“A Prayer for My Daughter” -William Butler Yeats

Yeats examines the kind of life he wishes for his daughter to read in his poem “A Prayer for My Daughter”. Yeats begins by painting a stormy scene as a symbol for all the strife in the world, and all the obstacles the outside world hold. Yet, even early in the poem, he offers hope, writing “my child sleeps on” (3). This shows that his daughter is safe, isolated from the “howling” storm outside (1). This gives the poem an early note of optimism and hope.

Yeats’ first wish is for his daughters looks. He wishes yearns for a daughter that is beautiful, yet he quickly qualifies it with “yet not beauty to make a stranger’s eye distraught, or hers before a looking glass” (17-19). Thus, Yeats is trying to protect his daughter from the pitfalls of being overly beautiful, including unwanted attention and vanity. He worries that being overly beautiful will cause her to “lose natural kindness” or perhaps even “heart-revealing intimacy” (22-23). In short, Yeats wishes his daughter to be “a flourishing hidden tree” (41). Something beautiful and salutary, yet not so that everyone knows her as such.

It’s interesting that the first request and also the large portion of the poem have to do with the daughter’s looks, and not who she is as a person. Although the way Yeats sees it, the two go hand-in-hand. He believes the beauty has the ability to corrupt (both his daughter and everyone around her), pointing to the case of Helen (25). Yet he never actually proves causality.

Yeats then appears to take a very conservative outmoded view of women (which is apt I suppose, as this was written in the 1920s). He speaks of how “intellectual hatred is the worst” (57). This is a curious pronouncement which he clarifies in the next line: “So let her think opinions are accursed” (58). Thus Yeats seemingly wants his daughter to have few thoughts and opinions of her own. He later wishes that “she can… be happy still” in the face of great adversity (65-67). This conjures pictures of the stereotypical 1950’s house wife to the modern reader. A quiet, respectful woman who knows her place in the home and family. While this would be quite an anachronism for Yeats, it nevertheless can be interpreted by a modern mind as overly conservative. Yeats seals this conservative attitude with “how but in custom and in ceremony are innocence and beauty born?” (72-73).

Thus Yeats shares his hopes for his daughters life — views which appear mostly outmoded by todays standards.

-B

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One Response to ““A Prayer for My Daughter” -William Butler Yeats”

  1. apenglishihhs Says:

    The following paragraph is an example of sterling analysis. Impressive:

    It’s interesting that the first request and also the large portion of the poem have to do with the daughter’s looks, and not who she is as a person. Although the way Yeats sees it, the two go hand-in-hand. He believes the beauty has the ability to corrupt (both his daughter and everyone around her), pointing to the case of Helen (25). Yet he never actually proves causality.

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