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UNIVERSITY OF TUZLA FACULTY OF PHILOSOPHY DEPARTMENT OF ENGLISH LANGUAGE AND LITERATURE ENGLISH LITERATURE V

Analysis of Prayer before Birth by Louis MacNeice

Professor: dr. sc. Damir Arsenijevic Student: Amra Hasanagic

Tuzla, 2013

Prayer Before Birth (1944)1

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.

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.

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.

I am not yet born; forgive me For the sins that in me the world shall commit, my words when they speak 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.

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.

I am not yet born; O hear me,


1. MacNeice, Louis Prayer Before Birth, 1944; Accessed on 14th September 2013 http://www.artofeurope.com/macneice/mac1.htm

Let not the man who is beast or who thinks he is God come near me.

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.

Let them not make me a stone and let them not spill me. Otherwise kill me.

"Through one man's trespass, judgment came to all men, for by one man's disobedience all were made sinners. (Romans 5:18-19)2

During the Second World War, MacNeice wrote this poem, through which he expressed his fears for the future of the world and what may happen to manki nd due to that war. This fear he voices out through an unborn child through which he conveys a mental image for all of us that a war does not end with a war, because all it brings along is destruction. The poem is, so to say, written in a form of a dramatic

monologue written in a first person narrative. Even the form or structure of the poem appears to have its own meaning to pass on. When we analyze the structure of the
2. The Gospel, Absolute #1, Mankind's Nature is Inherently Sinful; Romans 5:18-19 NLT; Accessed on 14th September 2013: http://comedying.org/the-gospel/#1

poem, we can see that the poet wrote it in a way that he had every stanza a bit longer than the previous one, and every line, of each stanza individually, shorter than the previous one. I believe that both characteristics of MacNeices writing style have a meaning of their own. We can interpret the length of those stanzas as connected to the development of the unborn baby itself, not just by physical means, but also by psychical. In every stanza the baby seems to become more grown up with a more developed ratio, and through every stanza it seems to be more established as a persona.

When it comes to the way stanzas were written, it seems that by cutting off lines in order to look shorter than the previous one presents the high note of urgency the unborn baby wants to communicate. As the stanzas become longer and the lines within shorter, we can compare it to the development of the unborn baby, how it is running out of time to warn the mankind that the world it is being born in becoming more and more disastrous and how there is little time for to change the world we live in before it collapses entirely.

This entire situation gives a rather dark note to the poem with rather small chances to be brightened up by rays of hope. The tone of the poem is also tightly connected to the thematic of the poem which is dealing with cruelty and danger w hich we are fighting against throughout our lives, trying to protect the most important things in our lives from manipulative and corrupted society and world as such that we bring them to.

MacNeice also uses a lot of stylistic devices such as repetition and personification. These devices help to emphasize the problem as well as the underlying truth of the poem. Each stanza is characterized by its own beginning. The emphasis is on the I am not yet born 3 which makes every stanza more dramatic than the previous one, followed by a direct pray which addresses God. Our unborn prayer is praying for different things in each stanza and through each stanza the level of its desperation is higher than in the previous one.

3.

MacNeice, Louis Prayer Before Birth, 1944; S1L1 Accessed on 14th September 2013 http://www.artofeurope.com/macneice/mac1.htm

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. 4

The first stanza immediately shows us at which level of psyche this child is. At the very beginning we are surprised to see that the innocence is corrupted. Blood sucking bat 5 or club - footed ghoul 5 are not the first images we would ever expect to be expressed by a child who has not even been born yet. It can be said that this unborn childs innocence has already been corrupted by the world it is going to be brought t o. The oh hear me 7 part of this stanza is the first direct pray to God, plead by the unborn child to be heard on time, before it has been born. 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.8

In the second stanza the prayer fears that it will meet the same fate as those who already live in the corrupted world. The tall walls 9 probably stand for self isolation as a consequence of losing hope in the humanity and goodness of the world, or for alienation as a consequence of being rejected and excluded from the society by the society. The prayer fears to be tempted by sins that run the world such as dru gs as well as he fears to be manipulated, controlled, oppressed and lied to by the society.

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. 10

For the first time in the third stanza we are given somewhat a ray of hope. It is
MacNeice, Louis Prayer Before Birth, 1944; S1 Accessed on 14th September 2013 http://www.artofeurope.com/macneice/mac1.htm 5. Ibid; S1L2 6. Ibid; S1L3 7. Ibid; S1L1 8. Ibid; S2 9. Ibid; S2L2 10. Ibid; S3 4.

aware that the Earth provides us with numerous joys, which mankind take for granted. When we consider this stanza in the basic form, the prayer asks God to provide him/her with basic things that a human needs to survive, to live on. Today, in the modern world, all of these things are corrupted and some are almost destroyed . Exhaust gasses, deforestation and poaching are just some crimes committed by humans against nature. Rivers, lakes, seas and oceans are being polluted by everything that mankind throws in it, garbage, sewage, toxic waste etc. From that point everything gets contaminated through evaporation, acid rains, animal poisoning and so on. This ray of hope, which this prayer carries within, is implemented in every unborn child who hopes for a better tomorrow, a better future. Returning to the nature is just one of the ways we maintain our humanity.

