that spreads joy for the sake of doing so. It is very likely that she will sometime desire something intensely in a wrong spirit or engage in some strife at times but let them be transient and not very serious. Let her be like an evergreen tree; let her send her roots into the depth of her good convictions standing at the same place. The poet is rueful that his running after the people he liked or the kind of gorgeousness that he was infatuated with, could not satiate him as he wanted and that he is weary of all the barrenness that has enveloped him now.
He seems to get momentarily confused as to what could be the right sort of beauty. He has however no hatred toward anyone as he is absolutely sure that it is the worst kind of malevolence that could poison his life. He wants her daughter also to learn this truth before she allows her to be ruled by the negative force of hatred because such a mindset will save her from inviting harsh criticism or abuses being showered upon her. The poet would not like her daughter to be self-opinionated as that could lead her to practising intellectual loathing which the poet considers to be the worst kind of malady in a human being. He recollects coming in close contact with a beautiful and accomplished woman who had to give away everything by being strongly biased. The truth rings clearly in the poet’s mind that by removing all hatred from one’s mind, the soul not only regains its innocence but also embarks on the journey of delighting in itself. Since the spirit of the soul is the will of God, he fervently prays that his daughter should be able to discover her soul and be happy in the face of any storm or disapproval. And finally, as a father, he hopes that she will be betrothed to a man who has for ever steered away from detestation and arrogance which is so common everywhere. Let the house of her husband be comfortable and secure but not at the expense of anyone.
An Analysis of the Poem “a Prayer for My Daughter” by William Butler Yeats Summary: A Prayer for My Daughter written by William Butler Yeats. An analysis of the poem. An Analysis of the poem “A Prayer for My Daughter” by William Butler Yeats A Prayer for My Daughter is a poem written by William Butler Yeats in 1919. This poem is a pray-like poem. And it generally tells about the poet’s ideas about his daughter who is sleeping at the same time while the poem is being told. Throughout the poem the Yeats reflects that how he wants his daughter’s future should be. This essay will analyze the poem under three subtitle: 1- What does this poem mean”, 2- The poetic devices, imagery, rhyming, figures of speech, used in the poem and mood, diction, language, and the structure of the poem, 3- An essay in a feminist point of view titled “What does the poet want his daughter to become”” . 1-WHAT DOES THIS POEM MEAN” The poet is watching his infant daughter sleep. In the first stanza he starts with describing the setting of the poem.
It is stormy outside, there is a kind of dark and gloomy weather and he prays for her. And he says that he has gloom in his mind and we will understand that what gloom is that in his mind. In the second stanza the poet describes the things while he was praying for his daughter. He walks for an hour and notices the “sea-wind scream upon the tower”, “under the arches of the bridge”, “in the elms above the flooded stream.” They probably represent the dreaming of the human beings and they are decisive. They are all about the present things and they block people from thinking about the future events. The last four lines of the second stanza clearly explain this idea: “Imagining in excited reverie That the future years had come, Dancing to a frenzied drum, Out of the murderous innocence of the sea.” In the third stanza he prays for her beauty, but not too much. He considers the beauty as a decisive element for choosing the right person to marry. He emphasizes that too much beauty may cause her loose the “natural kindness” thus that might prevent her from finding the “heart-revealing intimacy” and a true friend. Related with the third stanza, the fourth stanza refers to Helen herself, who “being chosen found life flat and dull,” and also to Aphrodite, the goddess of love, who chose her spouse the cripple, Hephaestus.
Helen “had much trouble from a fool”, the fool is Menelaus, the husband of Helen, whom she deserted in favor of Paris. Whereas Aphrodite suffered from “being fatherless”, hence without a father to guide her, Yeats intends to be a guiding father to his young daughter. The fifth stanza describes the quality that Yeats came to see as at the very heart of civilized life: courtesy. By courtesy he understands a means of being in the world that would protect the best of human dignity, art and emotion. And in his prayer for his daughter he wishes that she will learn to survive with grace and dignity in a world turned horrific. He explains that many men have hopelessly loved beautiful women, and they thought that the women loved them as well but they did not. In the sixth stanza he hopes that his daughter will be a “flourishing hidden tree”, which is not rebel but kind and happy, but contains her happiness within a particular place. And additionally he wants his daughter to be not argumentative and aggressive, or perhaps quite and secure, “rooted in one dear perpetual place.” When combined with the previous line, the last line clearly defines his hope fro daughter to live in a victorious life “like a green laurel.”
And the linnet also represents that he wants her thoughts to be a guide for a good life for her and her life to be in a good fate. In the seventh stanza he tells about himself a little bit, and we can conclude that he also suffered from love and beauty, but he also emphasize that hatred is drying and destructive. Thus he asserts that hatred is the worst response one can have in the world. He hopes that his daughter will not have such strong opinions which are the forms of hatred. Then he implies that “an intellectual hatred” is the worst of hatreds. In this stanza he uses an image “Plenty’s horn.” It symbolizes the source of the rich gifts that will be given, served to his daughter. This part of the poem also accuses “the loveliest woman”, Maud Gonne, because of not using properly the gifts given to her and he hopes that her daughter will use them well and wisely. Ninth stanza serves the ideas of Yeats about hatred and recovering of the world. He supports that a woman can heal herself by getting away from hatred and also the world can be purified by avoiding from hatred and diversions.
Thus we can recover the innocence and we can “be happy still.” In the conclusion stanza he hopes her daughter to be married in ceremony, of which source is the “horn” again. He uses the ceremony to symbolize the richness of the horn and the power of the “laurel tree.” 2.1- POETIC DEVICES Onomatopoeia (the use of words that sound like the thing that they are describing) – howling, scream, spray, choke, scowl, howl Repetition (saying the same thing many times) – in the ninth stanza: self-appeasing, selfdelighting, and self-affrighting 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 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, shouldscowl, quarter-bowl, hatred-wares, spreading laurel tree.
