A Prayer for My Daughter by William Butler Yeats: Critical Appreciation

A Prayer for My Daughter exposes the typical modernist sentiment of the poet. The poet has portrayed a way of life and would like his daughter to adopt it. The kind of philosophy, he formulates in the poem is oriented towards an emphasis on the importance of tradition, custom and culture in the modern world which is dominated by chaos. The tradition, custom, culture is certainly aristocracy.

William B. Yeats (1865-1939)

He is of the opinion that aristocracy is the only culture which can redeem the modern world of chaos and anarchy. For him, aristocracy is the source of aesthetic, intellectual and cultural beauty. Therefore, probably because of Nietzsche’s influence upon him, he expresses his hatred for commoners and wishes his daughter to be trained in the school of aristocracy. He considers it an ideal way of life. This is a leisurely, well-reasoned ideal, based not only on mythology and history, but also on his own experience.

The poet advocates and essentially non-Christian order, the keynote of which is a man's sense of his own nobility and self-sufficiency. The poet has left sentiments and pathos behind and has cultivated an almost tragic outlook. He can now combine the appreciation of beauty with a sense of the tragic rather than a pathetic element of life. He can now impart meaning to the ordinary events of life which his earlier poetry did not attempt. In the process his poetry becomes a vehicle of public speech. The poem is strikingly flexible. The poem can move through description of the place we are beginning to recognize the tower; it can freely describe the poet's mood of gloom and then move to the idea of beauty in women from there to symbols of great love found disappointing, to Helen, Aphrodite and by implication to Maud Gonne.

The poem is decorated with a number of phrases and images that are suggestive and evocative. Much is implied, and more is meant than strikes the ear. The poem is a mixture of symbols; its richness of texture is remarkable; and is easy flow of ideas. The storm howling symbolizes destruction, recalls the "mere anarchy loosed upon the world" of the poem The Second Coming. The flooded streams also recall the havoc to be wrought in The Second Coining. "The murderous innocence of the sea" also recalls the images of "blood-dimmed tide". The bandy-legged smith is McBride and Helen is Maud Gonne by implication. Yeats has Maud Gonne in his mind when he says that "It's certain that fine women eat a crazy salad". "The rich Horn of Plenty" is suggestive of courtesy, aristocracy, and ceremony. The "hidden laurel tree" can provide through custom the innocence of soul. So the images follow one after another in succession. The image of Helen evokes another figure Aphrodite, who rose out of the spray. The union of Aphrodite with Hephaestus bandy legged Smith, brings to mind the Maud Gonne-McBride episode. Thus the image cluster becomes increasingly complex.

In this poem, the poet praises courtesy, charm, wisdom and the glad kindness that Yeats had found in marriage. His main outburst is against hatred, and especially the 'intellectual hatred'. The idea is that a beautiful woman should despoil the subjectivity of her nature by the politics of objectivity, or sacrifice the unity of her being to a cause outside itself. Because of his showing of hatred in the poem some critics have pointed out that the poem is snobbish. The poem has a ring of optimism about it in thinking that mere anarchy cannot harm the child if she is innocent and is nicely bred.

The poem has also been criticized as based on triviality, for the poet has not desired for his daughter a way of life consistent with the highest religious or moral ideals. He has not prayed for any Christian virtues for her. Reverent as he is, he does not convey any religion. Instead, we are offered in the poem an aristocratic faith. However, all such criticism is irrelevant. The poet desires for her organic innocence and freedom from hatred. The ideals which he upholds are not theoretical but practical, and they can be easily adopted into practice and a state of grace attained. The poet has formulated and essentially non-Christian order, the keynote of which is man's sense of his own nobility and self-sufficiency. The poet has been true to his convictions and so the poem is another expression of his artistic honesty.

On A Prayer for my Daughter the coming of ruin upon civilization still preoccupies Yeats: "Imagining in excited reverie/ That the future years had come, / Dancing to a frenzied drum, / Out of the murderous innocence of the sea". But the poem does move from the personal to the general and somehow philosophical issues. It moves through description of the place; we also recognize the symbolic ideals of a good culture: the tower, the laurel tree and custom and ceremony. The poem moves from the real concern of violence of the times; it describes the poet’s mood of gloom; and then it moves to the ideal of beauty in women; and from there it moves to symbols of great love found disappointing, to Helen, Aphrodite and by implication to Maud Gonne. There is a praise of courtesy, charm, wisdom and the glad kindness (that Yeats had found in marriage) as well as a hope for merriment. Then comes the terrible denunciation of intellectual hatred and of Maud Gonne, the loveliest woman born, (whose opinionated mind is savagely attacked). The last stanzas praise innocence, and custom and ceremony. It is both relevant and meaningful in the context of the terrible violence caused by "intellectual hatred" in early twentieth century Europe, though it might sound a little 'chauvinistic' to modern readers.

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Sharma, K.N. "A Prayer for My Daughter by William Butler Yeats: Critical Appreciation." BachelorandMaster, 26 May 2017, bachelorandmaster.com/britishandamericanpoetry/a-prayer-for-my-daughter-critical-appreciation.html.