The tactic of speaking through a baby allows the readers to see the juxtaposition of evil and innocence. The newborn baby is quite innocent, as he has not even taken his first breath in the world. However, his knowledge of all things evil allows the reader to understand the true gravity of the evils of the world. It makes one feel sympathy toward this new baby and all that he would experience during life. It makes the reader of ‘Prayer Before Birth’ want to protect his innocence and innocence of the children in their own lives.
‘Prayer Before Birth’ calls out to God as the only one who can protect against the evil of the world. The author makes his own thoughts very clear by presenting them through the mouth of a baby.
The unborn child prays to God that they can live a good life. They ask God to protect them from the evils of the world, including war, poverty, murder, evil men and women, and more. The striking juxtaposition between the unborn infant and his knowledge of the world’s worst features is incredibly effective.
Structure and Form
‘Prayer Before Birth’ by Louis MacNeice is an eight-stanza poem that is divided into uneven sets of lines. The first and sixth stanzas have three lines, the second and third have four, the fourth has six, the fifth has seven, and the seventh has ten. The poet chose to write this poem in free verse. This means that the lines do not confrom to a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. But, that doesn’t mean the poem is entirely without rhyme. Even those written in free verse still make use of som examples of structure. For example, the exact rhyme with “me” repeated twicein stanza six and eight.
MacNeice makes use of several literary devices in ‘Prayer Before Birth.’ These include but are not limited to:
- Caesura: occurs when the writer inserts a pause into the middle of a line. It can be done through meter or punctuation. For example, “would make me a cog in a machine, a thing with” in stanza seven.
- Epistrophe: occurs when lines end with the same word/words. For example, “me” at the ends of all four lines of stanza two. The word “me” ends lines in every stanza, in fact.
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines one and two of stanza seven and lines one and two of stanza three.
Analysis, Stanza by Stanza
I am not yet born; O hear me.
club-footed ghoul come near me.
The title of this poem, ‘Prayer Before Birth,’ allows the reader to imagine a woman close to birth. It is also easy to assume that this is her prayer. With the first line of this poem, which you can read here, however, the speaker reveals that ‘Prayer Before Birth’ is from the point of view of a newborn baby.
This child’s first prayer upon entering the world is one that calls for protection. The newborn asks for protection from the evils in the spiritual realm. The “club-footed ghoul” is clearly mystical, if evil, being, whereas the “rat” and the “bat” could represent diseases brought by those two creatures, which are often associated with disease. In the opening stanza, the newborn asks God to protect him from evil spirits and from disease.
I am not yet born, console me.
on black racks rack me, in blood-baths roll me.
In this stanza, the newborn adds to his request for protection. The speaker reveals here that the newborn requests protection from evil spirits and disease and asks for protection against the human race. He asks to be guarded from addiction and from war.
The speaker of ‘Prayer Before Birth’ is clearly a grown person who has experienced these deadly evils but has chosen to write from his newborn self’s point of view. The effect of a newborn baby’s voice is that it places knowledge of worldly evils into the mouth of an innocent baby. This allows the reader to experience the magnitude of worldly evils. It is a powerful example of juxtaposition.
I am not yet born; provide me
in the back of my mind to guide me.
With this stanza, the child asks for provisions. This reveals that the author has knowledge of poverty as one of the many worldly evils. He asks God to grant him the ability to enjoy the sky, the birds, the grass, and the water. He also asks for wisdom. This is what he means when he asks God for “a white light in the back of my mind to guide me.”
I am not yet born; forgive me
hands, my death when they live me.
The author clearly has a dismal view of humanity. This newborn baby asks for forgiveness already for those sins which he would commit. The author knows that no human being has the power to avoid all sin, and therefore, he uses the voice of the newborn to ask for forgiveness of the sins which he would be sure to commit. He asks for forgiveness for his words, his thoughts, his treason, and even for murder. The author seems to assume that this newborn will inevitably commit all of these crimes.
I am not yet born; rehearse me
In the parts I must play and the cues I must take when
me to doom and the beggar refuses
my gift and my children curse me.
