Analysis of Poem Prayer Before Birth by Louis MacNiece
Louis MacNeice and Prayer Before Birth
Prayer Before Birth is a poem that is relevant still today and grows more powerful as the world becomes a more dangerous place. It is a dramatic monologue but has the pattern of an incantation and the spirit of a prayer.
- The speaker is the unborn child inside the mother's womb, thinking of the future as it is about to be born. This unusual perspective gives the poem a highly charged aura which intensifies as the stanzas progress.
Here is a baby who is already fearful, who intuitively knows that the world it is about to enter surely isn't anywhere close to Paradise.
- The child pleas for protection and prays that it won't be corrupted once it emerges onto planet earth. This is unsettling reading for any adult, even with only an iota of sensitivity, the potential horrors this little human being faces beggars belief. Yet, the poem is firmly rooted in grim reality.
Written during the second World War, Prayer Before Birth first appeared in MacNeice's book Springboard, 1944. It's the first poem in the book, a sure sign that the poet wanted it to make a big impact.
At that time the world was in turmoil, facing a possible fascist future, with tens of millions already dead and many European countries in ruins. The thought of wanting to bring a newborn into such a world must have seemed a daunting prospect, like a death wish.
Louis MacNeice's poem captures the fears and anxieties perfectly because the voice is that of the baby, not yet out into the war-torn air. And with each stanza comes the build up of understanding for the reader - these are also the fears of the adults, the parents, the generations that allowed such an environment to exist in the first place.
Perhaps the most important question to ask about this poem is:
For whom is the poem written?
Prayer Before Birth
Prayer Before Birth - Analysis Stanza by Stanza
Prayer Before Birth takes the reader into the womb of an anonymous mother, where a soon to be born baby expresses fear for its own future in a world potentially full of horror and danger.
From the opening stanza it is not an easy read but perhaps it is a necessary one, for out of the horrors of war come the possibility for hope and understanding. If humankind cannot listen to the pleas of an unborn child who can it listen to?
That repeated I am not yet born.... as if to remind the world (God, humanity) that there may be time to right things before the birth, that the world may come to its senses in time?
- Note that each and every stanza, save the last, begins with I and ends with me, a focus on the individual in an age of mass destruction, where being human often means nothing more than being a statistic.
- Note also that the first two stanzas and the last contain two sentences. All other stanzas, the longest, are one sentence stretched out over punctuation.
The bat, rat and stoat are aligned with a misfit ghoul; the bat sucks blood, is a vampire - the speaker starts off with the superstitious, acknowledging that the world it's about to live in is probably a bit weird.
Note that long sentence broken into the second and third lines, stretching belief, testing the reader's single breath.
Consolation is a religious subject but here means simply to comfort. The unborn child already seeks help and support. There is fear of being walled in (walls are always controversial, often political), drugged (an age old phenomenon), lied to (fake news is all the rage), tortured on a rack (an old fashioned instrument of torture) and of being bloodied (in battle, on the streets?).
These are fears enough for the poor child in utero. All that alliteration and phonetic variation, the short rhythmic vowels, the repeated rhyme... me.
Nature features strongly in this stanza, the most hopeful lines in the poem. The element water - the child wants to be able to play in it, the child wants talking trees, all the beautiful things that make a paradise, a healthy, ideal environment in which to live.
All this personification and optimism seems very innocent in context of the poem as a whole. But in war, when situations are bad, then is the time to dream and hang on to ideals.
The stanzas are growing, this one has six lines and is the most religious of them all. The speaker asks for forgiveness, is already with sin (a strange notion which implies either that there are karmic forces at play or that the parental genes naturally transmit 'sin').
Forgiveness is wanted for all words and thoughts and deeds, which the unborn child may unwittingly, without conscious control, manifest in the world. This seems like a major plea to the divine and a sort of acknowledgment of future evil.
This stanza is inspired perhaps by Shakespeare's As You Like It, where the character Jacques begins: All the world's a stage.....which would certainly have been known by MacNeice who was himself an excellent playwright.
The idea is that all humans are but actors playing different parts. In this stanza a sort of mini play is outlined, the lead part being that of the unborn child interacting with a great cast of characters, from old men to mountains, from lovers to beggars - in the end even the unborn child's children are cursing. Such irony.