2.2- FIGURES OF SPEECH 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 Personification- Sea-wind scream-human being, years…dancing-human being, frenzied drumhuman being, angry wind- human being, Simile- “all her thoughts may like the linnet be”, “may she live like some green laurel” Juxtaposition- “murderous innocence” 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. 2.3- LANGUAGE, DICTION, MOOD, STRUCTURE The language used in the poem is like the language used in lectures and also prayer. The word “may” gives to the poem a pray-like mood. The narrator is the poet’s himself, and he tells the poem quite personal. He uses “I”, “she”, “my daughter” to make it personalize. The moods of the stanzas are different than the others. But the first stanza has a frightening atmosphere. In the second stanza he is anxious about what will future bring to her, the third one has the same mood but in here he is careful. In the next one he uses classical mythology to express his obsessions. The fifth one is a little bit more confident and hopeful.
The sixth one is more cautious and has a negative mood. The seventh is self aware, strong and kind of regretful. And the last three stanzas are written in a happy mood and have hopefulness. The structure of the poem is not complex to analyze. It has 10 stanzas and eight lines each. It was written in iambic pentameter. The rhyme scheme is aabbcddc, and the rhythm is regular. 3- WHAT DOES THE POET WANT HIS DAUGHTER TO BECOME” The poem is about William Butler Yeats ideas, and his anxiety about his baby daughter’s future and life. He wants his daughter to become a woman who is virtuous, wise. He uses the image of his daughter partly to represent his ideal woman. Most of the images that he uses are parts of the ideal woman he has in his mind or its opposites. He supports that a woman should be “a flourishing hidden tree”, who is not well-known but beautiful. She shouldn’t be anything but “merry.” ” Innocence” is beautiful in women, that’s why if his daughter keeps her innocence inside and do not abuse it, she will not be affected by the “wind.” He thinks that too much beauty distorts women, and causes them to destroy the gifts that are given by “Horn of Plenty” thus he wants his daughter to use the gifts wisely and properly. And he wants his daughter to learn the fact that “hearts are earned”, and the men, who are deceived by just beauty, will notice their mistake later. He wants her daughter not to have strong opinions like hatred, because he thinks that hatred is the worst thing in the world. He hopes she will marry, and her house will be full of customs.
##A Prayer of My Daughter by WB Yeats – an analysis by Claire Wong This poem was written by William Butler Yeats for his infant daughter, Anne. He worries about her. Maud Gonne was a radical, opinionated intelligent woman he had loved, but who had rejected his proposals. In this poem he vents his thoughts on her. A Prayer for my Daughter by W.B. Yeats: An Analysis Stanza 1: The weather is a reflection of Yeats’ feelings. The post-war period was dangerous. Anne’s vulnerability and innocence is symbolised by the “cradle-hood” and “coverlid.” “And half hid” shows that Anne is barely protected by the frail “coverlid.” Anne is oblivious to the violent forces around her; she is ignorant (she “sleeps on”; she is not awake to the violence around her), hence she is “under this cradle-hood” which hides her and is unaffected. (The forces may be riots, violence, starvation, or decay of moral values.)
“Under this cradlehood and coverlid/My child sleeps on.” Her ignorance protects her from the uneasy knowledge hence she “sleeps on.” Robert Gregory died. His father could not protect him from death. “The roof-levelling wind” is strong, representing frightening, turbulent forces. “Where by the haystack- and roof-levelling wind,/Bred on the Atlantic, can be stayed.” USA was more comfortable compared to Europe. Turbulent forces or “wind” was less significant and more controlled in the USA. Hence it ca be “stayed” or controlled. Yeats prays because he is gloomy; “great gloom …. In my mind.” Tone: Frightening, precarious, gloomy. Literary devices: personification – “the storm is howling” represents threatening external forces e.g. riots, evilness. Roof-levelling wind represents turbulent forces.
Symbols – “Storm” represents outside forces which threaten Anne’s safety. “cradlehood” represents Anne’s innocence and infancy. “coverlid” represents innocence and ignorance, frail protection. “wind” represents turbulent forces. “one bare hill” may represent Robert’s death. (Why is the hill bare? Replies are appreciated.) The hill is empty, it may represent his death – there is no one to occupy it. Or it may be a hill where his tombstone lies. As I have said, I have no idea.
Metonym – The author may be mistaken but “Atlantic” may be the United States of America. Rhyme scheme: aabbcddc
Stanza 2: Yeats is worried about Anne. “Ihave walked and prayed for this young child an hour.” The weather reflects the threatening forces he fears. “Flooded stream” represents intense forces caused by people as it has strong forces. It is “flooded” because the troublemakers exist in large numbers or the forces are strong. The weather or external forces caused by the war are stormy and destructive. THe “elms” are tossed due to the destructive forces. People (possibly represented by “elms”) are affected. Tone : intense, anxious, frenetic, chaotic. This is rather desperate and pessimistic but there is a shift of mood. “Imagining …” When Yeats starts to imagine, he helps his daughter; he decides how she should turn out. This appeases his worries and gives him new ideas and food for thought.. He imagines how her future will be excitedly. “Imagining…the future years had come/Dancing to a frenzied drum.”
