Poetry Project VII: “A Prayer for My Daughter,” by W.B. Yeats

This is the seventh and final installment of a project that H.E. Bishop Williamson and I worked on a number of years ago.  You can find other installments in the series in the sidebar.  The poem is below, followed by the Bishop's commentary.

Once more the storm is howling, and half hid
Under this cradle-hood and coverlid
My child sleeps on. There is no obstacle
But Gregory's wood and one bare hill
Whereby the haystack- and roof-levelling wind,
Bred on the Atlantic, can be stayed;
And for an hour I have walked and prayed
Because of the great gloom that is in my mind.

I have walked and prayed for this young child an hour
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;
Imagining in excited reverie
That the future years had come,
Dancing to a frenzied drum,
Out of the murderous innocence of the sea.

May she be granted beauty and yet not
Beauty to make a stranger's eye distraught,
Or hers before a looking-glass, for such,
Being made beautiful overmuch,
Consider beauty a sufficient end,
Lose natural kindness and maybe
The heart-revealing intimacy
That chooses right, and never find a friend.

Helen being chosen found life flat and dull
And later had much trouble from a fool,
While that great Queen, that rose out of the spray,
Being fatherless could have her way
Yet chose a bandy-legged smith for man.
It's certain that fine women eat
A crazy salad with their meat
Whereby the Horn of Plenty is undone.

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;
Yet many, that have played the fool
For beauty's very self, has charm made wise,
And many a poor man that has roved,
Loved and thought himself beloved,
From a glad kindness cannot take his eyes.

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,
Nor but in merriment begin a chase,
Nor but in merriment a quarrel.
O may she live like some green laurel
Rooted in one dear perpetual place.

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,
Yet knows that to be choked with hate
May well be of all evil chances chief.
If there's no hatred in a mind
Assault and battery of the wind
Can never tear the linnet from the leaf.

An intellectual hatred is the worst,
So let her think opinions are accursed.
Have I not seen the loveliest woman born
Out of the mouth of Plenty's horn,
Because of her opinionated mind
Barter that horn and every good
By quiet natures understood
For an old bellows full of angry wind?

Considering that, 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.

And may her bridegroom bring her to a house
Where all's accustomed, ceremonious;
For arrogance and hatred are the wares
Peddled in the thoroughfares.
How but in custom and in ceremony
Are innocence and beauty born?
Ceremony's a name for the rich horn,
And custom for the spreading laurel tree.

June 1919

In our materialistic age, many people have little or no inclination to read poems. Whether it is that they have no wish to share in the higher sentiments expressed by classic poets of the past, or that they have no time to decipher the tortured hieroglyphics of poets of the present, in any case they scorn “poetry”, or cannot be bothered with it. Nevertheless, even Rockers and Rappers put rhythm and rhyme in their language to mark the message they have for their fellow-men, so poetry refuses to die.

If then there is a modern reader who has up till now left poetry well alone, but who may have come to suspect that there is perhaps something in it for him after all, he could make a good start with “A Prayer For My Daughter” by William Butler Yeats, especially if he is or has been the father of a little girl. Certain things in human nature do not change. It is to such great truths as love and death that poets of all ages are impelled to give special expression in poems. In “A Prayer” Yeats is expressing his care for the future of his baby girl. “A Prayer” is the poem of a modern man driven by an ancient parental love to give modern expression to some ancient truths.

Yeats was born of Protestant Anglo-Irish parents in 1865. He became interested in writing at a young age, and wrote some lovely Romantic poems corresponding to the end of the Romantic 19th century. In 1889 he met the love of his life who was his muse and inspiration for a number of years, Maud Gonne, but she finally refused to marry him despite repeated proposals, so it was only well into the 20th century that he met and married, at the age of 51, a woman half his age who gave him the baby girl whose future is the central pre-occupation of “A Prayer”.

The poem consists of ten eight-line verses, which divide as to their content into five pairs of verses : I and II, setting the scene; III and IV, first wish for the girl, let her not be too beautiful; V and VI, second wish, let her be kind; VII and VIII, third wish, let her not be a modern woman; IX and X, conclusion.

Setting the scene: the poem opens in the Yeats home on the west coast of Ireland, where a stormy wind is blowing almost straight off the Atlantic Ocean. It is making the poet think of the stormy world he has known, just coming out of the First World War (1914-1918), in which his baby girl will have to grow up (verse I). He has been praying for her hard, because just as the wind is tormenting every feature of the landscape around, so Yeats can picture the whole world being whipped to a frenzy in the years to come, by some wild force like the wind off the sea (v.III). He has an intuition of what the 20th century will be like!

