Classics: Poetry Analysis of William Butler Yeats's "A Prayer for my Daughter"

Classics: Poetry Analysis of  William Butler Yeats's "A Prayer for my Daughter"
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Yeats’s “A Prayer for my Daughter” presents the image of a child who sleeps soundly through a thunderous storm. The child referred to here is Anne Butler Yeats, who was born a month after Yeats penned “The Second Coming.” The prescribed poem is placed after “The Second Coming” in the collection.

The storm born on the Atlantic Ocean is emblematic of the larger violence of the Irish War of Independence.The external unrest is a concretization of the poet’s internal trauma. The image of the child sleeping innocently by the haystack evocatively signifies the image of Christ. In Yeats‘s “The Second Coming”, the coarse fiend replaces the divine image of Christ. Apart from the wood around Lady Gregory’s estate, nothing seems to bar the intensity of the storm.

The poet is in a state of trance owing to contemplation. He senses the rising sea-wind scream:

“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;”

The sea-wind traverses all the realms and makes its presence felt. It is evocative of “the frenzied drum”–the impulsive frenzy that would dictate the future years. The vision for the future here is apocalyptic. The action of beating a drum signifies the call for battle. The impending revolution of the future years comes as a response to the beating of the drum. Compare ‘the murderous innocence of the sea’ to the ‘blood-dimmed tide’ in Yeats’s “The Second Coming.”

Also, connect the phrase ‘murderous innocence’ to ‘Terrible Beauty’ in “Easter 1916”. The figure of speech utilized in “murderous innocence” is an oxymoron . The phrase implies that the revolution is destructive, yet it harbours no ill-will towards anybody.

Let God Grant Her Beauty..

Here the daughter stands as a symbol of his country-Ireland, when he says ‘Let God grant her beauty.’ Nevertheless, Yeats is wary of the evil eye that would be cast on this magnificence. Yeats reiterates that she should not break a stranger’s heart; thereby evolving into another Maud Gonne. Further, she must not be conceited as she beholds her reflection. Her beauty should not limit itself to being skin deep.

Similarly, the glory of his country Ireland should not be superficial; it should exude warmth from within. A woman must be guided by emotion, and not by reason/principle (that Yeats simplifies as ’right’). The word ‘right’ may also connote her Mr.Right.

Excess beauty has always been unfavorable. He exemplifies the same with several references to Greek mythology. Helen was a woman of incomparable and exquisite beauty. Married to the Greek warrior Menelaus, her beauty made her so vain that she found life with Menelaus to be unsatisfactory. The impulsive Helen eloped with her lover who was the Trojan prince. It paved the way for a destructive and prolonged war. Therefore, Helen’s beauty proved to be detrimental not only to her but to many others.

The queen Aphrodite, the Goddess of love and beauty had no father and led a dissipated life. Driven by instinct, she got married to the lame god, Hephaestus. Her hasty decision led her astray; resulting in her having an illicit affair with another God. According to the poet, fine women, are blessed with the ‘Horn of Plenty’. The ‘Horn of Plenty’ or ‘Cornucopia’ according to mythology is the horn of a goat that is depicted as - overflowing with flowers, fruit and corn. It thereby symbolizes fertility, prosperity and procreation. Keats portrays the Horn of Plenty as being capable of nurturing and enforcing virtues.

The poet ascertains that it is not shallow superficial beauty that wins hearts and gifts. For, this sort of appreciation may waver with the decline of beauty. What is of consequence is the love that is gained through courtesy, consideration and compassion. Yeats does not endorse love earned through ambition or revolution, as with Maud Gonne.

There is an autobiographical strain here alluding to his love for Maud Gonne. It was futile as she turned a blind eye to him; Yeats squandered away the years in hopelessness. He was a fool to think that she reciprocated his love. Yeats eventually came to his senses and married Georgie Hyde-Lees who endowed him with “a glad kindness” always.

The Symbol of the Flourishing Tree

The poet wishes that his daughter be like a flourishing tree far from the public eye. Yeats hopes that her thoughts will be like the linnet, and that her songs radiate magnanimity. Her thoughts shall not instigate fights and create conflicts. He expects her not to get involved in quarrels except for the sake of jest. Like a green laurel tree, she would remain rooted in one place, but her goodness would branch out all around. The color ‘green’ emblematizes the quality of being evergreen and fruitful.

The poet also refers to stability in a relationship here through the idea of constancy. Yeats taunts at Maud Gonne who had with Lucien Millevoye –two illegitimate children, and later went on to marry John McBride. The speaker wants Anne to be constant to one man, unlike Maud Gonne.

Joyce Carol Oates questions the stance of the poem that aims at depriving Yeats’s daughter of sensuality just because Yeats' marriage proposal to Maud Gonne was rejected. Oates also states that Yeats presents a “crushingly conventional” view of womanhood. He wishes her to become a “flourishing hidden tree” instead of allowing her the freedoms given to male children. Yeats, in Oates’s opinion, wishes that his daughter become a “vegetable: immobile, unthinking, and placid.”

Yeats asserts that his mind has dried up of late. His love for Maud Gonne had failed him and left him in state of desperation and depression. Over the years, however, he has finally reached a stage where he comprehends that negativity will not result in any sort of productivity:

“If there’s no hatred in a mind

Assault and battery of the wind

Can never tear the linnet from the leaf.”

The linnet and leaf being fragile, the condition of being so is used to indicate sensitivity. If a person harbours no odium, even the wildest of storms cannot hamper his spirit.

Intellectual hatred is the worst, according to Yeats, as it is not personal/individual to be resolved easily. He hopes that his daughter’s opinions are accursed. Maud Gonne, one of the loveliest women, was born to a high and refined family. Revolutionary thoughts dominated her nature and turned her into a mere wind bag. All the goodness of a woman was sacrificed for propaganda and half-truths.

Yeats’s “A Prayer for my Daughter” underlines that if a heart is pure of all detestation, the soul is reinstated to its original form in all its virtue.It ultimately learns that at last it is “self-delighting, /Self-appeasing, self-affrighting.” Its will is then identified with that of heavens in all its purity and transparency. Thereby, Anne can lead a spot-free life of bliss .In such a situation, no external scowls or opinions can deter her from leading a life of everlasting happiness.

He wants his daughter’s bridegroom to usher her to a house, ‘house’ being a symbol of domestic well-being. Custom and ceremony will lend their life constancy. Yeats was an upholder of the standards of refinement. He abhorred the vulgarity and coarseness of the masses, and the plebeian mind-set of the socialists.


  • Oates, Joyce Carol. “At Least I Have Made a Woman of Her: Images of Women in Twentieth-Century Literature.” The Georgia Review (1983) pp. 7-30