Prayer Before Birth - Stanzas 6 - 8
A short stanza, repeating the demand to be heard from the first stanza. The unborn child goes to extremes, fearing that a monster (the devil?) or Christ (the man who thinks he is God?) might become a negative influence.
What an unusual request. What does the speaker really fear? Is it a fear of being brainwashed, fear of being abused spiritually?
The longest stanza in the poem. The speaker makes it quite clear that freedom is paramount if he is to be born. he doesn't want to end up a robot, a mindless killer (dragoon is a military word), a soulless number without identity.
The imagery is quite strong as the speaker compares his future to thistledown and water spilling through hands, lost to the individual world. This is a cry for wholeness, human wholeness; to have a meaningful existence is an absolute.
To be a hard, insensitive, heartless thing would not do. To be lost, to evaporate into the air, away from humanity, would be a disaster. Better the child is not born alive; better to end its life.
This is a harsh ending, dreadful in the sense that the unborn child would rather not be than suffer the consequences of becoming an automaton, a disposable thing.
Again, echoes of Shakespeare's hamlet speech...To be or not be...the circumstances and settings are different but the principle is the same. It's a natural human life of freedom, or it's nothing.
More Analysis of Prayer Before Birth
Prayer Before Birth is a passionate poem with unusual structure, diction (language) and resonance.
On the page it looks both formal and experimental, as if the stanzas are diminishing, cut off, retreating from the safety of the left hand margin. They look as if they're about to melt, losing their original safe structure.
The syntax contracts and expands, clauses growing in some stanzas, fading off in others. Capitals start a line, lower case continues; long, rambling sentences make up a stanza, a short sentence finishes one off. The grammar is odd: Let them not...
Enjambment allows free flow for the reader, whilst heavy punctuation brings pause after pause.
Religious allusion occurs: stanza four refers to sins and forgiveness, as if the child is to be born a Christ figure, ready for sacrifice.
And there is the repetition, anaphora, the plea from the unborn to be heard, to be filled, to be free.
Further Analysis of Prayer Before Birth - Poetic Devices
Prayer Before Birth is a free verse poem of 8 stanzas, 39 lines in total. There is no set rhyme scheme, though some lines are repeated perfect rhymes, and no regular metric pattern, though seven out of the eight stanzas have an opening tetrameter line.
Alliterative phrases help bind and bring phonetic texture and interest for the reader. There are several examples.:
Stanza 1: bloodsucking bat
Stanza 2: tall walls wall.....wise lies lure....black racks rack....blood-baths
Stanza 3: grass to grow....trees to talk.....sly to sing
Stanza 4: my words/when...thoughts when they think....treason engendered by traitors....murder by means of my
Stanza 5: parts I must play...lovers laugh...the white/waves....desert calls/ me to doom
Stanza 8: make me.
Repeated phrases in lines create familiarity and reinforce meaning:
Stanzas 1 - 7: I am not yet born
Repeated vowels in words close to each other help build phonetic interest and add to musicality:
Stanza 1: bat/rat
Stanza 2: tall walls wall...wise lies...black racks rack
Stanza 3: white light....mind/guide
Stanza 4: sins/in....
Stanza 5: lecture/hector...mountains/frown.
Prayer Before Birth - More Poetic Devices
There is a certain irony detailed in stanza six - if the poem is a prayer and humanity the problem then the man who thinks he is God is ironic. Also a paradox. And in stanza four the unborn child is already asking for forgiveness, for future sins.
Occurs in stanzas seven and eight:
would make me a cog in a machine, a thing with / one face
Let them not make me a stone
When objects and items are given human traits and expression, this is personification. It occurs in stanzas three and five, for example:
trees to talk to me
mountains frown at me
Occurs in stanza seven:
would / blow me like thistledown
like water held in the / hands
Themes - Prayer Before Birth
These are the main themes:
- Future Life Free of Violence and Corruption
- Environments In Which Children Are Born
- Responsibility For Coming Generations
- The Rights Of Children/Unborn
- Ongoing Struggles Of Humanity
- Pregnancy And The Big Picture
- Religious And Political Issues
Norton Anthology, Norton, 2005
© 2018 Andrew Spacey