A Prayer for my Daughter by W.B. Yeats: An Analysis by Claire Wo
Stanza 1: The weather is a reflection of Yeats’ feelings. The post-war period was dangerous. Anne’s vulnerability and innocence is symbolised by the “cradle-hood” and “coverlid.”
“And half hid” shows that Anne is barely protected by the frail “coverlid.”
Anne is oblivious to the violent forces around her; she is ignorant (she “sleeps on”; she is not awake to the violence around her), hence she is “under this cradle-hood” which hides her and is unaffected. (The forces may be riots, violence, starvation, or decay of moral values.) “Under this cradlehood and coverlid/My child sleeps on.” Her ignorance protects her from the uneasy knowledge hence she “sleeps on.”
Robert Gregory died. His father could not protect him from death.
“The roof-levelling wind” is strong, representing frightening, turbulent forces.
“Where by the haystack- and roof-levelling wind,/Bred on the Atlantic, can be stayed.” USA was more comfortable compared to Europe. Turbulent forces or “wind” was less significant and more controlled in the USA. Hence it ca be “stayed” or controlled.
Yeats prays because he is gloomy; “great gloom …. In my mind.”
Tone: Frightening, precarious, gloomy.
Literary devices: personification – “the storm is howling” represents threatening external forces e.g. riots, evilness.
Roof-levelling wind represents turbulent forces.
Symbols - “Storm” represents outside forces which threaten Anne’s safety.
“cradlehood” represents Anne’s innocence and infancy.
“coverlid” represents innocence and ignorance, frail protection.
“wind” represents turbulent forces.
“one bare hill” may represent Robert’s death. (Why is the hill bare? Replies are appreciated.) The hill is empty, it may represent his death – there is no one to occupy it. Or it may be a hill where his tombstone lies. As I have said, I have no idea.
Metonym - The author may be mistaken but “Atlantic” may be the United States of America.
Rhyme scheme: aabbcddc
Stanza 2: Yeats is worried about Anne. “Ihave walked and prayed for this young child an hour.” The weather reflects the threatening forces he fears.
“Flooded stream” represents intense forces caused by people as it has strong forces. It is “flooded” because the troublemakers exist in large numbers or the forces are strong. The weather or external forces caused by the war are stormy and destructive. THe “elms” are tossed due to the destructive forces. People (possibly represented by “elms”) are affected.
Tone : intense, anxious, frenetic, chaotic.
This is rather desperate and pessimistic but there is a shift of mood. “Imagining …” When Yeats starts to imagine, he helps his daughter; he decides how she should turn out. This appeases his worries and gives him new ideas and food for thought.. He imagines how her future will be excitedly.
“Imagining…the future years had come/Dancing to a frenzied drum.” Anne’s life will pass in chaos. “Dancing to a frenzied drum” also indicates the passing years in Anne’s life which are represented by drum-beats (which have rhythm and tempo) – which also symbolize violence and chaos. It is a violent and chaotic time. The drum is “frenzied” because of the danger and chaos around Anne. Furthermore, Yeats is excited (hence frenzied) for her to grow up.
Anne’s innocence is juxtaposed with the contrasting “sea” which is “murderous.” The sea represents the world and the crowds around her, and as they are evil, destructive and take advantage of her innocence, they are “murderous.” Moreover, the “sea” or the world is termed as “murderous innocence” because as part of the “sea”, Anne’s innocence is ‘murderous’ to herself because it enables others to manipulate her.
Tone: frenetic, maddening, excited.
Literary devices: symbols - “sea wind” , “flooded stream” – turbulent forces
Personification - “future years … dancing” - the passing years of life
Juxtaposition/oxymoron/paradox – “murderous innocence of the sea”
Sibilance – “sea-wind scream”
Onomatopoeia – “scream”
Stanza 3: Yeats hopes that Anne will be beautiful but not excessively. “May she be granted beauty and yet not/Beauty to make a stranger’s eye distraught.” Beauty is distracting and destructive, because it causes an admirer to be “distraught” and unhappy as a result of this unfulfilled desire to possess this beauty. Besides, he may desire her negatively and steal her innocence. It inspires passion which may be hopeless. She should not be vain and conceited of her beauty. “Or hers before a looking-glass.) Yeats fears that beauty will make her think that it is sufficient, for beauty would help her. Beautiful people being more attractive can benefit more, and with this attribute, Anne may think that she needs not perform acts of goodness, for her beauty is sufficient to place her in a position of security and acceptance. This causes her to lose “natural kindness”. She does not see or appreciate the values of kindness and virtue. She would think herself superior and strive less without helping others. They do not have to be kind and despise the physically undesirable. Furthermore, their beauty allows them to be fastidious in their choice of partners, having many admirers. Hence, they do not choose the right person as they have no heart or soul. “Lose … the heart-revealing intimacy/ That chooses right.” They cannot love truly and care for veneer and shallow qualities, for they cannot truly feel or know who “the one” is. They are sought for. The right person would in the end be more drawn to a good woman as shown in stanza 5. “Hearts are not had as a gift but hearts are earned.”
