Before embarking on Yeats’s “A Prayer for my Daughter,” I originally thought it sweet that Yeats felt an urge to “dedicate” a poem to his daughter. After further reading, I realize the morphed perspective Yeats seems to take—not only in terms of his daughter, but in his assumed perception of Irish womanhood. While the piece begins with the juxtaposition of a violent, “howling” storm contrasted with his peaceful, sleeping daughter, the reader soon awakens to a higher degree of critical awareness that is unsettling to any feminist critic.
In stanza four, Yeats calls to mind “that great queen that rose out of the spray” (Aphrodite, most likely) and “Helen [who] found life flat and dull,” (Helen, who is often painted as the “indirect cause of the Trojan war”). In doing so, he seems to attempt to warp the narrative of female mythology to embody an over-all sense of disruption and folly. Embedded in Yeats’s fourth stanza seems to be the implication that throughout history (and suggestively, in the life of Yeats himself) women only contribute the façade of alluring beauty that inevitably leads to misfortune (here we go again with resentment toward Maud Gonne).
In this vein, it seems to me that Yeats’s “A Prayer for my Daughter” is code for “I wish I had a son Instead.” Am I taking this too far? Had I been the daughter of Yeats, I would be disheartened to read that my opinionated, impassioned father wished me to believe that “opinions are accursed.” In other words, Yeats does not believe that his daughter is capable of generating opinions worthy of contemplation or engagement??? This line of thought leads me to pose a question: would Yeats have written the same poem had his child been male? I’m not convinced.
Taking my argument further is the notion of traditional Irish womanhood—the current by which Yeats seemingly supports (and even encourages) woman’s quiet, grey role in the Irish home. For example, the poem’s last stanza: “may her bridegroom bring her to a house/ Where all’s accustomed.” One faulty element to these lines is the presupposed identity that Yeats projects onto his infant daughter: she will be attracted to a man, will marry said man, will make an “accustomed” and “ceremonious” home with this man, her “bridegroom”… These lines also seem to uphold the notion that women cannot successfully exist in society as independent beings—they need both an “accustomed house” and a “bridegroom” to be admissible in the mouth of societal dogma…
I can see how Yeats’s misfortunate experiences with Maud Gonne could influence his view of women… but it’s no excuse in my eyes. It is my contention that by writing his poem—and overtly assigning it to his own daughter—Yeats dangerously propagates a misogynistic view of women, belittling his own child in the process.
Something powerful that I have found in reference to the readings for Monday is Yeats’s distinct separation between the domain of creativity and that of politics/ “logical” progressions of thought. Consider Yeats’s essay on Poetry and Tradition where he states, “[…] artists have made all the rest, because Providence has filled them with recklessness […] the others being always anxious have come to possess little that is good in itself, and are always changing from thing to thing.” With this, the reader can infer that Yeats believed artists were given a provincial gift—something they could not escape or ignore. Those that do not identify as “artists” are given the title of “others,” leading one to conclude that there is something superior in the “essence” of an artist that sets them apart. The “recklessness” that Yeats mentions seems to convey positivity: a reckless motivation for generating change or forging movements with the power of art. The notion that art is akin to spiritual possession—the creative colonization of the soul—shapes Yeats’s poems in the Responsibilities collection.
I am particularly captured by “To a Shade.” The poem’s complexity reveals a sort of “code” where the reader is left outside the work, urged to use knowledge of Yeats’s life to surmise whom the “shade” or “shadow” represents. A popular theory among critics stands that the spectre in the poem is Charles Stuart Parnell, Irish nationalist deemed (in his day) “the uncrowned king of Ireland.” Evidence that supports this claim can be found in Yeats’s other poetic references to Parnell: for example, “Parnell” and “Parnell’s Funeral.” “To a Shade” does not directly address Parnell, but it is perhaps stronger in that vein: the poem remains applicable to other Irish activists that have passed, and could fluctuate between public figures or take on a collective nature.