Anne’s life will pass in chaos. “Dancing to a frenzied drum” also indicates the passing years in Anne’s life which are represented by drum-beats (which have rhythm and tempo) – which also symbolize violence and chaos. It is a violent and chaotic time. The drum is “frenzied” because of the danger and chaos around Anne. Furthermore, Yeats is excited (hence frenzied) for her to grow up. Anne’s innocence is juxtaposed with the contrasting “sea” which is “murderous.” The sea represents the world and the crowds around her, and as they are evil, destructive and take advantage of her innocence, they are “murderous.” Moreover, the “sea” or the world is termed as “murderous innocence” because as part of the “sea”, Anne’s innocence is ‘murderous’ to herself because it enables others to manipulate her. Tone: frenetic, maddening, excited. Literary devices: symbols – “sea wind” , “flooded stream” – turbulent forces Personification – “future years … dancing” – the passing years of life Juxtaposition/oxymoron/paradox – “murderous innocence of the sea” Sibilance – “sea-wind scream” Assonance:”sea-wind scream” Onomatopoeia – “scream” Stanza 3: Yeats hopes that Anne will be beautiful but not excessively. “May she be granted beauty and yet not/Beauty to make a stranger’s eye distraught.”
Beauty is distracting and destructive, because it causes an admirer to be “distraught” and unhappy as a result of this unfulfilled desire to possess this beauty. Besides, he may desire her negatively and steal her innocence. It inspires passion which may be hopeless. She should not be vain and conceited of her beauty. “Or hers before a looking-glass.) Yeats fears that beauty will make her think that it is sufficient, for beauty would help her. Beautiful people being more attractive can benefit more, and with this attribute, Anne may think that she needs not perform acts of goodness, for her beauty is sufficient to place her in a position of security and acceptance. This causes her to lose “natural kindness”. She does not see or appreciate the values of kindness and virtue. She would think herself superior and strive less without helping others. They do not have to be kind and despise the physically undesirable. Furthermore, their beauty allows them to be fastidious in their choice of partners, having many admirers. Hence, they do not choose the right person as they have no heart or soul. “Lose … the heart-revealing intimacy/ That chooses right.” They cannot love truly and care for veneer and shallow qualities, for they cannot truly feel or know who “the one” is. They are sought for.
The right person would in the end be more drawn to a good woman as shown in stanza 5. “Hearts are not had as a gift but hearts are earned.” Beauty obstructs friendship as being as being beautiful causes one to be condescending, malicious and take things for granted. It causes the loss of human touch for the beautiful may tend to boast and despise their inferiors. They are not true friends. In another perspective, they do not form true friendships because others befriend them for the benefits derived from their appearance and even take advantage of them. The beautiful do not pay attention to those who make true friends as they believe themselves superior in beauty, fashion, etc. etc. Furthermore, excessive beauty results in jealousy and broken friendships. Another point to make is that beauty that over-entices may decrease Anne’s virtue and increase her vulnerability as others wish to use her. This is crucial as in this poem, Yeats emphasizes the need for feminine innocence. In contrast, a plainer person being on a lower hierarchy will appreciate the importance of kindness. In this context, beauty is equated with society’s shallowness. Tone: imploring, beseeching, prayer-like, reflective. Literary devices: personification – “stranger’s eye distraught” – attracts and saddens one who is attracted Symbol – the “stranger” is an unhappy admirer. Alliteration – “stranger’s eye distraught”.
Stanza 4 : Yeats speaks of Greek mythology. Helen of Troy, being the most beautiful woman in the world, married Paris, a stupid man. Quote: “Helen being chosen found life flat and dull / And later had much trouble from a fool.” As she was greatly admired and revered for her beauty, life was boring with little strife. “While that great queen, that rose out of the spray, ‘being fatherless could have her wasy/ Yet chose a bandy-legged smith for man.” Venus or Aphrodite, being fatherless, could marry as she pleased with no parental authority. Yet with all her power and advantages “chose a bandy-legged smith for man” (Hephaestus) – someone inferior to her. She had no father to guide her. Yeats intends to guide his daughter in the choice of a suitable spouse. Yeats is scornful: cultured women make mad choices in spouses. “Fine women eat/ A crazy salad with their meat.” Meat is substantial; salad is not. Meat represents a fine lady who can be said to be “substantial,” having numerous qualities; the “crazy salad” is their dreadful mate, who is devoid of many qualities. They can have more, but choose worse. The Horn of Plenty was a horn given by Zeus to his caretaker.
The possessor of this Horn would be granted his wishes. “Whereby the Horn of Plenty is undone.” This is because Maud Gonne squandered her gifts of intellect, grace and beauty and the benefits she could command by marrying John McBride. She could obtain what she desired with these gifts – similar to the Horn of Plenty – and wasted the aforementioned gifts on McBride. As the Horn of Plenty could bring victuals, John McBride is symbolized as an unsubstantial “salad.” Maud Gonne wasted her supposed power; she could have done better for herself, instead she made the wrong choice or desire. Tone: cynical, sad, troubled, scornful. Literary devices: symbol – “Helen”, “Queen” – a beautiful cultured woman or Maud Gonne “Horn of plenty” – gifts, advantages. Metaphor – “crazy salad” – an inferior spouse. Stanza 5: Yeats wants Anne to be courteous.
Love does not come freely and unconditionally. “Hearts are not had as a gift but hearts are earned.” Love is not inspired by mere physical beauty; it is earned by good efforts “by those who are not entirely beautiful” who are kind and helpful. Those who have in stupidity made a fool of themselves by hopelessly loving beautiful women and thought it was reciprocated. “Yet many, tat have played the fool/ For beauty’s very self.” One may not be loved by a beautiful woman. “ “Charm” from a good woman has charmed a man eventually. “has charm made wise.” He becomes “wise” by realizing the goodness of loveing a good woman. Unsuccessful men have loved and are loved by kind women who make them happy, yet are not beautiful. “Loved and thought himself beloved/ From a glad kindness cannot take his eyes.” She “cannot take his eyes” or maptivate him by sight because she is not physically beautiful. But her kindness makes him glad. This could be a reference to Yeats’ wife,, Georgie Hyde Lees who was not beautiful, but they had a happy marriage. Georgie loved him and let him take the credit for her work. The persona praises good unbeautiful women – like Georgie – who re more loved by men compared to harsh beautiful ones – Maud Gonne. Tome:reflective, advisory, grateful, enlightened.