Beauty obstructs friendship as being as being beautiful causes one to be condescending, malicious and take things for granted. It causes the loss of human touch for the beautiful may tend to boast and despise their inferiors. They are not true friends. In another perspective, they do not form true friendships because others befriend them for the benefits derived from their appearance and even take advantage of them. The beautiful do not pay attention to those who make true friends as they believe themselves superior in beauty, fashion, etc. etc. Furthermore, excessive beauty results in jealousy and broken friendships. Another point to make is that beauty that over-entices may decrease Anne’s virtue and increase her vulnerability as others wish to use her. This is crucial as in this poem, Yeats emphasizes the need for feminine innocence.
In contrast, a plainer person being on a lower hierarchy will appreciate the importance of kindness. In this context, beauty is equated with society’s shallowness.
Tone: imploring, beseeching, prayer-like, reflective.
Literary devices: personification - “stranger’s eye distraught” - attracts and saddens one who is attracted
Symbol - the “stranger” is an unhappy admirer.
Alliteration - “stranger’s eye distraught”.
Stanza 4 : Yeats speaks of Greek mythology. Helen of Troy, being the most beautiful woman in the world, married Paris, a stupid man. Quote: “Helen being chosen found life flat and dull / And later had much trouble from a fool.” As she was greatly admired and revered for her beauty, life was boring with little strife.
“While that great queen, that rose out of the spray, ‘being fatherless could have her wasy/ Yet chose a bandy-legged smith for man.” Venus or Aphrodite, being fatherless, could marry as she pleased with no parental authority. Yet with all her power and advantages “chose a bandy-legged smith for man” (Hephaestus) – someone inferior to her. She had no father to guide her. Yeats intends to guide his daughter in the choice of a suitable spouse. Yeats is scornful: cultured women make mad choices in spouses. “Fine women eat/ A crazy salad with their meat.” Meat is substantial; salad is not. Meat represents
a fine lady who can be said to be “substantial,” having numerous qualities; the “crazy salad” is their dreadful mate, who is devoid of many qualities. They can have more, but choose worse.
The Horn of Plenty was a horn given by Zeus to his caretaker. The possessor of this Horn would be granted his wishes.
“Whereby the Horn of Plenty is undone.” This is because Maud Gonne squandered her gifts of intellect, grace and beauty and the benefits she could command by marrying John McBride. She could obtain what she desired with these gifts – similar to the Horn of Plenty – and wasted the aforementioned gifts on McBride. As the Horn of Plenty could bring victuals, John McBride is symbolized as an unsubstantial “salad.” Maud Gonne wasted her supposed power; she could have done better for herself, instead she made the wrong choice or desire.
Tone: cynical, sad, troubled, scornful.
Literary devices: symbol - “Helen”, “Queen” – a beautiful cultured woman or Maud Gonne
“Horn of plenty” - gifts, advantages.
Metaphor - “crazy salad” – an inferior spouse.
Stanza 5: Yeats wants Anne to be courteous. Love does not come freely and
unconditionally. “Hearts are not had as a gift but hearts are earned.” Love is not inspired by mere physical beauty; it is earned by good efforts “by those who are not entirely beautiful” who are kind and helpful. Those who have in stupidity made a fool of themselves by hopelessly loving beautiful women and thought it was reciprocated. “Yet many, tat have played the fool/ For beauty’s very self.” One may not be loved by a beautiful woman. “
“Charm” from a good woman has charmed a man eventually. “has charm made wise.” He becomes “wise” by realizing the goodness of loveing a good woman.
Unsuccessful men have loved and are loved by kind women who make them happy, yet are not beautiful. “Loved and thought himself beloved/ From a glad kindness cannot take his eyes.” She “cannot take his eyes” or maptivate him by sight because she is not physically beautiful. But her kindness makes him glad. This could be a reference to Yeats’ wife,, Georgie Hyde Lees who was not beautiful, but they had a happy marriage. Georgie loved him and let him take the credit for her work. The persona praises good unbeautiful women – like Georgie – who re more loved by men compared to harsh beautiful ones – Maud Gonne.
Tome: reflective, advisory, grateful, enlightened.
Literary devices: personification - “glad kindness cannot take his eys”
“charm made wise.”
Symbol - “hearts” – love.