Prayer Before Birth Guide

Prayer Before Birth

Introduction

Louis MacNeice’s “Prayer Before Birth” is written from the perspective of an unborn child who is frightened by the chaotic and corrupt world. Written in 1944 when the Second World War was still raging, it is a poem full of dread and anxiety for the future.

The Opening Verse

The list of scary entities in the first verse can be easily dismissed as the fears of childhood fantasy and the poet delivers the breathless rhythm of a story written to frighten children.

The scary tone accumulates in the anapaestic “or the rat”, “or the stoat” and “or the club-footed ghoul”. The alliteration of “bloodsucking bat”, the rhyming “bat” and “rat” and the consonance of /t/ picked up in “stoat” add to the playful menace of the lines. The “club-footed ghoul” is particularly ridiculous and the assonance in “club” and “ghoul” is deliciously disgusting. There is also the rhyming “hear” and, later in the verse, “near” which enclose this list of vile creatures.

MacNiece opens the poem with these wonderfully unpleasant images to evoke a tender response from the reader who will be eager to soothe a child’s silly woes. In this way, the poet positions us into a role of responsibility because we need to comfort our powerless children.

The images in the second verse are then intended to shock the reader by dramatically escalating the threat from the tall tales of childhood into the bleak and dangerous reality of the world. However, the reader must continue to protect our vulnerable children from these risks.

The Audience

Each verse reminds the reader that the speaker is an unborn child who is absolutely pure but has no control over the world. Only the audience that can change the immediate future. This is made clear in the use of imperatives in the first lines of the stanzas.

For example, the speaker asks us to “hear”, “console” and “provide” for them. It is our duty as parents to protect our children from the horrors of the world and give them a brighter future.

The True Horrors

The second verse introduces more obvious dangers of the world. The speaker fears being trapped behind the “walls” created by society, poisoned by “strong drugs”, falling for “lies”, tortured on “racks” and beaten in “blood-baths”.

The verse also continues the urgent rhythm of a nursery rhyme with the repetition of various sounds.

For example, there is tongue-twisting “tall walls wall me” and “black racks rack me”. The vowel sound is echoed later in “blood-baths”. The assonance in these examples is very similar to someone who is desperately struggling to breathe. There is also the alliteration of “drugs dope me” and “lies lure me”, sibilance, and the internal rhymes of “lies” and “wise” and “roll” and “console” which, once again, encloses the litany of dangers.

Each of these images are vague enough for the reader to apply their own interpretation. For example, since the poem was written, the signifier “walls” could mean the Berlin Wall, the peace walls of Belfast or, more recently, Donald Trump’s infamous wall on the American border with Mexico.

Nurturing Nature

Instead of referring to a parent to help nurture the child, MacNeice personifies nature as the guardian. For example, the speaker wants the “grass to grow for me”, the “trees to talk to me” and the “sky to sing to me”. In this way, the poet argues we need a purer, more natural approach to raising children that will bring joy and happiness to their lives. The alliteration in these examples helps to differentiate each appeal in the list and creates a persuasive rhythm.

The word “dandle” means to move a baby up and down gently on your knee and this is linked to the buoyancy in “water”.

This comfort and reassurance will provide the “white light” of conscience to help “guide” the next generation. The reference to “birds” signifies the freedom from society’s oppression that can be achieved by talking and singing to children rather than brutalising them with drugs, lies and walls.

No Control

The speaker asks for forgiveness for the “sins” they have yet to “commit”. They will not be born with immorality, but they will have little control over their lives once they are “engendered” into the corrupt and unscrupulous world.

Society will force them to “speak” certain “words” and “think” certain “thoughts”.

This process of socialisation is reinforced in the fifth verse through the metaphor of the theatre. The speaker needs to “rehearse” the various “parts” they must play. Rather than any hope of self-determination, the speaker’s life is reduced to a script written by society. They will have to learn their “cues” on how to respond to the world.

MacNeice’s cynicism is obvious in the list of obnoxious characters in this verse. This is epitomised by the image of “bureaucrats”, a word that is often used pejoratively, bullying the speaker and the “old men” who “lecture me”. These are the same “wise” people who have added to the corruption in the world.

Once again, the poet personifies nature, but the images are spiteful and cruel: the “mountains frown at me”, “the white waves call me to folly” and the “desert calls me to doom”.

The sounds in these lines continue to be lyrical, but the tone is very bitter. For example, there is internal rhyme of “lecture” and “hector”. Both words mean to verbally intimidate someone, so the rhyme is full of sarcasm. The assonance in “mountains” and “frown” sounds miserable and the alliteration in “lovers laugh at me” is full of unnecessary scorn.

The whole world, no matter its contours or composition, is irreversibly corrupt. Even the “beggar” will refuse the speaker’s “gift”.

The speaker has so little control over their destiny that their “children” will “curse” them and the wicked society will continue for yet another generation.

The penultimate verse compares this lack of control to an “automaton” and a “cog in a machine”. Reduced to society’s submissive robot, the speaker fears they will lose their humanity and free will.

A Prayer

The speaker remains defiant and asks for “strength” to overcome those people who would destroy their “humanity”. It does not matter if they are a “beast” or “thinks he is God”.

They do not want to be persecuted and coerced by the military into becoming another “lethal automaton”. Since the poem was written in 1944, this could be a reference to the Nazi death camps and their mechanised slaughter of millions of people.

They do not want to be degraded to a nameless “thing”.

The speaker wants to stand “against all those who would dissipate my entirety”. They do not want to be squandered into little pieces. This is reinforced by the similes comparing their identity to soft thistledown being blown apart and scattered “hither and thither or hither and thither” and then how “water held in the hands” would spill.

The speaker would rather die than let their identity be spilt or turned into a cold, lifeless stone.

Hope

Each verse begins with the statement “I am not yet born”. Refrains are normally positioned at the end of a stanza. By placing it at the start, MacNeice is reminding the reader that the speaker’s future is “yet” to be written. The poet wants us to renew our own “strength” to make the world a better place for the next generation.

Comprehension Questions

  1. Who do you think is the speaker in this poem?
  2. What is the speaker’s attitude towards the three creatures mentioned in line two?
  3. Do you believe in ghosts and “ghouls”?
  4. In detail, explain why the speaker fears the “human race”.
  5. Look at the third verse. What does the speaker want?
  6. Why does the speaker want forgiven?
  7. Look at the fifth verse and explore in what ways the speaker compares life to a play on stage.
  8. What do you think is the speaker’s attitude towards other people in this verse?
  9. According to the sixth verse, what sort of people does the speaker want to avoid?
  10. In your own words, write down what the speaker fears in the seventh verse.
  11. Suggest what impact the poet was hoping to create in the final two lines.
  12. Pick one example of alliteration and explain what it adds to the image.
  13. Are there any images or ideas about the “human race” in the poem that you completely agree with?

Prayer Before Birth

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