Literary devices: personification – “glad kindness cannot take his eys” “charm made wise.” Symbol – “hearts” – love. Stanza 6: From here onwards, more symbolism and interesting interpretation can be derived. Yeats hopes that his daughter will grow and flourish with virtue and modesty. “May she become a flourishing hidden tree.” She must be “hidden” – not too open and opinionated like Maud Gonne. A “tree” is fresh, soothing and natural. He wants her to be calm, good-natured and natural – not overinfluenced by opinionated ideas. (Why not a flower – which is a commonly used to symbolize a girl? Possibly a flower is too attractive and open. Refer to Stanza 3.) Yeats wishes that Anne will have merry, pleasant thoughts. He wants her to talk of good, pleasant things. “That all her thoughts may like the linnet be, / And have no business but dispensing around / Their magnanimities of sound.” The linnet is a bird which flies, representing a merry, sweet, girl – not too serious, bombastic and violent like Maud Gonne. Yeats wants Anne to chase and quarrel only in merriment. He wants her to be happy and not too ambitious or opinionated. “Nor but in merriment begin a chase,/ Nor but in merriment a quarrel.”
He does not want her to “:chase” ambition ruthlessly. The “quarrel” indicated is mere arguing for fun. Yeats wants Anne to have a solid home and top be stable. “Rooted in one dear perpetual place.” The home is happy, hence it is “dear.” This may also indicate loyalty to one man. Maud Gonne had consummated a relationship with Lucien Millevoye – with two illegitimate children – and gone on to marry John McBride. Yeats wants Anne to be constant to one man, unlike Maud Gonne. “O may she live like some green laurel.” Here, Yeats uses mythology. The “green laurel” may refer to the nymph Daphne who was pursued by Apollo. Eager to protect her virtue, Daphne turned into a laurel tree. Similarly, Yeats wants Anne to be virtuous, unlike Maud Gonne. The word “green” in turn may symbolize peace, innocence and youth. We have already mentioned peace – in her home – and innocence.
Anne’s youth is not physical but mental. Her father wishes that she will be merry and young at heart. Why green – not red or brown? Russet – reddish-brown – is associated with autumn or middle age and decline. Maud will fade and has declined due to her non-innocence. Her opinions do not denote one who is young at heart. Green denotes being young at heart. It also means inexperience or innocence – something merry, lively and different, a welcome change. For we say inexperienced people are “green”. Yeats does not what his daughter to be dreary and old at soul. Maud is certainly experienced; he wishes for Anne’s mental youth and innocence and vitality also represented by the colour green. For it may indicate evergreenness. Trees that are green are fresh and alive; russet trees are dying and fading. Maud declines because she is experienced and deflowered; her mental youth is gone. Hence Anne is the opposite – green. Anne, being “green”
hopefully will retain mental youth with no worse change. Tone: hopeful, prayer-like, more positive. Literary devices: symbol – “hidden tree” – Anne, virtue and modesty Symbol – “green laurel” – virtue, modesty, mental youth, evergreenness, innocence, inexperience. Simile – “that all her thoughts may like the linnet be” – that Anne’s thoughts will be pleasant and merry. Metaphor – “Rooted” – constancy and stability Metaphor – “One dear perpetual place” – Anne’s home. Stanza 7: Yeats states that his mind does not benefit but “has dried up of late” or weakened, tired and not stimulated because of the mind of Maud Gonne (whom “I have loved” and whose beauty he admired) barely prospers. He has mentioned her deficiencies. This weakens him.
“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,” However, he states that hatred is the worst attribute and “of all evil chances evil.” “If there’s no hatred in a mind / Assault and battery of the wind / Can never tear the linnet away from the leaf.” The” wind” signifies the destructive forces around Anne and it “cannot tear” Anne – symbolized by a linnet – away form the “leaf” – a fragile place or condition. “Linnet and “leaf” portray something fragile. Sufferings and destructive forces cannot destroy the fragile who do not hate as their minds are clear, calm and free. Negative thoughts make us suffer. Tone: Sad, stronger, confidents, lecture-like, reflective. Literary devices: symbol – “wind” – destructive forces Symbol – “linnet” – Anne Symbol – “Leaf” – a fragile place or condition. Personification – “Assault and battery of the wind” – destruction.
Stanza 8: “An intellectual hatred is the worst, / So let her think opinions are accursed.” The hatred of an opinionated intellectual like Maud gonne is the worst because it is strong, destructive, opinionated and the person knows the reason for this hatred. The intellectual resists opposition and fights for his cause. There are good reasons for this cause and hatred. Trivial hatred is weak, for there is little reason. An intellectual, being determined and clever, will fight for a cause with passion and determination. Yeats does not want Anne to be over-opinionated. “So let her think opinions are accursed.” Yeats states that Maud Gonne had plentiful gifts which she did “barter that horn and every good / For an old bellows full of angry wind.” The horn symbolizes gifts. The “bellows full of angry wind” depict her strong opinions. It can also represent John McBride, who started a riot. Perhaps he could be said to be full of hot air or opinions but little successful effort. “and every good / By quiet natures understood” are her advantages which are understood and appreciated by people with quiet natures (Yeats?). This makes sense especially with McBride’s loudness and abuse of his wife.
