Louis MacNeice expresses a strong disgust towards the corrupted and evil world through Prayer before Birth in which he takes the persona of an unborn child who prays to God.
The poem starts with a plea to be heard as the unborn child asks God to keep away the nocturnal creatures, both real and imaginary away from him so that they might not cause him any harm. The unborn child’s need to be comforted against people who with the help of deadly drugs and clever lies will control him and dictate his actions is made clear in the second stanza. Wary of the influence man will have on him; the unborn asks to be surrounded by nature, which man has still not been able to corrupt. He prays for a clear conscience that can show him his way on the path of life. The unborn child knows that he will do lots of evil things in this world under the influence of Man, and asks to be forgiven beforehand. Everything that he will say, think or do will harm someone else and for that he asks repentance. He then asks to be prepared beforehand for all the roles that he must play in life when the entire world turns against him to the extent that even his children hate him and the beggar is indifferent to him.
The sixth stanza adequately summarizes the whole poem. The unborn asks God to keep away such people who are either as savage as animals or act tyrannously thinking they are as supreme as God Himself. He then asks for the willpower to stand up against those who would try to destroy all that is unique inside him and turn him into an insignificant part of a large machine. They would control him like as if he were a small stone which the wind can blow here and there as it likes, or like as if he were the water which a person tries to hold in his hands but ends up spilling everywhere. The poem ends with a final ultimatum: The unborn pleas to be protected against those who would do such things to him or asks to be killed instead of being sent into such a world.
Louis MacNeice uses a number of literary devices to make the stark truth behind the poem clear. The most noticeable among these is the repetition: The phrase “I am not yet born” is repeated a t the start of every stanza which makes it very clear that even though the child has not appeared in the world, he is aware of the darkness which surrounds it, giving a dark and hopeless tone to the poem. Then the abundant use of assonance juxtaposed with alliteration such as the assonance of “bat” and “rat” and the alliteration of the letter B in “bloodsucking bat or rat”; or the repetition of the letter L in “lies lure” and the assonance in “wise lies” in the phrase “wise lies lure me”; give an internal rhyme to the poem. Going on to the third stanza one finds nature personified in several instances: “Trees to talk to me. Skies to sing to me” Giving nature the qualities normally attributed to Man emphasizes the disgust that the unborn child feels towards the world as he wants nothing to do with it and craves the company of nature. However MacNeice contradicts himself by using the paradox in the next stanza “white waves call me to folly” where white waves, metaphorically resembling purity are personified to be beckoning the unborn towards evil. This thus proves that the intensity of corruption is such in the world that nothing, not even nature, can remain pure for long. The last stanza is flowing in metaphors as the poet describes how mankind will manipulate the actions and emotions of the child. He fears that he’ll become a “cog in a machine” or be blown like “thistledown hither and thither” or be wasted like water held in hands. These metaphorical comparisons emphasize the acute absence of control that the unborn can exercise on his life.
Thus is Prayer Before Birth a potent monologue, with its cascading lines, each heavy in their use of internal rhymes and repetition, assonance and alliteration, are insistent, driving, a crazed litany; they’re powerful, yet wonderfully poignant.
Right from the title to the lethal ending, this poem casts a very harsh light on the evilness of society and the corruption of mankind all over the world. The fact that MacNeice had to take up the persona of the unborn child shows how little he thinks of Man. The world is such that he does not think that even a young child; an infant, cannot remain unblemished from its cruelties. He was propelled to see it through the eyes of an unborn child, one that is still within the safe confines of its mother’s womb, to have an untainted point of view.
The poem is quite depressing and sad as it paints the world in such dark colors that no matter what the unborn child does, once he is in the world, he is going to get affected in some manner or the other. If the people can’t manipulate and control him with their lies and drugs and cage him within tall walls of social refrain, making him do evil things to cause other people harm that he would not have otherwise done; if he fights them and resists their dictation of his life, then they’ll reject him and he’ll become an outcast. People of all classes: wise old men, cunning politicians, happy lovers, mean beggars and even his own innocent children, will turn their backs on him and he’ll be left standing alone in the path of life. If seen in a wider perspective, the unborn’s unwillingness to be controlled could also be a desperate outcry against being categorized: everyone in this world is sorted, either into religions or class or color or country. This is also a way of subtle manipulation that the world has a whole exercises on the individual.
Thus he wants nothing to do with Man. He craves the company of nature, asking God to provide him with all those things which aren’t anymore found in this world, things which remain pure and unaltered by man’s influence, like the sky which cannot be conquered and the water which cannot be contained.
The strongest stanza of the poem, the seventh, is a personal favorite. With the poem being written at the height of World War II,this stanza has a particular importance. As the unborn prays for strength against those who would ‘dragoon him into a lethal automation’, the thought of a soldier immediately comes to mind. A person who is not allowed to show any emotion, and is asked incessantly to kill on behalf of his country, can only be considered a ‘thing’ without a ‘face’..A strong protest against Totalitarianism, a type of government where every aspect of public and private lives is dictated by the government, this poem and this stanza in particular, is a strong allegory against the world war. Yet despite the definitive historical period of time that it was written in, McNeice makes his plea universal by using the voice of an unborn child, innocent and frail, to convey his fear of the world, cruel and tyrannous.
Dramatic in intensity, the poem makes a sweeping statement on the deplorable state of the world. Living is a painful experience; being born is a terrifying one. The child’s plea is a representation of the poet’s anguish, grief and fear in a world that has steadily metamorphosed into a hell. The poet paints a picture of a world devoid of compassion, love and remorse through the haunting appeal of the unborn infant. The poem reflects the poet’s utter dejection and hopelessness expressing the thought that the world will not correct itself, but perpetuate its evils in an ever-ascending spiraling pattern of violence.