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A Prayer For My Daughter
The Poem
Anne Butler Yeats, the poet’s first child, was born on February 26, 1919, only a month after William Butler Yeats completed “The Second Coming,” his apocalyptic vision of violence and anarchy. Four months later, he composed “A Prayer for My Daughter,” in which he expanded his belief that a return to tradition and ceremony remained the single means of avoiding the earlier poem’s “blood-dimmed tide” now “loosed upon the world.” Yeats prays that his daughter may cultivate self-regard and independence and that she may marry into a home that respects ritual and ceremony. Only in these ways, he believes, can she find the innocence and peace to transcend the impending cataclysm of physical and spiritual chaos that he had foreseen in “The Second Coming.” “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;/ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,” he had written in “The Second Coming,” prophesying the rise of fascism in Europe and recalling the bloodshed of both the Russian Revolution (1917) and the Irish Easter Rebellion (1916). These powerful images refer as well to the emotional, psychological, and spiritual disintegration that accompanies international and social crisis. If Yeats’s vision of the violent and lawless modern world had prompted “The Second Coming,” it was the possibility of transcending such a world that prompted “A Prayer for My Daughter”; the two poems can be read as companion pieces. It is well acknowledged that the bulk of Yeats’s great work drew upon the events of his life. “A Prayer for My Daughter” is one of his most exquisite personal poems, for here Yeats prays that his daughter may shun those very qualities that characterized the woman he loved throughout most of his life. Maud Gonne, whom he had met when he was twenty-two, and whom he wooed unsuccessfully for nearly thirty years, was both an actress and political activist. Yeats not only shared some of Maud’s political and professional interests but also, because of his unabating love for her, wrote a body of love (and political) poems about the exaltation and dejection incumbent upon wooing “a proud woman not kindred of his soul” (“A Dialogue of Self and Soul”). Yet if Yeats celebrated Maud’s beauty and nationalistic fervor, he also immortalized her unhappiness and single-mindedness—those personal qualities that ultimately destroyed Maud and many others who had similarly fought for Irish freedom in the early years of the twentieth century. It was only in 1917, and at the age of fifty-two, that Yeats turned to another woman, Georgie Hyde-Lees, and married. Georgie was a woman of decidedly less beauty and flair than Maud, but she was also a woman who, as one sees in “A Prayer for My Daughter,” was worthy of celebration. Her “charm” finally “made [him] wise,” as did her virtuous “glad kindness.” Georgie, it would appear, embodied those qualities of generosity and self-sufficiency that he hoped to see perpetuated in their daughter. The first two of the poem’s ten stanzas describe the violence of the outer world. “Once more,” he begins, “the storm is howling,” and nothing can stop the “screaming” wind that threatens to level nature (the woods and haystacks) and civilization (the roofs and his tower). He listens to the howling “sea-wind scream,” along with the storm in the “elms above the flooded streams.” He then imagines “in excited reverie” that his daughter has grown to adulthood. The prayer begins in the following, third stanza: “May she be granted. . . .” First, he would have her granted physical beauty—but not Maud’s excessive beauty, for this not only makes men “distraught,” but, more important, leads its possessor to vanity and indifference to others. Overly beautiful women ignore the cultivation of natural kindness and thus lose the capability of recognizing and retaining true friendship. Of her various personal virtues, he would have her cultivate (“learn”) “courtesy.” Yeats suggests that kindness and generosity breed...
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