The “angry wind” is despicable (McBride). Maud did not use her gifts properly, though she had courtesy, grace, ceremony, and aristocracy. Tone: Lecture-like, reflective, cynical. Literary devices: Symbol – “Plenty’s horn,” symbolizing gifts and advantages. Metaphor – “an old bellows full of angry wind” Stanza 9: Yeats states that if hatred is ridded off, “the soul recovers radical innocence.” Hatred causes sin and violence; hence to be rid of it is to be innocent of these crimes. Innocence is beautiful in women. “Innocence” is radical because it is rooted in the soul. “Considering that, all hatred driven hence, / The soul recovers radical innocence”. A radical is a term for a root. In another perspective, the “innocence” is “radical” or unconventional because after the war, innocence became more uncommon. Hence, it is “radical” or something new to be innocent, as it defies the flow of convention. “And learns at last that it is self-delighting, / self-appeasing, self-affrighting”. Innocence causes these attributes in the soul.
It delights the soul, for there is no hatred; it is peaceful and soothing, yet it is “self-affrighting’ because it is frightening that others can take advantage of one’s innocence. “That its own sweet will in Heaven’s will; / She can, though every face should scowl / And every windy quarter howl / Or every bellows burst, be happy still.” Goodness is heaven’s will because the soul is supposed to be good. Goodness makes Anne happy: “its own sweet will is Heaven’s will.” Yeats states that Anne can still be happy amid chaos, unhappiness, quarrels and problems if she is innocent and free of hatred. “She can, though every face should scowl/ And every windy quarter howl/ Or very bellows burst, be happy still. If she is good, no one can harm her. So males will not overwhelm her (?) If the soul knows itself, “wind” or destructive forces cannot harm her, for the mind is at peace with itself.
Literary devices: repetition – “self-delighting/ self-appeasing, self-affrighting” Parallelism – “self-delighting/ self-appeasing, self-affrighting” Metaphors – “every face should scowl” – unhappiness and hostility “bellows burst” – chaos, arguments. May have reference to McBride’s “hot air” or people’s blaring opinions without effect. Tone: revealing, fantasizing, prophesizing Stanza 10: Yeats hopes that Anne will marry “and may her bridegroom bring her to a house/Where all’s accustomed, ceremonious.” He wants her to have a good, traditional husband. Perhaps he wants her to marry into a good, ceremonious family. He wants her to live in custom and ceremony. He does not want arrogance and hatred in her home, as that happens commonly outside in the vulgar, common crowds “thoroughfares” and would demean herself. Possibly referring to the destructive forces outside. It is demeaning, lowering herself and being rude, as one can find “arrogance and hatred” in the “thoroughfares” as though they re common, crude “wares.” Innocence and beauty and cultivated by custom and ceremony. Yeats brings out his ideal virtues – custom, ceremony, grace, aristocracy and innocence. “How but in custom and ceremony/Are innocence and beauty born?” If we take “born” for its literal meaning, however, Yeats wants his daughter to have innocent, beautiful children and these virtues are inculcated through custom and ceremony.
Couplet: “Ceremony’s a name for the rich horn,/And custom for the spreading laurel tree.” The rich Horn of Plenty is positive now; as it has offerings, it allows ceremony. For it is ceremonious to have good things and offer them. Perhaps Yeats wants Anne to be well-off and comfortable. A horn also represents ceremony when one blows it to announce something. Custom is a tradition which is “rooted.” When you plant a tree, it roots, Hence, custom is represented by a tree. The home which inculcates custom is the root of the children’s virtues. Hence, custom is represented by a tree. The spreading laurel tree, is custom but earlier on ,it is mentioned that Anne is a laurel; tree. As laurel tree represents custom, it is “spreading” because Yeats wants Anne to spread custom among her family.
A laurel tree may be seen as a family tree. In that case, it is also spreading because Yeats wants Anne to have children – the branches which spread, making a bigger family – and spread custom throughout the generations. Note that the term “olive-branches” means offspring. This is particularly apt because in this stanza, Yeats speaks of marriage, hence children are born and custom is spread. Tone: Hopeful, reflective, advisory, lecture-like, opinionated, confident Literary devices: symbol – “thoroughfares” – world and crowd at large and its Commonness “horn” – ceremony “tree” – custom, family, children, Anne Yeats.
“Prayer for My Daughter” SIMPLE QUESTIONS 1. Do you think Yeats would want his daughter to hold a job or have a career? (If so, what sort?) Why or why not? 2.What do you think Yeats has against an “intellectual hatred” (l. 57)? Why do you think it’s the “worst” hatred? 3. What do you think Yeats means by “radical innocence” (l. 66)? [Note: radical = “from the roots, rooted.”] 4.Comment on what you think Yeats means by custom and ceremony. (Relate in some way to the images of the horn of plenty and laurel tree.) 5.In what ways might innocence and beauty be born out of these qualities? (give examples).
6. Why do you think it is important to Yeats that beauty be born? 7. What contrasts does the opening stanza establish? Consider the settings inside and outside, as well as the speaker’s frame of mind.