It seems to me that the “town” that Yeats’s calls the spectre (or “shade”) to revisit is Dublin. He claims, “they are at their old tricks yet,” signaling that the politicians of the time had not marooned their inherently malevolent agendas. This reinforces what Yeats has mentioned in his essay on Poetry and Tradition: the artist and what he/she brings to his/her culture extends beyond the pell-mell sphere of “grey” modern existence. Yeats seems to further suggest that the artist or pioneer (like his admired figures: Parnell, Hugh Lane, etc.) provides children with “loftier thought” and “sweeter emotion”—elements that, according to Yeats, have the power to transform the individual by way of the emancipating nature of art and passion.
A sadness emerges as the poem progresses, and Yeats appears to establish (once again) a sharp distinction between the artists (the “passionate few”), and “the others.” The poem states, “Sweeter emotion, […]/ like gentle blood, has been driven from the place,/ and insult heaped upon him for his pains.” Could the “he” of this stanza be referring to the artist? Under this assumption, the poem operates on a melancholic axis, suggesting that art and passion continue to be smothered by forces too large for Yeats, or any other actively interested artist, to fray. The poem closes with a resignation: “you are safer in the tomb.” This may speak to Yeats’s troubled spirit as he despondently realizes the fruits of artistic labor are not being registered or absorbed into the public memory—and the bold alterations he fought for did not seem fully attainable.
“Last night all my household had retired at a quarter to 11 and I thought I would go to you astrally[…] We went somewhere in space I don’t know where – I was conscious of starlight & of hearing the sea below us[…] We melted into one another till we formed only one being.”
–The Gonne-Yeats Letters, via poets.org
After reading this excerpt written in July of 1908 by Maud Gonne to W.B. Y., it seems natural for one to grow intrigued by the “occult-esque” romance between this literary duo. After today’s lecture, I was curious about Maud as a woman in Ireland, who at the time felt like a pioneering feminist—le maître of The Daughters of Ireland, the radical leader of a movement. After close consideration of Yeats’ essay on “The Symbolism of Poetry,” it appeared eerily coincidental that both Maud and Yeats were enamored by “things unseen”—a realm slightly outside of physical experience, a seemingly alluring escape within the mind that permitted one to be overcome by the whimsy of the Druids… yet, it was a world which ultimately lacked concrete progress and measurable advancement. This idea is not only emphasized in Maud’s 1908 letter where she states, “[…] material union is but a pale shadow” compared to the spiritual union she experiences in her dream-state, but also in “The Symbolism of Poetry.” Yeats says, “the laws of art […] can alone bind the imagination.” With this, the reader is left to understand that Yeats’ image of “true” poetry is rooted in the realm of imagination—of semiotics and signifiers working together to convey emotion.
In the eyes of a feminist critic, it appears that Yeats’ logic of worshiping symbolic meaning fails when it is ignorantly applied to women, specifically Maud. The idea that Yeats’ wanted to turn women into symbols is evident in Cathleen Ni Houlihan, where Maud appears as the old woman (symbolic of Ireland). The irony of the role seems to supplant Maud’s idealism: she willingly subjects herself to being deduced to an artifice while simultaneously proclaiming herself to be a radical crusader for feminine power and Irish freedom.
It’s interesting to note Maud’s interest in championing Irish goddesses from Celtic myths as Idols: Maud willingly puts intellectual investment in a semiotic domain. The empowerment of women, when viewed as being extracted from the Goddesses of lore, falls flat and even base-less. While Maud was an optimistic activist for her cause, her efforts seem to have operated on a faulty axis, where women extracted their strength from “castles in the air”– tales of mythical women like Queen Maeve, Niamh, etc.—without the notion that their strength could push beyond the mythological realm and into something more tangible. While it’s nice to find inspiration from the artistic, traditional sphere of Ireland’s mythology, it appears dangerous and all too radical for the faith of liberation to be propped solely on an elusive and almost untouchable platform.