Prayer Before Birth by Louis MacNeice

This poem, Prayer Before Birth, written during the terror struck days of World War II, places the realities of an evil world into the mouth of a baby not even quite born. This baby cries out for protection against evil. 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 want to protect his innocence, and the innocence of the children in his or her own life. 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.

 

Prayer Before Birth Analysis

Stanza 1

The title of this poem, ‘Prayer Before Birth’,  puts allows the reader to imagine a woman close to birth and might 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 to be from the point of view of a newborn baby. This child’s first prayer upon entering the world is one which calls for protections. The newborn asks for protection from the evils in the spiritual realm. The “club-footed ghoul” is clearly a mystical, if evil, being, whereas the “rat” and the “bat” could represent diseases brought by those two creatures which are often associated with disease. With the opening stanza, the newborn asks God to protect him from evil spirits and from disease.

 

Stanza 2

In this stanza, the newborn adds to his request for protection. The speaker reveals here, that the newborn not only requests protection from evil spirits and disease, but also 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 the point of view of his newborn self. The effect of the voice of a newborn baby 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.

 

Stanza 3

With this stanza, the child asks for provisions. This reveals that the author has knowledge of poverty as one of the many worldly evils for which he asks for protection against. 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”.

 

Stanza 4

The author clearly has a dismal view of humanity, as 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. Thus, he asks for forgiveness.

 

Stanza 5

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 that He would 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 time, he asks God to help him know what to do when the “mountains frown[ed] at him”. He asks God for strength to endure life even when “lovers laugh at” him and when “the beggar refuses [his] gift. He even asks God 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 which calls out to God in pleas for guidance and protection.

 

Stanza 6

With this stanza, the author reveals his knowledge of human kind. 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. While some give way to every temptation and live like “beasts”, others would view themselves as  God himself. This speaker wants nothing to do with either type of human being.

 

Stanza 7

In this stanza, 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 because “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.

 

Stanza 8

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, at the end of Prayer Before Birth, 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 aware already 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. The effect of these pleas 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. Thus, the newborn, before he is even born, pleads with God for his own protection from all such evil.

 

Louis Macneice Background

Louis Macneice, born in Belfast Ireland, 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 a knowledge of one who has already lived. Therefore, Prayer Before Birth reads as 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. Of course the readers, being fully aware that no such prayer can come from an infant, realize that the author himself if speaking his own thoughts through the infant child. Therefore, the author’s beliefs about evil, war, and the world are revealed.

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