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Lessons From Yeats

William Butler Yeats and Thomas Sterns Eliot are regarded as some of the best poets of the modern literature world. They wrote some of the most influential poetry that we have today, and to have the opportunity to take a glimpse at some of their works has been a great experience. I have always been interested in poetry because I like the idea that different people can attribute different meanings or relate to a poem in a specific way because of who they are and the experiences they have had in their life. I have had that experience with Yeats’s poem “A Prayer for my Daughter”. This poem has a special personal connection to me because it reminds me of my Father. I would describe my Father as a wise literary man who worries about his two daughters and the troubles of the world very often, just as Yeats does in this poem. I believe that, after the sampling of poetry by T. S. Eliot and W. B. Yeats that we have done in class, W. B. Yeats has more valuable life lessons and teachings in his poetry than T. S. Eliot. This makes Yeats a more relatable and enjoyable author.

When I read through “A Prayer for my Daughter” I was reminded of many life lessons and teachings my Father has shared with me throughout my 20 years of life. Eliot also shares wisdom and life lessons in his poetry, such as in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” where he shares the problems and fears that has held back his Prufrock character from achieving what he wants in life, and “Wasteland” where vignettes of relationships show modern problems that lead to the downfall of love. In “Prayer for my Daughter” Yeats shares wonderful wisdom, but also in other works such as “Easter 1916” where he comes to terms with a tragedy and respects those who stood for a cause, and “In Memory of Major Robert Gregory” where he discusses what makes a good life and a good man.

“A Prayer for my Daughter” by Yeats is very different to the usual apocalyptic themes that are apparent throughout his works. In this poem Yeats describes a night where he stays up watching his infant daughter sleep in her crib. He is troubled by the world and what is has come to in recent years and fears for his daughter’s future. The poem follows with wishes and wisdom that Yeats had for his daughter and shares with the reader.

The opening of the poem begins with the auditory imagery of a storm howling, and is immediately contrasted with the soothing visual imagery of an infant, Yeats’s daughter, sleeping. These two images are important to have us begin with because they show us the contrast of the two characters which carries the rest of the poem. It also represents the two sides of this poem, a father and a daughter, old age and youth, the innocence and the corrupted. The storm is mentioned again in the second stanza on line 9 “I have walked and prayed for this young child an hour/ And heard the sea-wind scream upon the tower,” this time in conjunction with the narrators troubled thoughts which leads the reader to relate the two together. This line means the most to me because it reminds me of my Father, who is constantly thinking and is troubled by the world and what it could hold for his daughters. This also adds to the value of the poem because it is relatable to a parent who just wants the best for their child. It also is relatable for a child who, like in my case, is reminded of the worry a parent goes through.

Following these first stanzas the narrator of the poem begins to describe the value of beauty. Starting on line 17 of the third stanza Yeats writes “May she be granted beauty and yet not/ Beauty to make a stranger’s eyes distraught/ Or hers before a looking-glass…”, this is where the first life lesson of the poem begins. Yeats is hoping that his daughter will have beauty—all parents want their children to be beautiful—but it is known that too much beauty can lead to trouble. It is an extremely realistic wish for his daughter to be beautiful, but not so beautiful that she becomes absorbed in herself. If his daughter was extremely beautiful then it would be too much for others to handle and they would only pay attention to her beauty. He continues this on line 34 of stanza 5 by stating “Hearts are not had as gifts but hearts are earned/ By those that are not entirely beautiful;”, here Yeats is saying that if his daughter were to be too beautiful, she would have many hearts as gifts and not value them. The use of the word ‘earned’ here is important because earn has positive connotations that mean you worked hard and are now rewarded for that hard work, which is how Yeats implies obtaining a heart should be. Only people who are not entirely beautiful are able to do such a thing.

This is the most realistic and relatable lessons that Yeats offers from this poem, which makes it the best one. Only a handful of people in the world can be compared to the beauty of Helen. In reality a majority of people are pretty average looking, which is what makes Yeats’s words so impactful. He gives a sense of pride to the everyday people like you and I who do not turn out to have the beauty of Helen. We earn the people to whom we are close; this is what it means to truly value a relationship. My father has always believed and told me that I am beautiful, but he also has always made sure that I understand that not everyone is going to find me attractive and that I need to be okay with that and appreciate myself for attributes other than my appearance. I think this has really helped me in my life because I was able to understand that not everyone is going to like me and I have to be confident in who I am.

