Yeats's poem A Prayer for My Son - which son was he referring to?

“A Prayer for My Son”  by William Butler Yeats

Bid a strong ghost stand at the head

That my Michael may sleep sound,

Nor cry, nor turn in the bed

Till his morning meal come round;

And may departing twilight keep

All dread afar till morning’s back,

That his mother may not lack

Her fill of sleep.

 

Bid the ghost have sword in fist:

Some there are, for I avow

Such devilish things exist,

Who have planned his murder, for they know

Of some most haughty deed or thought

That waits upon his future days,

And would through hatred of the bays

Bring that to nought.

 

Though You can fashion everything

From nothing every day, and teach

The morning stars to sing,

You have lacked articulate speech

To tell your simplest want, and known,

Wailing upon a woman’s knee,

All of that worst ignominy

Of flesh and bone;

 

And when through all the town there ran

The servants of your enemy,

A woman and a man,

Unless the Holy Writings lie,

Hurried through the smooth and rough

And through the fertile and waste,

Protecting, till the danger past,

With human love.

This poem talks of Yeats’s strong, deep anxiety that his son will be murdered. Since  working closely with Ezra Pound in 1913, all of Yeats's poetic works are only concerned with the real world; this is not a dream. He names his son as Michael, born on 22nd August 1921.  

Yeats talks of knowing some people who want to murder his son because of something which will  bring his son fame or riches in the future. The bays” are ceremonial Roman or Greek head-wreaths of bay leaves worn by celebrated people.

In the last verse Yeats compares his son's birth during the civil war in Dublin to the Biblical story of Mary and Joseph journeying to Nazareth: ... when through all the town there ran / The servants of Your enemy...” or soldiers.

However in 1921, when the civil war in Ireland was in full flow, the Yeats family and Michael were living in peace in England. If they had actually been in Dublin, personally threatened by the violence and disorder of that place and time, this poem might have referred to Michael. But though Yeats no doubt followed news of events in Ireland’s capital very closely, he and his family were not involved in the war at all. Avoidance of the unrest of the Irish civil war was one reason they lived in England instead of Ireland at that time.

On the other hand Yeats's illegitimate son Kevin, one year older than Michael, was born in Dublin during the Civil War and was threatened by random acts of violence because he lived so near to the city centre.

In addition he was being deliberately, personally threatened with murder by people whom Yeats knew. Yeats was indisputably terrified about danger to him.

This poem was probably written a year earlier than the given date, in December 1920, one month after his illegitimate son Kevin was born in Dublin. The woman and the man mentioned in the last verse were not Yeats and his wife, mingling with aristocracy and academics in Oxfordshire; they were Margaret McGill and James White, who were living through the civil war in the Liberties and raising Kevin as their foster-child alongside White’s own son.

The names Kevin and Michael both have two syllables with stress on the first, so one name was substituted for another. George Yeats edited her husband's works, so probably changed the dates and names herself before publication.

In adult life Michael said that he was intensely embarrassed by this poem, which he did not understand at all. 

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Tags: Bright, Free, History, Honor, Ireland, Irish, K.B.O'Neill, Literature, Sligo, State, More…Studies, WB, Yeats, genealogy, illegitimate, of

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