As the poem reflects Yeats’s expectations for his young daughter, feminist critques of the poem have questioned the poet’s general approach to women through the text’s portrayal of women in society. In Yeats’s Ghosts, Brenda Maddox suggests that the poem is “designed deliberately to offend women” and labels it as “offensive”. Maddox argues that Yeats, in the poem, condemns his daughter to adhere to 19th Century ideals of womanhood as he focuses on her need for a husband and a “Big House” with a private income. Joyce Carol Oates questions the use of a poem to deprive his daughter of sensuality after Yeats’s rejected marriage proposal to Maud Gonne presents a “crushingly conventional” view of womanhood, wishing her to become a “flourishing hidden tree” instead of allowing her the freedoms given to male children, Yeats’s, In Oates’s opinion, wishes his daughter to become like a “vegetable:immobile, unthinking, and placid.”  Majorie Elizabeth Howes, in Yeats’s Nations suggests that the crisis facing the Anglo-Irish community in “A Prayer for My Daughter” is that of female sexual choice. However, Howes argues that to read the poem without the political context surrounding the Irish Revolution robs the text of a deeper meaning that goes beyond the relationship between Yeats and the female sex
W. B. Yeats’s “A Prayer for My Daughter”: The Ironies of the Patriarchal Stance
Modifying Shelley’s view of poetry as prophesy, which so sharply contrasts with Marianne Moore’s ostensibly skeptical attitude to poetry (“I too dislike it”),1 William Butler Yeats has written that “Because an emotion does not exist, or does not become perceptible and active among us, till it has found its expression, in color or in form or in sound … and because no two modulations or arrangements of these evoke the same emotion, poets and painters and musicians … are continually making and un−making mankind.”2 But mankind is also continually making and unmaking the poet. The history of a poem’s reception, like the fate of a beloved child, is unpredictable. At one stage of reception the intellectual and emotional repertoire of a poem may appear hopelessly dated; at another it may emerge as well ahead of its time. I shall sketch these two eventualities in respect of Yeats’s “A Prayer for My Daughter.”
A prayer is an attempt to exert an influence on the world which, to paraphrase Housman, one “has never made.” As a poetic move it is partly akin to what in Les Figures du discours, the eighteenth−century rhetorician Pierre Fontanier describes as “metalepsis,” that is claiming to produce, one may even say generate, that which one is merely describing. Fontanier’s example is the opening of the fourth canto of Delille’s Trois Règnes de la nature: Enfin, j’arrive à toi, terre à jamais féconde, Jadis de tes rochers j’aurais fair jaillir l’onde; J’aurais semé de fleurs le bord de tes ruisseaux, Déployé tes gazons, tressé tes arbrisseaux, De l’or de tes moissons revêtu les campagnes, Suspendu les chevreaux aux buissons des montagnes, De leurs fruits savoureux enrichi les vergers.
Modern literary theory tends to reverse Fontanier’s distinction and say that by using images of fertility Delille may be redeeming the dream wasteland since in doing so he is “instructing”4 the reader to conjure it up in a certain way. In terms of J. L. Austin’s performative speech−act theory, in an everyday speech situation, such a case of ekphrasis would constitute not a constative speech act but a performative one, an “exercitive,” that is an act of “giving a decision in favour of or against a certain course of action, or advocacy of it,” a decision “that something is to be so, as distinct from a judgment that it is so.”5 Austin denies the possibility of applying speech act theory to the same utterance if introduced in a poem or a novel since the use of language in such frames is, as he says, “parasitic.”6 The word “introduced” is, however, a spring of ambiguities: does Austen refer to any sentence in a novel or a poem or a direct speech act “introduced” in this derivative discourse? What if the poem as a whole is viewed as a complex speech act, variously deploying and reining in different illocutionary forces? The oral speech act is made in an actual deictic situation which determines the extent of its “felicity.”
A literary work, as an act of communication, belongs to a virtual rather than an actual deictic situation; the author cannot foresee what cultural audiences he might eventually be addressing. Hence, the range of the perlocutionary effects of a codified literary text7 is much greater than that of a direct oral speech act; and the control that the speaker can exercise over its consequences diminishes as the time goes by. In that sense “procreation” is a better metaphor for the origin of a literary speech act than “performance.” Indeed, the result of a felicitous performative speech act, one performed by a person in authority and in appropriate circumstances, is definite, limited, and final. When the person authorised to do so proclaims “I name this ship Queen Elizabeth,” reality is modified in the precisely intended way. In giving birth, by contrast, contingencies are paramount. To a baby one transmits one’s codes but in unpredictable combinations, and the world into which a baby is inserted is one that even the most influential of parents has never made.
The future life of a poem and its future intellectual environment are likewise notoriously beyond the author’s ken. Panta rei: [page 102] everything flows, and in every which direction; there is no telling when and how and in what currents of perpetual heterogeneity the poem will be reinserted. The instructions encoded in the text come down to us trailing halos of blanks, and these blanks tend to grow with the passage of time. The resulting semiotic entropy can be partly contained by the study of relevant biographical and intertextual materials that set limits to the liberties we take with texts. Yet these materials are, in their turn, reinserted into the perpetual flow and do not re−emerge from it unchanged.
The contingencies of the ideological reception of “A Prayer for My Daughter” are partly due to the significance of the issues raised in different parts of this rather long poem. Yeats’s treatment of one issue may appear archaically culture−bound, his treatment of another may emerge as prophetic. It seems important, therefore, to refrain from extrapolating our response to separate parts of the poem and from turning this partial response into a perlocutionary dominant of the poem as a whole. The negative eventuality in the reception−history of “A Prayer for My Daughter” may be illustrated by the harshly critical reaction of a feminist reader like Joyce Carol Oates to Yeats’s metaphors for the future that he would wish for his daughter: 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, Not but in merriment begin a chase, Not but in merriment a quarrel. O may she live like some green laurel Rooted in one dear perpetual place.
Oates is disgusted with this prospect: “This celebrated poet would have his daughter an object of nature for others’—which is to say male— delectation. She is not even an animal or a bird in his imagination, but a vegetable: immobile, unthinking, placid, ‘hidden.’ … The poet’s life−work is the creation of a distinct voice in which sound and sense are harmoniously wedded: the poet’s daughter is to be brainless and voiceless, rooted.”9 [page 103] It would seem, however, that Oates is merely using Yeats as a sample spokesman of a run−of−the−mill patriarchal position, practically identical in purport with that of American popular fiction for lady readers. This is basically the position that George Eliot attributed to her Victorian Middlemarchers and defined in the following way: “Women were expected to have weak opinions; but the great safeguard of society and of domestic life was, that opinions were not acted on.”
