By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Whether you’ve recently been blessed with a daughter or know somebody who has, or simply want to discover what some of the greatest poets in the English language have written about daughters, these poems should be illuminating and useful (and enjoyable). We especially recommend the Yeats poem below, written for his own daughter.
1. Anne Bradstreet, ‘Upon My Daughter Hannah Wiggin Her Recouery From A Dangerous Feaver’.
Bles’t bee thy Name, who did’st restore
To health my Daughter dear
When death did seem ev’n to approach,
And life was ended near.
Gravnt shee remember what thov’st done,
And celebrate thy Praise;
And let her Conversation say,
Shee loues thee all thy Dayes.
Bradstreet (1612-72) was the first published poet of America, with her The Tenth Muse Recently Sprung up in America appearing in 1650, and early colonial life was hard, and often short. (Bradstreet lived in Massachusetts with her husband, children, and other early English settlers in the New World.)
Fever, unsurprisingly, looms large in Bradstreet’s poetry, which is remarkable for its tenderness about members of her family, as also glimpsed in her poem to her husband. In this poem, Bradstreet thanks God for delivering her daughter Hannah from a fever.
2. Robert Burns, ‘A Poet’s Welcome to His Love-Begotten Daughter’.
Thou’s welcome, wean! mishanter fa’ me,
If ought of thee, or of thy mammy,
Shall ever daunton me, or awe me,
My sweet wee lady,
Or if I blush when thou shalt ca’ me
Tit-ta or daddy.
Wee image of my bonnie Betty,
I fatherly will kiss and daut thee,
As dear an’ near my heart I set thee
Wi’ as guid will,
As a’ the priests had seen me get thee
That’s out o’ hell …
Written in 1785, this poem was written about the birth of Burns’s daughter, whom he had with Elizabeth Paton, a local servant girl (the two were not married and Burns was fined for ‘fornication’).
This explains the adjectival ‘love-begotten’ in the title: Burns’s daughter was the product of love rather than marital duty. Follow the link above to read Burns’s poem in full, complete with useful glosses on unfamiliar words.
3. W. B. Yeats, ‘A Prayer for My Daughter’.
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 …
This 1919 poem was written for Anne, Yeats’s daughter with Georgie Hyde Lees, whom Yeats married after his last marriage proposal to Maud Gonne was rejected in 1916.
In the poem, Yeats watches his sleeping daughter and thinks of all the things he wishes for her: beauty (but not too much beauty), and a personality that is free from hatred. Follow the link above to read the full poem.
4. T. S. Eliot, ‘Marina’.
One of several ‘Ariel poems’ Eliot wrote for the Christmas greetings-cards put out by his publisher (and employer), Faber and Faber, ‘Marina’ was first published in 1930, its title referring to the daughter of Pericles in the play by Shakespeare (or, we should say, the play to which Shakespeare is thought to have contributed).
Eliot is a major figure in twentieth-century literature, and his work is often obscure and makes demands of the reader, but this is one of his most nakedly emotive poems, and a fine lament for a lost daughter.
Pericles laments his lost daughter – or rather, the daughter he thought he had lost, but with whom he is now reconciled.
5. Philip Larkin, ‘Born Yesterday’.
Written for Sally Amis, the daughter of Larkin’s friend Kingsley Amis and his first wife Hilly, ‘Born Yesterday’ sees Larkin wishing for whatever will make the newborn baby happy.
Indeed, if a ‘catching of happiness’ is called being ordinary, and unremarkable (for extraordinary and remarkable people have more expectations placed on their shoulders, which they can never live up to), then these qualities are what Larkin hopes his friends’ daughter will grow up to have.
For more classic poetry, we also recommend The Oxford Book of English Verse – perhaps the best poetry anthology on the market (we offer our pick of the best poetry anthologies here, and list the best books for the poetry student here). Discover more great poems with these poems about the world of work, these great poems about items of clothing, and these poems for birthdays.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.