Yeats’s Prayer for his Daughter: Reference to his Poems

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      A Prayer for My Daughter was written in 1919, a significant date, for it was soon after the First World War. Naturally enough, the poet was troubled and gloomy about the situation in the Western world, in the post-war period. There was turbulence in the society, and the world was appearing to be an increasingly harsh and coarse place to live in. At this juncture, Yeats’s daughter was born. It is inevitable for Yeats to have been concerned about his daughter’s future in such a world.

      On a personal level, the poem is a prayer, or rather a wish, that his daughter should be able to develop qualities which would help her to face the violence rampant in the world. The violence in Nature—the “murderous innocence of the sea”—indicates a larger violence. At least, the cruelty of the sea is “innocent” because it is natural and impersonal; the cruelty of man is deliberate and vicious. In such a world, he prays for his daughter to develop qualities—the frail, beautiful manipulation of form which is there “in custom and in ceremony” which may ultimately be doomed, but will at least help for the present.

      On another level, however, the prayer for his daughter can be interpreted on a larger level—a prayer for the restoration of order and grace in a battered civilization. In The Second Coming, Yeats had described his vision of the future world tom by anarchy:

Things fall apart: the center cannot hold
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed

      One cannot fail to hear the echo of the “blood-dimmed tide” in “the murderous innocence of the sea” of A Prayer for My Daughter. The sea-wind’s screams upon the tower and under the arches of the bridge, and in the elms, seem to indicate the frenzy of future years. The child is peacefully sleeping in its cradle amidst the howling storm outside. Yeats indicates that there is little protection for the child against the gloomy violence outside. The background of a storm is an image of the world. Yeats believed, as he has expressed in The Second Coming, that the Christian Civilization had reached its zenith and was disintegrating now. The prayer for his daughter’s survival becomes also a prayer for an improvement in the world. One could call the poem a manifesto of Yeats’s personal ideals in old age of settled life and established values. The term “ceremony” is a keyword in Yeats’s thought, and it involves not just formal ritual or courtesy but also order, grace and reverence.

      In a world torn by strife and violence and upheaval of all kinds symbolized by the howling storm, order and grace are naturally threatened. And Yeats, like Eliot and many other poets of this period, felt that the need of the day was peace and order. In the last stanza of the poem, Yeats wishes his daughter to be married to an aristocratic family rich in tradition and manners, governed by customary laws of courtesy. Modem democratic society in Yeats’s opinion, had upset the order and beauty of civilization and created hatred and arrogance in people. But beauty and true innocence can only be the product of long-established culture. Summing up, he uses the word “ceremony” associating it with the Hom of Plenty, bestower of all kinds of virtue; and custom is seen as the spreading laurel tree, fixed at a spot and giving shelter to generations of human beings. He prays for his daughter to be free of hatred, especially intellectual hatred, for then alone will her soul be self-contained and find “its fulfillment in itself, and not in working on the happiness of others.”

      Yeats had become disillusioned with the Irish masses and the violence that the revolutionaries had unleashed. Furthermore, the kindness he had received from Lady Gregory had made him an enthusiastic admirer of the “big-house tradition.” He came to see the aristocracy as the guardian of tradition and culture—which were essential to creative activity, and bred the highest spiritual values.

      It is facile to argue that the poem is not really a “prayer” or that Yeats is not praying for the “Christian virtues” for his daughter. Yeats wishes for “organic” innocence and freedom from hatred - the basis on which other virtues will inevitably grow. His faith in the aristocratic custom is not merely a nostalgia for the glorious past; the custom and ceremony are the very ideals which might counter the violence threatening the civilization. The images in the poem that serve to express the poet’s wishes for the future—flourishing tree, songbirds, sweet music, green laurel tree, the Hom of Plenty—all emphasize the need for order, aim, grace and joy in a battered civilization. The storm howls outside and the seas batter close by, and there is a very frail barrier between the destructive elements and the cozy scene inside with the child sleeping peacefully. The wind, “Atlantic bed” “screams” hysterically above “the flooded stream”, bringing to our mind echoes of the great Biblical flood and immediate inundation. In the end the poem is a prayer for order and grace in a battered civilization. Behind the prayer, of course, are Yeats’s bitter memories of Maud Gonne who had come to stand for the tragedy of how beauty and grace can be distorted by politics, intellectual hatred and arrogance.

University Questions

‘‘A Prayer for My Daughter is a prayer for order and grace in a battered civilization.” Discuss.
‘‘Yeats’s prayer for his daughter gains in strength against the threatening background which makes the appeal to custom and ceremony something more than mere nostalgia for an aristocratic past.” Discuss with reference to A Prayer for My Daughter.

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