Oates’s agenda is to show that despite the immense aesthetic distance between modernist literature and the middle−to−low−brow ladies’ reading−matter that she criticises in her article, the persistence of the paleological patriarchal mind−set forms a partial ideological overlap between them. The only place in the poem that is, indeed, a clear expression of an obsolete patriarchal attitude is the culture−bound belatedly Victorian reference to the bridegroom who is expected to prepare a ready−made form of well−being for the bride: “And may her bridegroom bring her to a house ⁄ Where all’s accustomed, ceremonious.” Already more than half a century before novelists like Dickens and George Eliot created striking portraits of women who offered helping hands to unanchored young men instead of waiting for them to qualify (mainly financially and prior to marriage) for the roles of respectable heads of the family. The two lines just quoted may support Oates’s critique of Yeats, but she discredits her case when she attempts to supporting it by her interpretation of lines 65−72: … 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.
What for most readers is a poet’s dream of his daughter’s intellectual and emotional independence is, for Oates, a recommendation of “a kind [page 104] of autism of the spirit.”11 Here Oates overshoots her goal by betraying her own near−totalitarian tendency to condemn non−joiners. Her metaphor of “autism of the spirit” conflicts with Yeats’s simile which presents his daughter’s thoughts not as a natural outgrowth of her being (not, for instance, as the foliage of the tree to which he likens her in his vision) but as singing birds (linnets), gently hosted by the boughs that do not bear the autistic fruit of hatred (“If there’s no hatred in the mind ⁄ Assault and battery of the wind ⁄ Can never tear the linnet from the leaf”) and shared by the tree with the outside world. Ideas are thus presented as partners in the relationship, and the worst that can be said of Yeats’s imagery is that he does not seem to expect his daughter to generate original thoughts. The poem deals not with the desirability or danger of new philosophical insight; the target of its critique is “opinions,” that is, the socially formalized and shared attitudes that suppress and damage individuality instead of promoting its growth.
There is, moreover, a difference between the Middlemarchers’ dismissively paternalistic attitude to women and an actual father’s desire to have his child protected from that “murderous innocence of the sea”—from that “blood−dimmed tide” which, in Yeats ‘s “The Second Coming” drowns, and “In a Prayer for My Daughter” threatens to drown, “the ceremony of innocence.”12 The impulse of paternal protection works irrespective of the baby’s gender; indeed it characterizes both “A Prayer for my Daughter” and “A Prayer for My Son” (1921), written after the birth of Yeats’s son. Both the poems contrast sharply with the Romantic wish to have the object of one’s care exposed to the seasons; Yeats’s agenda is that of the exertion of his psychic energies in a (doomed) attempt to shield.
“A Prayer for My Son” lacks the touches of specific tenderness elicited by a girl−baby (they are partly compensated for by the care for the baby’s mother); and though it is also free from the imaginary Victorian−style match−making, it is the weaker poem of the two. M. L. Rosenthal has noted that its feelings “seem strained, especially in the comparison of the dangers the poet says the child will confront (such as enemies jealous of his achievements) with those faced by the Holy Family.”13 A woman and a man Unless the Holy Writings lie Hurried through the smooth and rough [page 105] And through the fertile and waste, Protecting, till the danger past, With human love.
However, this allusion to Mary’s and Joseph’s plight can be read as emphasizing not the grandeur of the baby’s future “deed or thought” but as an ultimate expression of the parents’ helplessness to forestall their child’s martyrdom: the present danger will pass, but not the one thirty− three years later. The epithet that qualifies the future “deed or thought” of the child is not, as one might expect, “mighty” (or some such bisyllabic word that would fit into the prosodic slot in the line) but “haughty” (“some most haughty deed or thought”)—a word with not only positive but also strongly negative connotations.14 It is almost as if the exercitive speech−act of “prayer” in both the poems seeks to protect the child in each poem not only from the enemies of their ideas but also from the sway of the ideas themselves. This is precisely the attitude which, if not original, is, nevertheless, ahead of its contemporary philosophical contexts. “Intellectual hatred is the worst,” “opinions are accursed,” “not but in merriment begin a quarrel”—all these might just as well be among the rhetorical vignettes of the type of late−twentieth−century intellectual whom Richard Rorty calls “a liberal ironist.”
The ideological portrait of “a liberal ironist” is painted in Rorty’s book Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity: as a liberal, such an intellectual has one strong opinion—that “cruelty is the worst thing we do”;15 as an ironist, he (or she), recognizes the cultural, political, and biographical contingencies of his ⁄her opinions.16 “Nor but in merriment begin a chase, ⁄ Nor but in merriment a quarrel” might in fact sound as a stylistic improvement on the grain of ironic salt with which a liberal ironist treats all of his⁄her opinions—except the one on cruelty as the worst thing we do and the self−reflective one on the need for the ironic stance. Yet, as Rorty himself indicates, the stance of the liberal ironist is “not empowering.”17 Yeats knows that well: in “The Second Coming” the dangerous forces, “the worst,” are characterized by “passionate intensity,” whereas “the best lack all conviction” and therefore cannot, or will not try to, dam the tides of violence. The prophetic accuracy of these intuitions [page 106] requires no comment.