First wish: with half a century’s experience of life behind him, the poet hopes firstly that his little girl will not be too beautiful. Too much beauty could distract either the young men around her, or herself, because if it became her purpose in life, she could turn self-centered and unkind, and finish up being left alone (v.III). Yeats recalls from ancient Greece two examples of very beautiful but unhappy women: Helen of Troy and the goddess of love, Aphrodite (today we might think of fashion models). There is some craziness that gets into very beautiful women, Yeats has observed, so that all their gifts turn poor (v.IV).

Second wish: for his own girl the poet wishes that she may have kindness of heart rather than beauty, because whereas a woman’s exterior beauty can turn men into complete fools, her inner warmth and charm can make a man lastingly happy (v.V). May his girl grow and flourish like a tree hidden away, may her thoughts be as tuneful as the song of a bird, rejoicing everyone around, getting into no arguments or silly pursuits, rooted and thriving in one place, like a laurel-bush, happy to stay at home (v.VI).

Third wish: by way of contrast, the poet’s mind turns back to his own harsh experience. He has cultivated minds and sought out a kind of beauty that brought him only to hate, the greatest of misfortunes. Whoever nurses no hatred within will be disturbed by no storms from without (v.VII). Yeats recalls in particular the love of his life, without mentioning her name, who by spurning withdrawal and pushing herself and her opinions on everyone around, trashed her splendid gifts and turned, as we would say today, into an angry old bag (v.VIII).

Conclusion: let his daughter drive out hate, and she will discover that all joy, peace and fear arise only from within herself, and Heaven will be with her. Then let all men fret, let all storms rage, let all anger burst upon her, still she will be happy (v.IX). And when she marries, let her keep all pride and anger out of her home, and foster there instead what Yeats calls “custom” and “ceremony”. Custom is avoidance of unnecessary change, like the rootedness of a tree, permitting it to blossom and grow. Ceremony is all those outward forms of politeness proceeding from inward calm and dignity. In such a home will innocence and beauty flourish (v.X).

Thus the CONTENT of “A Prayer” is both classical and modern. On the one hand to say that chiefest of evils is hate (VII), suggesting that chiefest of goods is love, is the message central to 2000 years of Christian civilization. To say that a woman’s place is in the home may be unfashionable today, but it was the most classical common sense until, say, 100 years ago. Yeats has come to recognize that the true happiness of woman, as of those around her, depends on her fulfilling her vocation to live withdrawn, a life rooted in the home, where she can foster innocence and beauty. Such classical wisdom is rejected by modern woman who wants to live in public like the men, fighting to be like them, fighting her deep-down nature.

On the other hand, “A Prayer” is a product of our own times precisely because Yeats has had enough experience of modernity not only to know how unhappy his daughter will be if ever she goes the feminist way, but also to foresee that the whole of civilization is whipping itself into madness (v.II). Like so many famous writers of the last several centuries, Yeats does not have all the answers, but nobody can say he has no handle on the problem. No reader today can say that Yeats does not speak to his situation.

Similarly the LANGUAGE of “A Prayer” is both classical and modern. On the one hand the rhyme scheme of each eight-line verse is regular (ababcddc), the rhythm of each line is basically iambic (te-TUM), and no sentence is so difficult to read that it cannot with a little attention be understood. On the other hand there are some rough rhymes (e.g.obstacle-hill, not-distraught, dull-fool, etc.), there are in each verse two four-beat lines (6 and 7) to prevent any monotony within the framework of the staple five-beat lines, and there are plenty of striking and original expressions that stop the mind from sliding over without thinking, as one does with the language of the mass media. One must pay more than a little attention to catch the full meaning of, for instance, “horn of plenty”, “custom” and “ceremony”. Thus Yeats uses words to the full, but in a modern way, without any trace of Romanticism or sentimentality, even to express a father’s concern for his child. He is a modern poet.

Yet he does not have all the answers. The gloom arising within him when he thinks of his child growing up in the world as he knows it is enough to drive him to pray, but there is no mention of God. The father’s concern is genuine, but how far does it reach? Heaven does get a mention in verse IX, but the same verse, as it stands, suggests a practical ignorance of original sin: is “all hate driven hence” really enough for the soul to discover that “its own sweet will is Heaven’s will”? If only it were that easy! Surely Solzhenitsyn is closer to the mark when he says that pride grows on the human soul like the lard on a pig!

However, we do not go to the poets for high theology. Not even Dante’s theology is reliable, when for instance he places heresy only halfway down Hell. We go to the poets for a masterly use of our language, enhanced by rhyme and rhythm, to give expression to things of the human mind and heart which we have known and felt at least in part, but which we could never ourselves have uttered so well. How poor is a civilization turning its back on its poets! Is it still a civilization? How wretched our schools that no longer have the children learn poems by heart and then recite them! How little a people knows itself that does not know its poets! The Rockers and the Rappers will steal away their children, as Yeats dimly foresaw, and turn them into anything but nourishers of innocence and beauty.

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