google.com, pub-8438675533923072, DIRECT, f08c47fec0942fa0
top of page

Prayer Before Birth

Summary:

  • This poem was written at the height of the Second World War.

  • The title ‘Prayer Before Birth’ suggests a sense of fear and desperation from the perspective of an unborn child.

  •  The speaker is the unborn child inside the mother’s womb, thinking of the future as it’s 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 may face. Yet, the poem is firmly rooted in grim reality.

  • The 1st stanza is filled with child-like images, expressing the innocence of the unborn child- “bloodsucking bat”, “club-footed ghoul”.

  • In the 3rd stanza, the unborn child is more concerned with what they need and are focusing on nature- “water”, “grass” etc.

  • Stanza 4 has a strong sense of inevitable betrayal and conspiracy.

  • The 4th stanza revolves around the loss of control as the unborn child is asking for forgiveness for the sins they will inevitably commit (hopelessness). “For the sins that in me the world shall commit.”- Paradox- the unborn child is asking for forgiveness, even before it is born for the sins it will commit due to the influence of the world

    • The word “they” repeated in this stanza emphasises the influence of the world on the way he lives his life.

    • Passive voice in this stanza- “they murder”, “they live”- the passive tone here suggests the loss of control.

  • The 5th stanza, the imperative verb is “rehearse” suggesting the lack of freedom to be yourself, almost as if you are playing a part in a play. Extended stage metaphor- tone in this stanza is pessimistic.

  • The 6th stanza the imperative verb is “fill” suggesting the fear of feeling empty. The tone in this stanza echoes the tone of the revelations (the final book of the new testament or Prophet Ezekial (old testament))

  • In stanza 8, the pre-natal child’s final plea is that his heart may not be turned to stone or his life to be wasted. Failing that, he would rather be killed right away

Themes:

  • Horrors of war

  • Humanity

  • Fascism

  • Fear

  • Manipulation

Meaning:

  • As it was written in 1944, the poem is possibly a cathartic expression of MacNeice’s fears of the state of war-torn Europe.

  • It is a poem of prenatal prayers for an unborn child to protect it from the horrors of the contemporary world of 1944.

Effect on the reader:

  • The poem has a strong effect on the reader as the unborn child would rather die than be born into a world which is so inhuman.

  • Although the poem is written from the point of view of an unborn child, one can say that it is actually MacNeice voicing his fear for his future child.

  • The horrific idea that the pre-natal child would elect for death instead of life but the life described is worse than death.

Structure:

  • Form of a dramatic monologue.

  • First-person narrative. The whole poem is full of personal pronouns such as ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘my’- provides intimate feelings of confession.

  • The poem is written in the present tense

  • Freeverse rhyme scheme- irregularity of the lines reflect the unnatural and irregular world the child is about to enter into.

  • No end-line rhymes, however, it does have internal rhymes.

  • The tone of the poem contrasts with expectations of impending birth. The poem has a fearful, critical cynical tone that it is full of anguish.

  • Prayer-like structure. The shape of the poem is significant as it is structured like psalms. Not a linear structure.

  • “I am not yet born”- anaphora (first line of every stanza)-it is a reminder that it is from the perspective of an unborn child and a reminder of the innocence and the vulnerability of the poet as well.

  • It has imperatives on the first line of each verse- this indicates the focus of each verse. It sounds like the speaker is commanding god to help them.

  • Monosyllables in the second line

  • Internal rhyme scheme- ‘wise lies lure me...black racks rack’- this creates a fearsome, chant-like quality, ritualistic quality of a soothsayer.

  • Stanza 3- no words more than 2 syllables: the language of innocence.

  • Stanza 3 provides a joyful contrast from previous verses and provides a shock of next verses.

  • Repetition of the word “they” in stanza 4- blaming the world for its negative influence. ● Stanza 5 only has 3 lines- almost like a hiatus before the final descent in chaos and death.

  • Repetition of ‘thistledown hither and thither or hither and thither’ highlights the desperate pleas of the unborn child.

  • The last stanza doesn’t follow the structure of the other stanzas (imperatives).

  • The last stanza only has monosyllables except the adverb ‘otherwise’.

  • Ends with a final command- “Otherwise kill me”- the command is abrupt. It is quite sad in the sense that the unborn child is hopeless and would rather die than be born into the world- juxtaposition. Line and a half give the poem a terminal impact.

