PRAYER BEFORE BIRTH By Louis MacNeice (1907-1063, England) ABOUT THE POET Born – 12 September 1907 Birth Place - Belfast, Ireland Graduation – Marlborough and Merton College, Oxford Died - 1963 HIS CAREER • Classics lecturer at the University of Bermingham from 1930 – 1936. • Greek lecturer at Bedford College for Women University of London until 1941. • Staff writer and producer in BBC FROM 1942 – 1949. ABOUT THE POEM • Written during the Second World War when Mac Neice volunteered as an air-raid warden. • Experiences influenced his writing of this poem. • Because the poet lets an unborn child speak, the poem stays relevant to all times and cultures. TONE DESPAIR, SADNESS, PESIMISTIC • The poet looks through the eyes of an unborn child. • All the fears that face modern humanity. • Asks God to spare him these terrors. THEMES • The poem makes a statement on the deplorable state of the world. • Living is a painful experience, being born is a terrifying one. • Man’s inhumanity to man. • Common human fears. • Personal choices. • Loss of human integrity and identity. • 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 spiralling pattern of violence. IMAGERY and POETIC TECHNIQUES • The poet paints a picture of a world devoid of compassion, love and remorse through the haunting appeal of the unborn infant. • APOSTROPHE: Not clear who is being addressed and the speaker is not part of the world. • ENJAMBMENT: Emphasise the child’s impassioned plea. STRUCTURE • Each stanza grows in length and complexity as the poem develops. • Free verse (no set rhyme or structural pattern) • First person perspective – the speaker is the unborn child. • Repetition (I am not yet born) followed by a logical progression of requests: “O hear me”, “console me” etc. • Last two words of the first and last lines of each stanza rhyme. • Indents – add to intensity of pleas. • Short last stanza stands out. I am not yet born; O hear me. pleading REPETITION: Emphasises innocence Let not the bloodsucking bat or the rat or the stoat or the Alliteration club-footed ghoul come near me. I am not yet born; console me. Alliteration and Assonance I fear that the human race may with tall walls wall me, with strong drugs dope me, with wise lies lure me, Oxymoron on black racks rack me, in blood-baths roll me. Medieval torture method I am not yet born; provide me give With water to dandle me, grass to grow for me, trees to talk Personification to me, sky to sing to me, birds and a white light Metaphor: Source of purity, conscience in the back of my mind to guide me. I am not yet born; forgive me World/people For the sins that in me the world shall commit, my words Personification when they speak me, my thoughts when they think me, my treason engendered by traitors beyond me, Alliteration my life when they murder by means of my hands, my death when they live me. Paradox STANZA 5: The child asks to be guided into the part he must act in this dramatic performance of life, so that he is able to perform his role correctly. That he’d be given all the right clues on how to react when important people lecture him or laugh at him. I am not yet born; rehearse me Metaphor: Life on a stage vs. life consisting of different roles 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 Personification Alliteration waves call me to folly and the desert calls me to doom and the beggar refuses my gift and my children curse me. STANZA 6: A plea is made that tyrants and autocrats (like Hitler) may not be allowed to come near him. I am not yet born; O hear me, Let not the man who is beast or who thinks he is God come near me. Metaphor: Satin/devil or bad people like Hitler STANZA 7: He asks for the strength not to become a killing machine or just a part in a machine: • He pleads that he be not allowed to become inhuman (a thing) • Or something that is completely at the mercy of others. • Or split as if he were just water. I am not yet born; O fill me With strength against those who would freeze my Killing machine humanity, would dragoon me into a lethal automaton, would make me a cog in a machine, a thing with A nobody 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. Society will mould the child to become part of everything around him (worthless and insignificant) Links with World Wars. Simile: blown in every direction no control of where it lands. No control of water in cupped hands STANZA 8: His final plea is that his heart may not turn to stone or his life be wasted. Failing that, he would rather be aborted right away. Let them not make me a stone and let them not spill me. Otherwise kill me. Shortest line - emphasis ANSWERS 1a Children fear ghouls / spirits. b Spook / boogie-man c Vampire 2 The holocaust of Nazi-Germany – WW2 The Russian Revolution The genocide of Rwanda in Africa Syrian gas attack (2013) War in Iraq Civil war in Libya Egyptian Riots (2013) 3a Acting b It is appropriate as we each play out / enact many different roles in our lives. c “rehearse” “cue” 4 Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin 5 He fears • becoming hardened and inhumane • being weak and soft that people can manipulate him into being part of terrible deeds like killing others 6 “freeze my humanity” “dragoon me into a lethal automaton” “make me a cog in a machine” “a thing with one face” 7 “blow me like thistledown hither and thither” 8 a He does not want to become like a stone. A stone is hard and cold and lacks emotions / is heartless. b He does not want to be such a soft, weak person that people take advantage of him without care / respect, like spilling water. 9a Yes, if his prayers are answered he should be able to cope OR He is prepared for the worst in the world before arriving in it. b He needs a “white light” to guide him through the world. This could refer to a pure heart or a clean spirit, untainted by the evil around him. 10 He could be forced by those around him to kill. E.g. as a soldier who carries out orders. 11 If a beggar, who has nothing, refuses his gift, it would be the ultimate rejection. He would need advice on how to deal with this. 12 He would like to be strong enough to resist being manipulated and being pushed around by others.