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During World War II, Anglo-Irish poet Louis MacNeice wrote the poem “Prayer Before Birth,” which was originally published in his 1944 collection Springboard. The speaker, an unborn kid, expresses tremendous wisdom regarding humanity’s propensity for self-destruction and violence while praying for future direction and protection from the tragedies of the modern world.
In the end, the speaker argues that if their petition is not answered, they would prefer not to be born at all. Thus, the poem is a harsh indictment of the condition in which humanity found itself in the middle of the 20th century.
About the poet
In the 1930s, Louis MacNeice was seen as a more inexperienced member of the Auden-Spender-Day Lewis group. MacNeice and Stephen Spender were classmates at Oxford and close friends; they shared editing duties for Oxford Poetry in 1929. W.H. Auden and MacNeice became friends, and they worked together on the book Letters from Iceland (1937).
Additionally, MacNeice offered the most insightful critique of his companions’ literary goals and successes in Modern Poetry (1938). Despite these connections on a personal and professional level, MacNeice did not agree with the “Auden group’s” ideologies.
The poem is free verse thus there is no rhyme scheme. Explanation I am not yet born; O hear me. Let not the bloodsucking bat or the rat or the stoat or the club-footed ghoul come near me.
The poem’s title, “Prayer Before Birth,” invites the reader to picture a pregnant woman. It is also simple to presume that she is praying at this point. The speaker of this poem makes it clear in the opening line that “Prayer Before Birth” is written from the perspective of a newborn child. When this infant is born, his or her first prayer is for protection. The infant seeks defense against spiritually harmful forces.
The “club-footed ghoul” is unmistakably mystical, if bad, being, as opposed to the “rat” and “bat,” which might stand for the diseases those two species, which are frequently linked to disease, bring. The infant prays to God in the first stanza for protection from sickness and against evil spirits.
I am not yet born, console me. I fear that the human race may with tall walls wall me, with strong drugs dope me, with wise lies lure me, on black racks rack me, in blood-baths roll me.
The infant adds up his appeal for safety in this stanza. The speaker explains that the infant asks for defense against the human race as well as defense against disease and demonic spirits. He requests protection against war and drug addiction. The author of “Prayer Before Birth” is obviously an adult who has encountered these deadly sins, yet he has chosen to write from the perspective of his newborn self.
A newborn baby’s voice has the effect of transmitting knowledge of external ills to an uninformed infant. This enables the reader to see the scope of human evils. It serves as a potent illustration of juxtaposition.
I am not yet born; provide me With water to dandle me, grass to grow for me, trees to talk to me, sky to sing to me, birds and a white light in the back of my mind to guide me.
The child makes a request in this verse for supplies. This demonstrates that the author is aware of poverty as one of the many miseries of this planet. He prays to God for the ability to take pleasure in the water, grass, birds, sky, and other natural sights. As well, he desires wisdom. He prays to God for “a white light in the back of my mind to guide me” in order to achieve this.
I am not yet born; forgive me For the sins that in me the world shall commit, my words when they speak to me, my thoughts when they think me, my treason engendered by traitors beyond me, my life when they murder by means of my hands, my death when they live me.
Clearly, the author has a pessimistic outlook on people. This newborn kid already begs for pardon for the sins he will commit. The author uses the voice of a newborn to beg for forgiveness for the sins he knows he would undoubtedly commit because he is aware that no person has the capacity to prevent all sins. He begs for pardon for his actions, including his treason, treasonous ideas, and even murder. The author seems to be assuming that all of these crimes will be unavoidably committed by this newborn.
I am not yet born; rehearse me In the parts I must play and the cues I must take when old men lecture me, bureaucrats hector me, mountains frown at me, lovers laugh at me, the white waves call me to folly and the desert calls me to doom and the beggar refuses my gift and my children curse me.
In this stanza, the speaker begs God for direction. He acknowledges that he will encounter many individuals who will infuse his mind with ideas and viewpoints, but he prays to God to lead him with His own wisdom as he navigates life. Even though “ancient folks” would try to teach him, he wants to learn from God Himself.
Even though he may occasionally have to deal with nature’s hostility, he prays to God for guidance on what to do when the “mountains frowned[ed] at him.” Additionally, he prays to God for the fortitude to withstand hardships such as when “lovers laugh at” him and “the beggar denies [his] gift.”
Then, to serve as a guide for him when the day comes that his own children will curse him. The author is obviously aware of all the difficulties that this infant would experience. As a result, he provides the infant with a voice that begs God for protection and direction.
I am not yet born; O hear me, Let not the man who is beast or who thinks he is God come near me.
The author expresses his understanding of humanity in this poem. His speaker, a baby, begs God to keep him distant from any human who would succumb to the instinct to the point that they resembled a beast. He wouldn’t associate with people who are unable to maintain self-control. Additionally, he requests that he be kept away from any guy “who thinks he is God.”
These two categories of people reflect two very different extremes of humanity’s continuum. While others live like “beasts” and succumb to every temptation, others think of themselves as God. This speaker has no desire to interact with either kind of person.
I am not yet born; O fill me With strength against those who would freeze my humanity, would dragoon me into a lethal automaton, would make me a cog in a machine, a thing with one face, a thing, and against all those who would dissipate my entirety, would blow me like thistledown hither and thither or hither and thither like water held in the hands would spill me.
The speaker of “Prayer Before Birth” begs God for protection in this verse against what the outside world would like to do to him. He does not want God to “freeze [his] humanity” by allowing the world’s inhabitants. He rejects the idea of turning into “a cog in a machine.” The author expresses his views on the war in this poem.
It is obvious that the author despises war when the baby begs God not to make him “a thing with one face, a thing…against all those who would disperse my entirety.” Even though he is aware that the other side wants to “dissipate” him, he still does not want to take on that person’s appearance. He doesn’t want to develop into a “lethal machine” that is taught to murder. He seeks liberation from this way of existence.
Let them not make me a stone and let them not spill me. Otherwise kill me.
The speaker begs for protection from being killed in the final stanza. In any way, he does not want the enemy to get access to his life. The speaker had prayed throughout “Prayer Before Birth” for protection from all forms of evil. He yearned to be shielded from the evil that was so pervasive in the world.
In the end, he prays to God for his life itself. It is somewhat ironic to think of a baby who has just been born praying with God for his life. It is clear that the author chose a newborn baby as his speaker in order to make the readers aware of how short life is. This newborn baby is in a condition of innocence and has not yet had any experiences.
The author, however, lets the infant speak as if he already understands all of the evil in the world. He, therefore, begs God to shield him from bad creatures and wicked people. He also begs God to prevent him from turning into a bad man. The reader may picture the helpless tiny creature coming into this world already destined to deal with all the evil that is pervasive on earth as a result of these requests.