The second major lesson from “A Prayer for My Daughter” is to value and seek stability in your life. In the sixth stanza, line 41, Yeats wishes his daughter “become a flourishing hidden tree” and later in line 47 of the same stanza he says “Oh, may she live like some green laurel/ rooted in one dear perpetual place”. Here he is comparing his daughter to a tree, hoping she will become as grand and stable as a tree. We see this in the language he uses, the very notion of describing her as a tree and relating his daughter to nature gives her a very feminine description. Trees and nature are often feminized in literature because they relate to mother nature and being fertile, so it makes sense that Yeats would wish his daughter to be a tree. The idea of being a ‘hidden tree’ shows that he wishes her to be protected and humble.

I can also relate to the wish of a father longing to have his daughter ‘rooted’ in one place. Growing up I moved around quite a bit, and my father knew how difficult it was to adjust to a new place every few years. For high school he promised I would stay at one school, and he kept that promise.  Even when my whole family moved to Texas my senior year of high school he allowed me to stay behind in Virginia and live with my best friend and her family to complete school ‘rooted in one dear perpetual place’.

Stability can also be found through love and a relationship. In the last stanza of the poem, line 73, Yeats hopes that his daughter’s future husband can bring this stability, “And may her bride-groom bring her to a house/ where all’s accustomed, ceremonious”. Just as every parent wants their child to be beautiful, every parent wants their child to find love and to find someone who will accept and cherish them the way that they do themselves. The mention of a house suggests a family, and by describing it with the words accustomed and ceremonious it suggests the idea of tradition and traditional family gender roles. I believe here Yeats and my father share these ideas in common, as they both hope that their daughter’s husband will be able to provide for her and that she will be able to care for him and the house and have children without any complications. My father very much values traditional roles in the home and has emphasized them in our own home. I do believe there is a stability that comes from having a mother at home and a father at work, and this lifestyle is one that I wish to have for my own children because it was such an important part of my childhood.

Lastly I believe that Yeats hopes his daughter will stay innocent and always look for the best in people, to not be bothered by the bad in the world because she will always be enough. Yeats uses his beloved Maud Gonne as an example of what he does not want his daughter to be like in stanza eight, line 59, “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/… For an old bellows full of angry wind?”. The idea of the storm and rough weather relating to Yeats’s troubled mind is supported here again with his comparison of Maud Gonne’s troubled mind. While Yeats openly longed for and loved Maud, he recognizes that she is troubled by the politics of being an Ireland activist and troubling herself with the world’s problems. There is an awareness that he and Maud share that leads them to be troubled individuals and that is the opposite of what he wants for his daughter.

While at first this could seem like he hopes his daughter wills stay out of politics and critical thinking I believe it to mean that he hopes his daughter can always see the good in the world despite being aware of these troubles. This is reiterated in the ninth stanza where the entirety of the stanza is used to describe the idea that Yeats hopes his daughter stays true to herself and understands that she is all she needs in the world to be happy. Beginning on line 67, “And learns at last that it [the soul] is self-delighting, / self-appeasing, self-affrighting” we understand he hopes his daughter knows that she is all she needs to be content. The three words followed by ‘self’, delighting, appeasing and affrighting, are all very different and show that in every situation that life brings she would be able to take care of herself. Self-delighting is hoping that she would be able to find happiness within herself and her soul. Self-appeasing uses the idea that when things are rough she would be able to calm and sooth herself, being able to rely on herself when times get tough. Self-affrighting means that she is able to surprise herself, which is important especially in times when she is doubting herself and what she can achieve.

I believe these are all very important life lessons that any parent would want for their child, and that Yeats puts them so beautifully together by contrasting the beauty, youth and innocence of his baby girl with the storm of his own mind and age. The honesty that comes from Yeats is very true and tender, and I believe that most people have either a parent or a parent figure that has shared these truths of life with them. I was reluctant to choose Yeats as my poet because I am not fond of his cynicism and negativity but the truth and melancholy that comes from this poem reminds me so much of my father that I have come to love it. I believe this to be Yeats’s best poem because of its relatability, and it has been wonderful to share this poem and essay with my father from whom I have acquired a love of literature, just as I’m sure Yeats’s daughter did as well.

 

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