Breaking Down “A Prayer for my Daughter”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR 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...
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