I am out in California visiting my new granddaughter, and as I look at little Esmé curled up and sleeping upon my wife’s chest, I am reminded of William Butler Yeats’s poem “A Prayer for My Daughter.” The poem has special significance for us because Julia and I included its final four lines in our wedding invitation 39 years ago. Both the poem’s aspirations for women and its defense of tradition and ceremony seemed retrograde in 1973. For all its political incorrectness, however, it tapped into something that I felt like I needed then and that still resonates with me today.
The poem describes the poet’s worries for his sleeping daughter as a storm rages outside. The storm is not only a physical storm but the turbulence of the world, which in 1919 included Irish political unrest following World War I:
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.
The poet then voices his hopes for his daughter. He prays that she will be beautiful but not too beautiful lest she lose “natural kindness” and fail to find “heart-revealing intimacy”:
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.
After another couple of stanzas in which Yeats examines the tangles in which beauty can become entrapped, he expresses sentiments which have offended any number of modern women, including novelist Joyce Carol Oates. In her view, Yeats is more interested in his daughter learning social graces (including a “glad kindness”) than in developing her mind. Oates dislikes Yeats’s desire that his daughter be like a “hidden tree” which a linnet (finch) fills with song:
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.
I’m sympathetic here with Oates’s criticism. According to Wikipedia, Oates saw Yeats as presenting a “crushingly conventional” view of womanhood and denying her “the freedoms given to male children.” Instead, as Oates sees it, Yeats wants his daughter to become like a “vegetable: immobile, unthinking, and placid.”
This is indeed an issue of concern, as is the fact that Yeats appears to be reacting to the politically outspoken Maud Gonne, his muse, who had rejected his marriage proposal a couple of years earlier. “Choked with hate,” “assault and battery of the wind,” “intellectual hatred,” “opinionated mind,” and “old bellows full of angry wind” are all barbs directed at Gonne:
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?
So I am sympathetic with Oates’s criticism, just as, in 1973, I was sympathetic (or thought I was) with the angry feminists who were finding themselves. Or maybe I just told myself I was sympathetic. Maybe I turned to this poem for our wedding invitation because I was secretly signaling to Julia that I wanted a traditional marriage with her as a traditional wife–even though I had no house, ceremonious or otherwise, to bring her to. (A few years later we would pool our savings and buy one.):
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.
Upon reflection, I plead partially guilty of Yeats’s sexism. But deeper than the poem’s sexual politics, I think, is its vision of a tree filled with music, merriment, and happiness. I came of age at a time (the early 1970s) when my country expected me to fight in what I regarded as a pointless and unjust war and with a president who was willing to break any law to get his way. I was therefore cynical about all institutions, including marriage. If I was going to undergo a ceremony in which I committed myself thoroughly to another human being, then I had to know that marriage opened a door to depth and beauty. Otherwise, it was nothing more than a set of meaningless words and actions.
Yeats assured me that custom and ceremony gave one to strength to prevent angry winds from tearing one’s inner linnet from the leaf, rooting one in “one dear perpetual place.” Without ritual, the world beats against us like a relentless Atlantic storm and flings us around. “Prayer for My Daughter” pointed to a life of something more, a life of beauty and innocence.
That is what marriage has been for me, a framework in which I have been able to be loving and vulnerable. And as I look at little sleeping Esmé, I see her born into a loving family that has grown out of mine, a rich horn of plenty. I know that one day she will find people presently unknown to us to love in her turn. In her relationships, I have no doubt that she will be a linnet-filled laurel tree, regardless of how the winds blow.
Note on the artist: Christian Krohg’s painting can be found at fineartamerica.com/products/sleeping-child-christian-krohg-poster.html.