In this stanza, the speaker asks for guidance from God. He knows there will be plenty of people in his life who will fill his mind with ideas and opinions, but he asks God to guide him with His own wisdom to get him through life. Though “old men” would try to instruct him, he desires to know the instruction of God Himself. Though he might face opposition to nature at times, he asks God to help him know what to do when the “mountains frown[ed] at him”.
He also asks God for the strength to endure life even when “lovers laugh at” him and when “the beggar refuses [his] gift. Then, to guide him when he comes to the day when his own children would curse him. The author is clearly aware of all the hardships this newborn child would face. Therefore, he gives the child a voice that calls out to God in pleas for guidance and protection.
I am not yet born; O hear me,
come near me.
With this stanza, the author reveals his knowledge of humankind. His speaker, the newborn, asks that God would keep him far away from any human being who would give way to instinct so much as to resemble a beast. He would not surround himself with those who cannot keep themselves under control.
He also asks that he would be kept far away from any man “who thinks he is God.” These two different types of human beings represent two totally opposite ends of the spectrum of humanity. At the same time, some give way to every temptation and live like “beasts”, ” others view themselves as God himself. This speaker wants nothing to do with either type of human being.
I am not yet born; O fill me
With strength against those who would freeze my
like water held in the
hands would spill me.
In this stanza of ‘Prayer Before Birth,’ the speaker calls out to God for protection against what the world would want to do to him. He does not want God to allow the people of the world to “freeze [his] humanity.” He does not want to become “a cog in a machine”.
With this stanza, the author reveals what he thinks about war. When the baby asks God not to let him become “a thing with one face, a thing…against all those who would dissipate my entirety”, it is clear that the author feels hatred toward war. He knows that the other side wants to “dissipate” him, but he still does not want to become the face at the other end. He does not want to become a “lethal automaton,” trained to kill. He wants freedom from this kind of lifestyle.
Let them not make me a stone and let them not spill me.
Otherwise kill me.
In this final stanza, the speaker asks for protection against being killed. He does not want the enemy to have his life in any way. Throughout ‘Prayer Before Birth,’ the speaker has asked for protection against every kind of evil. He longed to be kept pure from the evil so prevalent in the world. Finally, in the end, he asks God for his very life. It is rather ironic to imagine a newborn pleading with God for his life when he has only just been born. It is evident that the author uses a newborn baby as his speaker to cause the readers to realize the fragility of life.
This newborn baby has not experienced anything yet and is in a state of innocence. Yet, the author makes the baby speak as though he were already aware of all of the evil in the world. Thus, he asks God to protect him from evil beings and evil men. Likewise, he asks God to keep him from becoming an evil man himself. These pleas’s effect is that the readers can imagine the innocent little creature entering this world already doomed to face all the evil that runs rampant on earth.
Louis Macneice Background
Louis Macneice was born in Belfast Ireland and lived from 1907 until 1963. Therefore, he would have experienced World War I in his very early years and World War II in his later years. This particular poem was written during the Second World War. It is easy to see the author’s point of view in this poem. He writes from his own perspective as a newborn baby.
Of course, it quickly becomes clear that the baby has knowledge of one who has already lived. Therefore, ‘Prayer Before Birth’ reads like a prayer that an old man wished he could have prayed as a newborn before the world got a hold of him with all of the evil therein. The reader, being fully aware that no such prayer can come from an infant, realize that the author himself is speaking his own thoughts through the infant child. Therefore, the author’s beliefs about evil, war, and the world are revealed.
Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some other Louis MacNeice poems. For example:
- ‘Meeting Point‘ – depicts the life cycle of a relationship through rhyme and metaphor.
- ‘Star-Gazer‘ – is a beautiful short poem about the nature of time, the universality of life, and the power of memory.
Also of interest might be:
- ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood‘ by William Wordsworth – speaks about growing up and losing one’s connection to nature.
- 10 of the Best Poems about Childhood – a list of poems that delve into the pains and joys of early life.