I am not yet born; forgive me For the sins that in me the world shall commit, my words when they speak 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. 11

For the fourth stanza I would like to go back to my opening quotation, "through one man's trespass, judgment came to all men, for by one man's disobedience all were made sinners. (Romans 5:18-19). Once we were told that every person is born with a sin, although we were born as tabula rasa, we are all born sinners. In my opinion, this stanza makes a reference to this quotation, and the prayer asks for forgiveness even before the birth. It is evident that he/she pleas for forgiveness not only for all the sins he/she is going to commit, but for those the world will commit through him/her as a mediator as well. When born, we are already given the choice to choose our path, which is why we are taught to recognize that which is good from the things which are bad and/or wrong. Through this stanza, the prayer also expresses the fear that he/she is most likely going to be corrupted by the world. It looks like that the prayer addresses those who will corrupt him/her by using th e third person pronoun they, and asks for
11. MacNeice, Louis Prayer Before Birth, 1944; S4 Accessed on 14th September 2013 http://www.artofeurope.com/macneice/mac1.htm

forgiveness from God for all the sins THEY may commit by means of his/her hands.

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. 12

... I am not yet born; O hear me, Let not the man who is beast or who thinks he is God come near me. 13

Here I would like to draw a parallel between stanzas I, V and VI. 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. At the very beginning, the prayer stresses out what he/she actually desires and that is to be shielded from people who will corrupt him/her. This is probably because the prayer knows that such people are not worth of being socialized with. In the fifth stanza, he/she asks to be taught again of some of the most important virtues such as faith, love, integrity, gratefulness, courage, kindness and tolerance.

Moral excellence comes about as a result of habit. We become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.
12. MacNeice, Louis Prayer Before Birth, 1944; S5 Accessed on 14th September 2013 http://www.artofeurope.com/macneice/mac1.htm

(Aristotle) 14

13. Ibid; S6
14. Aristotle, Aristotle quotes, pg.4; Accessed on 15th September 2013; http://www.inspirational-quotes-and-poems.net/aristotle-quotes-4.html

The prayer is aware that if he/she keeps in mind and in heart all that which makes him/her good, he will be able to protect himself from all the wrong in the world, most of which was to be blamed on the mankind. The sixth stanza is, in my opinion, closely related to the first stanza, not just by the structure, but also it seems that the message which is conveyed in them point out the same problem or that which may be the root of the problem. The prayer does not want to be at access of those people who think of themselves as Gods. MacNeice might have addressed Hitler, Stalin, Tito, Churchill, Mussolini and others regardless of the side they were fighting for. One of underlying ideas of the poem is that war does not end all wars, and that it brings nothing but destruction.

The continuous mistreatment of everything that surrounds us brought us to the edge of the abyss. Everything around us now represents some kind of a threat. The white waves call me to folly 15 may be interpreted as something pure, hence the epithet white, but it can also be seen as one of natures best weapons which the mankind has no weapon against. The nature presents evermore a threat to us as much as it is our hand of salvation.

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.

Let them not make me a stone and let them not spill me. Otherwise kill me. 16
15. MacNeice, Louis Prayer Before Birth, 1944; S6L5 Accessed on 14th September 2013 http://www.artofeurope.com/macneice/mac1.htm 16. Ibid; S/

As we are close to the very end of this poem, prayers pleas become even stronger. Asking for strength to fight off the society that became ONE, and this ONE no longer has a clear identity. As Ezra Pound wrote some time before MacNeice expressed his discomfort with the society and the world we live in; The apparition of these faces in the crowd; Petals on a wet, black bough17 (The Station of the Metro, 1913). This crowd became our demon, the one the prayer is fighting against. It is faceless and hard to recognize, comes in various shapes and colors, but its aim is to recruit pure soles and turn them into rotten apples.

It is clear that every single person, at birth, is immediately affected by the world he/she is born to. This may be the underlying truth of the poem, and it seems that the silver lining in this clout is really thin. It is evident that people come in different packages, because of which we are unable to recognize and decide whether we are dealing with someone good or bad. For such reason we are always in the middle of some kind of a battle which we are continuously leading against someone or something. The society we live in is not a safe cradle anymore and day after day it becomes even worse. It seems that our only purpose as human kind is to become machines, weapons of destruction fighting one another, until the world ends. Our prayer turned to God for salvation. The child is a symbol of innocence and something that is widely perceived as pure and uncorrupted. This actually may be the strongest revelation that we need to again, in a way, abuse the something that is pure and innocent in order to make a statement, which just might be the only thing which could make the world change. We all are born to die, so to say, but we all choose the path we walk and create the world we live in.

17. Pound, Ezra The Station of the Metro From Personae by Ezra Pound, copyright 1926 by Ezra Pound. See more at: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15421#sthash.OOTDDW79.dpuf

REFERENCES:

MacNeice, Louis Prayer Before Birth, 1944 Pound, Ezra The Station of the Metro From Personae by Ezra Pound, 1926 The Gospel, Absolute #1, Mankind's Nature is Inherently Sinful Aristotle, Aristotle quotes