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A Prayer For My Daughter -- William Butler Yeats

Guest poem submitted by Priya Chakravarthi:
(Poem #1020) A Prayer For My Daughter
 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-leggèd 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.
-- William Butler Yeats
I was taught this poem in school and it remains one of my favourites.
Despite the seeming simplicity of its theme the poem has a deep political
undercurrent and Yeats' trademark cynicism.

Yeats was deeply involved in Irish politics, particularly the struggle for
freedom from England. His verse, even after Ireland's independence,
reflected pessimism about the political situation in his country and the
rest of Europe. In fact the howling storm with which the poem opens refers
to the gathering clouds in Ireland's political scene. In the course of his
political activities Yeats met an extremely beautiful rebel called Maud
Gonne and was influenced by her strength of character and political ideas.
Maud however chose to marry a man who Yeats considered to be an intellectual
pygmy. The "old bellows full of angry wind" is a scathing reference to this
man and the part about Helen and Venus is meant to refer to Maud. The
daughter in this poem is the product of his marriage with Georgie Hyde Lees
who was said to be rather plain.

So much of the ability to appreciate poetry depends on how it was taught in
one's formative years. When I learnt this poem in school I remember the
teacher analyzing every line and explaining the allegory to Irish folklore
in great detail.

Priya.

[Moreover]

"We all of us have or ought to have a group of poems we admire greatly but
dislike. There is so much high art in 'A Prayer for My Daughter', admirably
set forth by the Yeatsians, that the poem compels great respect. 'Under Ben
Bulben', and some other famous poems by Yeats, will be seen someday as
structures of cant and rant, but 'A Prayer for My Daughter" has the
ritualistic strength of Spenser at his strongest, no matter what it is that
here informs the ritualism. As a wholly coherent work, it disarms formalist
criticism, and further possesses an excellence rarely attained by any poem
of celebration, by providing an epitome of the values it praises and
desires. In its eighty lines we are given a complete map of Yeats' social
mind, at least of that mind in the act of idealization."

        -- Harold Bloom, "Yeats"

Bloom, for once, gets it absolutely right. I cannot bring myself to
sympathize with the social and moral philosophy this poem seems to espouse,
but I have to admit that it's beautifully written: Yeats at his fascinating
best.

thomas.

33 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Bill Crow said...

I would like to respond to the sweepingly impertinent remarks made by the Mélange from Amazonium: Madam, Commrade, person - I think it is somewhat slovenly to grind the Ax of " Sexist Tripe" over a poem of such immense and majestic Beauty - beauty in launguage, beauty in structure and beauty in sentiment. I do not hear any " boo hoos" in this poem but only the lush- elegiac lamentations of a Poet who was seriously wounded by the love - and his sonorous prayer that his daughter will be spared the follies and afflictions that have damaged his own life and the lives of those he loved.
This Poet is not " whining" at " beautiful women" but rather lamenting the fate of Beauty in this " murderous sea " of Time and Space '' ...and he is doing so on several different levels including but hardly limited to "sexual" ones.
I also don't agree that Yeat's " pens his intellectual hatred under the guise of fatherly concern and social /moral Philosophy...." I think it is the critic's rather than the Poet's pen that's using ink from the poisened vessels or Wrath!
I don't say that anyone is required to endorse Yeat's deeply held convictions concerning custom and cermony - though they are among the fundamental requisites for any sort of community and communion - or what makes for a forfilling existance. Furthermore, I'm not enough of a scholar in either Irish Lit. or Mr. Yeats' to be certain that my understanding of this Poem is entirely adequate. What I do see here is a beautifully executed and Majestic piece of poetry intended primarily as a sincere attempt to shelter and Bless: the Poet's wish that his daughter "Can, though every face should scowl / And every windy quarter howl/ .../ be happy still ." I mean, where is the "sexist tripe" and " Boo hooing" and intellectual hatred under the guise of fatherly concern" in this prayer?
It seems apparent to me that numerous negative / reductionistic/ Doctrinaire and psuedo-psycological presuppositions are required for such a simplistic dissmissal of
Mr. Yeats and his prayer. What is the value of inflating a few residual excressences so that you can dismiss great works of literature with a Mao-istic flicker of your P.C. index finger? I think this is a very sobering indication of where Things are headed.
Well, this is clumsy, but the best I could do at the moment, Willy

1

Aravind S said...

Good one

mary said...

beautifully written desire for his daughter's quality of personality.would that i could write such an expression of all my hope for my daughters' journey through this life.m prince

Michael Potts said...

This poem is one of my favorites, too, and I
am thankful to Priya for posting it.
I was gladdened, also, by Willy's (not Yeats,
but Crow) reaction to "Mélange from Amazonium"
and her mindless rant. Until she is the father
of a daughter, she is not qualified in the area
of criticism she presumes to occupy. My
daughters, staunchly independent, have had this
poem read to them for three decades, and in our
family "crazy salad" is shorthand for a woman
afflicted with "beauty overmuch" -- Marilyn
Monroe being an iconic example. No discouraging
word about Yeats's sexism has yet been heard from
them. Fathers are often sappy about their
daughters, but Yeats's poem avoids, in my ear,
oversentimentalism in a way worth emulating ...and quoting.
Priya is too right about Yeats's political
sensibilities, but not right in her analysis of
the storm as Yeats commenting on Irish politics
...while Melanghel's bitterness is excusable in
context with the fact that Irish independence is
not yet achieved. In Prayer for My Daughter, the
sea-wind and storm on the other side of the hill
are what we have come to call World War I
...described in a much later poem, Lapis Lazuli,
as "Pitch[ing] like King Billy [Kaiser Wilhelm]
bomb-balls in / Until the town lie beaten flat."
In the period 1919-1921 when Yeats was working on
this poem, the "great gloom" in his mind was due
to the apparent European inability to get along,
Ireland's continuing confusion as to whether it
should ally with Europe against England or vice
versa, and whether the tender child lying
innocently in the cradle will be torn like the
linnet from the leaf of a customary, ceremonious, civilized existence.
For me the test the distinguishes between art
and Art is that the former elicits the reaction
intended by the artist, while the latter touches
us deeper, higher, more intensely than the artist
could possibly know. By that test, this is a
Poem. Priya's, Melanghel's, and Willy's responses tell us so.

Anonymous said...

The lines "Considering that, all hatred driven hence..." seem to me to sum up beautifully the philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita. The self is its own friend, the self is its own enemy.

Anonymous said...

After reading Maud Gonne described as "extremely beautiful" I googled her image eager to see this gorgeous creature. Have to say I think Yeats must have had a thing for women with chunky, masculine faces, unless he was fascinated by some other part of her anatomy which then made all the rest of her seem as charming as well.

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