In “A Prayer for My Daughter,” often regarded as a companion piece to “The Second Coming,”18 the speaker casts for a prescriptive conclusion, and finds it in the place where another twenty−first century philosopher, Bernard Williams will introduce a correction on the ironic stance. For Yeats the instabilities that result from an ironist’s pluralism are to be compensated for by “rooted”−ness in “custom” and “ceremony”; for Williams, they are to be contained by the “ethical confidence” that results from a conscious affiliation with a sustaining cultural or ideological circle.19 A recognition of the validity of other perspectives need not undermine or even relativize one’s own position— one’s philosophical foothold has a good chance of stability if it has been planted by a conscious and reciprocated commitment to the people around one. What makes Yeats vulnerable to criticism like that of Joyce Carol Oates is that his motifs of custom and ceremony are intellectually less tenable than Williams’s broader concept of ethical confidence. They do not specify, for instance, that the planting of the self in a tradition is to be done by the self, rather than by others.
The “flourishing hidden tree,” that is Oates’s “vegetable,” is a transformation of the tree−of−life topos that grows in many a poetic melodious plot. As noted above, the liberal ironist’s commitment to her ideas (the linnets in the tree) is presented not as a matter of organic outgrowth but as companionship. Yeats himself is believed not to have wholeheartedly endorsed his own eclectic “salad” of mystical ideas but rather to have needed these ideas as a counterweight to rationalism,20 to have liked living in their vicinity, evoking and hosting them, and turning to them for poetic language.21 The relationship between the tree and the tenacious singing birds contrasts with the famous bird images of “The Second Coming,” where the falconer loses control of the falcon which has been gyrating above him in ever−widening circles and which, in the second verse paragraph, generates the desert birds that angrily reel over a slouching monster. The motif of hunting, associated with the falcon, is in “A Prayer for My Daughter” replaced by the playful ”chase” (“Nor but in merriment begin a chase”); the “indignant” cries of the desert scavengers cheated of their [page 107] prey are replaced by the linnet’s “magnanimities of sound.”
The linnet’s generous, magnanimous song is pitted against the howling of the storm, the prophetic “frenzied drum” of the future cataclysms, and the “angry bellows” for which Maud Gonne is accused of having bartered her birthright. Maud Gonne, Yeats’s Helen of Troy, is invoked as a negative example, almost a control group: her passionate commitments left no place for liberalist irony. I do, however, concur with Joyce Carol Oates in one point: the emotional stance that transpires from underneath the intellectual position of the poem is somewhat alienating: something in it dampens the sympathy evoked by an elderly father’s anxiety for his infant. A dark vision of the world’s future may not be the sole cause of the “great gloom” that has made the speaker walk and pray. In a paper entitled “Between Hatred and Desire,” Marjorie Perloff has suggested that the speaker’s mask of husband and father conceals troubled memories of a shaking recent debacle with Maud Gonne. Maud Gonne had escaped detention in London and, fully expecting to be welcomed and sheltered, knocked on the door of her Dublin house, 73 Stephen’s Green, which Yeats and his pregnant wife were renting for a nominal fee.
Concerned about his wife’s condition after a bad bout of the flue and intent on protecting her from police harassment, Yeats did not let Maud in. A reconciliation was soon achieved, yet Yeats’s conduct in this test of loyalties might have been easier forgiven than forgotten.22 If this painful memory haunts the mood that the poem attempts to capture, it is blocked by the massive yet somewhat contradictory motif of protection. The speaker takes on the role of the father who must exert his spirit, in prayer and best−laid plans, to protect his baby from the elements. Not only the fragile “cradle−hood and coverlid” but even the wood and the hill do not seem to him sufficient obstacles to the “roof and hay−stack levelling wind.” When he imagines his daughter as a “hidden flourishing tree,” the word “hidden” is associated with the “half−hid” of the poem’s second line; hence with sheltering and protection rather than, as in the case of Wordsworth’s Lucy, obscurity.
The content of the prayer sharply contrasts with that of Wordsworth’s prayer for his sister Dorothy in “Tintern Abbey”—”may the lofty mountain winds be free to blow [page 108] against thee,” and even with Coleridge’s day dreams about the future of his own sleeping baby in “Frost at Midnight”—”but thou, my babe, shalt wonder like a breeze… .” While ostensibly dealing with the future of his daughter, the poem also processes Yeats’s own predicament: underneath the natural wish for his child to be protected there may be the subconscious need to believe that his erstwhile wish to protect this child’s pregnant mother was a sufficient motive for his conduct at a crisis point. Indeed, the vocabulary of a criminal charge in “Assault and battery of the wind” may be read as striking back at Maud Gonne for Yeats’s own deficiency, as balancing the “murderous innocence” of the storm with his own aggressive innocence.
The wind instrument (“old bellows”) by which the cornucopia, the Horn of Plenty, is replaced in the poem, transforms the god−given, a Dorothea, into a Pandora with the boxful of winds. The heroic Maud Gonne is here associated not merely with hatred but also, through the word “barter,” with the “wares peddled in the thoroughfares.” The motif of nobleness, which accompanies her image in Yeats’s other poems (e.g., “because of that great nobleness of hers” in “The Vanity of Being Comforted”) is here transposed onto Yeats’s dream child’s thoughts spreading “the magnanimities of sound.” It is as if the hidden agenda of the poem were one of the transfer of allegiance facilitated by the liberal ironist’s stance. The irony of this agenda lies in that it is of women that the patriarchal mind−set usually expects the deliberate prioritizing of family loyalties. This may be the reason for the would−be “atmospheric” gloom of this poem:23
Yeats is not sure of the legitimacy of his own practicing the principles of family life and courtesy that he recommends for his daughter. In another respect, however, the content of the poem is congruent with its stance: an agnostic’s prayer is a speech act whose effectiveness cannot be known—a speech act quite appropriate for a liberal ironist who realizes the contingency of his ideas and of his right to expect their realization. The Hebrew University Jerusalem