A Brief Conversation on W. B. Yeats’s “A Prayer for My Daughter”

Stranger: “So let her think that opinions are accursed” is probably the most hated line in modern poetry yet it doesn’t seem entirely such a bad idea at this point — leaving gender out of it.

Me: As you are aware, the full grammatical sentence (that splits across two lines) from A Prayer for My Daughter is “An intellectual hatred is the worst, / So let her think opinions are accursed.” Yeats’s statement, in my opinion, has absolutely nothing to do with gender. In the first, eponymous poem in the collection that A Prayer for My Daughter appears in, Michael Robartes and the Dancer, “He”’s first line is “Opinion is not worth a rush.” I think Yeats means something deeper than gender here.

Stranger: I wholly agree as regards the gender theme — rather, lack of. My phrase was simply intended to ward off suspicions of misogyny. I have witnessed students and others reviling this poem in completely implacable ways. It is unavoidable that his talk of ‘dispensing round / Magnanimities of sound’ — quoting from memory — would sound like young miss handing round the biscuits. But that is not the core of the poem and your adroit cross-reference seals it. I might add that Anne Yeats scoffed at the poem and used to say that Yeats took no such view of her at all. So the daughter was as aetherial as certain Swans we know.

Me: I can understand your desire to ward off misogyny. I’ve seen reviews of “Among School Children” on poetry sites where people say that in their medical training they learned to read some of Yeats’s expressions as “signals of pedophilic behavior” — could you expound upon Anne Yeats’s reaction to the poem?

Stranger: I don’t want to ‘write the book’ on Yeats’s parenting. In one anecdotal version, he was the victim of a rude remark from his son Michael when he made one of his somewhat occasional visits home: “who is that man in the drawing-room, Mother,” says young Michael. But Anne Yeats has said — or did say, since she’s now dead — that Yeats was earnestly interested in her career as an artist and wasn’t inclined to let her off because she was a woman. To flesh this out, I will have to talk with an elder relative who knew Anne better than I. She was a very remote figure in my world, closer in hers. As a matter of fact — and please don’t think I’m show side — my mother and her siblings passed a nanny on to the Yeatses, their children being younger. I recently found myself telling the story of Yeats and the hoover but in a letter, not online I think.

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