Imagery:

  • ‘Bloodsucking bat’, ‘club-footed ghoul’- these child-like images emphasise the innocence of the unborn child. As you continue through the poem, the imagery becomes more vivid and real. They portray images of hell and deformity and refers to the hardships in life. The ghoul could be referred to as a child’s nightmare as children often have nightmares about ghosts etc.

  • ‘Bloodbaths roll me’- the imagery is staggering- echoes the war

  • Third stanza- ‘water’, ‘grass’, ‘trees’, ‘sky’- this helps emphasise the needs of the unborn child. Furthermore, the poem was written during the war, when the natural world was being destroyed by bombs which helps reinforce the idea that the unborn child truly needs this.

Language:

  • Listed animals in the first stanza- “bat”, “rat”, “stoat”- are associated with evil and have negative connotations.

  •  Foreshadowing- the language used such as ‘bloodsucking bat’- is used to foreshadow how the unborn child fears its humane qualities being sucked out of it.

  • Alliteration and assonance in the second stanza- “tall walls wall”, “drugs dope”, “lies lure”, “racks rack”, “blood-baths”- the torture, manipulation, entrapment, confinement juxtaposed with a nursery rhyme-like style displayed by the alliteration and assonance. This helps emphasise how terrifying the world is to the innocent unborn child. The assonance also helps create a rolling, inevitable pace.

  • ‘Drugs dope’- referring to hallucinations

  • Oxymoron- ‘wise lies’- enforces the idea of trickery.

  • Metaphor- “white light”- the metaphor is referring to the wisdom or guidance that God provides. The phrase ‘white light’ hints at a pure vision.

  • The word ‘dandle’ in verse 3- creates a family image (to dance an infant in the lap/on the knees) ● Biblical language- verse 4 mostly contains biblical language such as ‘forgive’; ‘sins’; ‘shall commit’- sustains a deeper confessional like the content. ● Paradox- ‘my death when they live me’

  • Extended metaphor- 5th stanza- ‘rehearse’, ‘play’, ‘cues’.

  • Modal verbs in stanza 5- “must”- highlighting the lack of freedom the unborn child will have.

  • Visceral verbs such as ‘lecture’; ‘hector’; ‘frown’; ‘laugh’; ‘refuses’; ‘curse’

  • Passive language- “lecture me,” “hector me”, “frown at me”- this suggests the complete isolation the unborn child will feel once it enters the world.

  • Lexis generally of rejection and humiliation- ‘folly’; ‘doom’; ‘beggar refuses my gift’

  • Personification- “white waves call me to folly”, “desert calls me to doom”- it emphasises the power of the natural world.

  • Oxymoron- “beggar refuses”, “children curse”- displays negative connotations of the world that the unborn child will be born into. (showing regret)

  • Metaphor- “man who is beast”- this suggests the vileness of the man and refers to him as a horrific creature (not human). “Who thinks he is God”- a reference to fascist leaders at the time such as Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. A plea that tyrants and autocrats may not come near him.

  • Metaphor- “freeze my humanity”- it emphasises the fact that the world may cause the unborn child to break its moral code which is what ultimately makes it human.

  • Metaphor- “dragoon me into a lethal automaton”- dehumanisation. Highlights the unborn child’s fear of becoming a weapon, a technicality of war, programmed to be at war. It underlines the worry of the child of being disposable and replaceable. ● Metaphor- “cog in a machine”- the unborn child fears being objectified and being replaceable (dehumanised). ● Repetition of the word ‘thing’- reinforces the fear of losing their humanity, something that is dispensable and easily used and manipulated for someone else’s gain. It refers to the disrespect governments may have for people’s lives.

  • “Dissipate my entirety”- the strong language used help emphasise the fact that the unborn child won’t have the power to make their own choices.

  • Abstract nouns dominate- ‘strength’, ‘humanity’, ‘entirety.

  • Simile and repetition- “blow me like thistledown hither and thither or hither and thither”- suggests a shapelessness and directionless substance that is easily manipulated

  • ‘Like water held in the hands would spill me’- figurative simile for the soul.

  • Metaphor- “let them not make me a stone”- fear of losing humane qualities. War destroys the soul.

  • Spill me- meaningless existence- lack of human wholeness.

  • The last stanza has unambiguously simple, primary language that reverberates with finality.

bottom of page