William Butler Yeats

A Prayer for my Daughter

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A Prayer for my Daughter Summary

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William Butler Yeats wrote the poem “A Prayer for my Daughter,” dedicated to his daughter, Anne, and concerning her future wellbeing and prospects, shortly after her birth in 1919. It was first published in his 1921 poetry collection, Michael Robartes and the Dancer. Yeats had complex views on early twentieth-century issues including sexism, feminism, and Irish Nationalism; these views are reflected in the poem. Critics claim the poem is one of the most significant Modernist poems by an Irish writer. Aside from his literary achievements, Yeats founded the Abbey Theatre and served as a Senator of the Irish Free State.

In this ten-stanza poem, Yeats questions how best to raise his daughter in politically turbulent times. He ponders how she will survive the difficult times ahead for Ireland. Significantly, Yeats feels helpless not knowing how to be a good father. He wants to give his daughter the best life he possibly can. He explores his intense emotions throughout the poem.

Yeats assumes that his daughter needs a man to look after her. He worries about what will happen to her when he is gone. It is crucial that, when she is older, she finds a wealthy husband to keep her stable and comfortable. These thoughts reflect typical nineteenth- and early twentieth-century femininity; as such, the poem is very traditional and gender conservative.

The poem opens as Yeats watches Anne sleep in a cradle. It is a stormy night and Yeats can’t settle. He worries about so many things, but most of all, his daughter. Her cradle shelters her from the storm, but one day, she will outgrow it, and then he must find other ways to protect her. Yeats refers to both the physical storm outside and the political storm brewing across Ireland.

In the second stanza, Yeats worries about what the future holds. He looks out at the sea, picturing the years ahead springing from the waves and chasing them both. He contrasts Anne’s innocence against violence that is outside her control. She is the sea, and the brutal storm outside symbolizes the forces working against her. No matter what Yeats does, the storm will always chase after his daughter.

The third stanza is a prayer to an unnamed force. Yeats wants a pretty daughter, but not so beautiful that she relies on her beauty for everything. He doesn’t want a proud or vain daughter who doesn’t have any friends and spends all day staring in the mirror. He doesn’t want her to distract men, either. She only needs enough beauty to secure a husband. Too much beauty is dangerous for a woman.

Yeats turns to Greek myth in the fourth stanza. He uses Helen of Troy as an example of a doomed woman. She was proud, vain, and arrogant. She destroyed a territory without apology. Above all, Helen drove men to catastrophic distraction. She found love, but it destroyed her, and she was miserable forever. Yeats once proposed to a beautiful woman who rejected him and then lived miserably with her chosen husband; this stanza reflects his own embittered feelings.

Since Anne must possess more than just beauty, Yeats considers the qualities she will need in stanza five. She must be compassionate and kind. The nicest people are modest. Moreover, modest and courteous people attract others to them. Politeness and manners are everything. His daughter should be attractive enough to find marriage, but not so attractive that she is cruel and unkind to men who love her.

In stanza six, Yeats considers what makes a woman happy and fulfilled. He believes that women must be innocent and virtuous. They make others feel better and they bring peace to the world. Yeats continues this theme in stanza seven. Kind and strong, self-contained women are incorruptible. Just as the storm outside can’t tear leaves from sturdy trees, turmoil and war can’t break a strong woman.

Yeats implores his daughter to shun passion and wild feelings in stanza eight. She must be temperate because people who love too deeply are also prone to hate. Hate destroys people and makes them do cruel things. Again, this stanza reflects how Yeats felt when his true love rejected him. He doesn’t want his daughter to experience these feelings of hatred.

The ninth stanza continues the theme of victory over hatred. Women should be stoic and impregnable, not revealing their true feelings to anyone. The ideal woman makes everyone happy and comfortable even when she is broken inside or suffering from financial misfortune. Women are anchors around which everything else revolves.

Yeats completes “A Prayer for my Daughter” with a final wish. He wants her to marry a good husband from a stable family with aristocratic traditions. These families prize morality and purity above all things. She should not live a decadent life. Instead, she should rise above the storms raging around her, ascending to greater things.