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,
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
From Michael Robartes and the Dancer (Cuala Press, 1921)
This poem it is written to Anne, his daughter with Georgie Hyde Lees, whom Yeats married after his last marriage proposal to Maud Gonne was rejected in 1916. Yeats wrote the poem while staying in a tower at Thoor Ballylee during the Anglo-Irish War, two days after Anne’s birth on February 26, 1919. The poem reflects Yeats’s complicated views on Irish Nationalism, sexuality, and is considered an important work of Modernist poetry.
As the poem reflects Yeats’s expectations for his young daughter, feminist critiques of the poem have questioned the poet’s general approach to women through the text’s portrayal of women in society. Joyce Carol Oates suggests that Yeats used the poem to deprive his daughter of sensuality as he envisions a “crushingly conventional” view of womanhood, wishing her to become a “flourishing hidden tree” instead of allowing her the freedoms given to male children. In Oates’ opinion, Yeats wishes his daughter to become like a “vegetable:immobile, unthinking, and placid.”
The tree is an important symbol for Yeats. He gives it qualities of goodness, good health and prosperity. It is also a symbol of growth and since it shelters birds and can give fruit; it also stands for kindness. Yeats adds a further dimension to this by specifying the tree in line 47 (verse 6), The laurel tree is of special significance to the ancient Greeks. Its leaves were used to crown poets and heroes. In Greek mythology the laurel is associated with Daphne, the daughter of a river god with whom Apollo fell in love. When Apollo chased her, she cried for help and was changed into a laurel tree, which became the favorite tree of Orpheus’s father.
In the context of Yeat’s poem the laurel tree carries with it overtones of feminine shyness (hidden tree̱ ‒ line 41) and purity. It also links it with the “chase” in line 45.