A Prayer for My Daughter
William Butler Yeats, 1919
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-legg’d 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 kindess cannot take his eyes.
May she become a flourishing hidden tree
That all her thought may like the linnet be,
And have no business but dispensing rounf
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 is is self-delighting,
And that its own sweet will is Heaven’s will;
She can, though every face should scowl
And every windy quarter howl
Or every bellow’s 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.
Yeats’ prayer for his daughter may be my favorite poem. Here, the “murderous innocence” of the stormy sea causes him to think of what the future years may hold for the baby girl asleep in her cradle. He prays that she would be given kindness, wisdom, charm, and gladness, and that she would enjoy the prosperity and permanence of a “flourishing hidden tree.”
William Butler Yeats wrote the poem while staying in the tower at Thoor Ballylee during the Anglo-Irish War, two days after the birth of his daughter Anne in February 1919. The storm may be symbolic of the Irish struggle for Independence, a frequent topic of Yeats’s poetry. “A Prayer for My Daughter,” considered an important work in Modernist poetry, was published in 1921, in the collection Michael Robartes and the Dancer.
More than once in his “Prayer,” Yeats asks that his daughter would be like a green laurel tree. Feminists have decried Yeats for wishing his daughter to be a “vegetable: immobile, unthinking, and placid.” But a rooted tree has ever been the symbol of fruitfulness, beauty, and strength. (The laurel tree, specifically, is a symbol of victory and nobility.) The Psalmist sings of the righteous man, “He shall be like a tree, planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall propser.” The upright “shall never be moved”; the immobility here does not connote paralyzation or barrenness, but growth, fruitfulness, and continuance. “The wicked are not so, but are like the chaff which the wind driveth away.”