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Prayer before Birth -- Louis MacNeice

       
(Poem #1039) Prayer before Birth
 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 to 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,
 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.
-- Louis MacNeice
I love the headlong momentum of this poem. MacNeice's poetry is usually
delicately balanced, informed by a world of possibility (and uncertainty).
Not so "Prayer before Birth", in which phrase piles on phrase in a desperate
catalogue of the perils of contemporary life. The cascading lines, heavy in
their use of internal rhymes and repetitions, assonances and alliteration,
are insistent, driving, a crazed litany; they're powerful, yet wonderfully
poignant. The unborn child speaking this dramatic monologue could be any of
us.

thomas.

[Minstrels Links]

Louis MacNeice:
Poem #18, Bagpipe Music
Poem #521, The Suicide
Poem #757, The Sunlight on the Garden
Poem #864, Snow

Various prayers:
Poem #177, Where The Mind is Without Fear  -- Rabindranath Tagore
Poem #344, The Navajo Night Way Ceremony  -- Anon. (Navajo)
Poem #349, A Prayer to the Sun  -- Geoffrey Hill
Poem #987, Prayer -- Carol Ann Duffy
Poem #1007, Abide With Me -- Henry F. Lyte
Poem #1020, A Prayer for My Daughter -- William Butler Yeats
Poem #1029, Prayer (to the sun above the clouds) -- Piet Hein

[Somewhat Technical Afterthought]

"Prayer before Birth" may look like free verse, but it's actually carefully
structured. Apart from the devices mentioned above, note the extensive use
of dactyls (metrical feet of one stressed and two unstressed syllables),
which contribute to the cadence of the poem:

 my thoughts when they think me
 -  /        -    -    /     -
 my treason engendered by traitors beyond me,
 -  /   -   - /  -     -  /   -    - /    -
 my life when they murder by means of my hands,
 -  /    -    -    / -    -  /     -  -  /

The poet also uses the occasional spondee (two consecutive stresses) to
prevent the rhythm from becoming monotonous:

 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.
 -  /     /     /    -   -  /     /     /    -

38 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Kittjam said...

This poem is a very moving reflection, examining what it means to be human.
It is great, partly because of the unusual perspective MacNeice has written
from, and also because of the diverse range of both poetic and linguistic
devices in the poem, all of which have been used very effectively to create
the mood of the poem.

The image that the writer is not yet born creates a sense of innocence, and
this enables MacNeice to speak of the corrupt nature of man in a powerful
voice.

Sandra Gastaldi said...

Sorry, do you happen to know when exactly this poem was published?
Thanks,
Sandra Gastaldi

pay.kat said...

It was written in London in 1944 during the Blitz.

kat brown

Dmdyson31 said...

well this is my favorate poem of all time, I was given a book when i was
14(every mans book of evergreen verse) because i love poetry and this was in it.
I still know it by heart.
BRILLIANT!!!

Nicholas Griffiths said...

This poem is great, I havn't read MacNeice before. I love the line "Let not the man who is beast or who thinks he is God come near me."

nick

katherine Forwood said...

I love this dark poem that Louis MacNeice wrote during the Second World War

yy said...

so how does using dactyl meter helps to convey the poet's message?

Anonymous said...

This is a boring poem.

Anonymous said...

I agree very boring.And yy its not dactyl meter,its anapeatic meter. Dummy

Anonymous said...

shit

Anonymous said...

Understanding the context in which it was written helps, but I find this poem incredibly depressing because it is almost wholly lacking in hope. That a child would put this many conditions on the world before even setting eyes on it is horribly sad, and whilst the world was a terrifying place at the time the poem was written, it doesn't mean that everything or everyone in it represented peril. And the closing phrase I think unbalances the whole thing, being as it is intentionally shocking and reactionary. 'Give me the world as I want it or not at all' is not the way anyone should view life on the way in. It should be full of hope, even if that hope is extinguished early on. Lament after birth by all means, but not before, because that is a tragedy.

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Anonymous said...

what does "let them not make me a stone mean"?

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