“ Prayer Before Birth” by Louis McNiece is a dramatic monologue written from the perspective of an unborn child. Through the persona of an unborn child, the monologue makes an anxious plea for individuality, a worthwhile and natural life free from any manipulatory and corrupting powers of threats and terrors.
The poem “Prayer before Birth” was written amidst the Second World War. The ‘war’ can be a three-lettered word but its consequences are always massive and enormously depressing. The common belief, ‘war to end all wars’ is not accepted anymore. A war brings nothing but destruction. It halts a country’s progress, the common man is disillusioned, displaced and several go astray. The poet in this poem expresses his fear of threat to mankind which may be brought about by war. He voices out his fear about what the world’s tyranny can do to the innocence of a child.
The poem is divided into six stanzas and each are slightly longer than the others indicating the growth of the baby inside the womb. The first stanza is about the childish fears that every little child has. He asks God to ‘hear’ him and keep him away from nocturnal beasts like the ‘bat or the rat or the stoat’, both real and unreal so that they do not harm the child. The ‘bloodsucking bat’ may refer to the parasites that exist within us. The world seems to be infested with vermin and the poet asks us to shield ourselves from them.
In the second stanza, the child wants God to ‘console’ him because the child has fears that the human may intoxicate him with deadly drugs and control him clever lies or ‘rack’ him in ‘black racks’ and ‘roll’ him in ‘bloods-baths’. The child wants God to provide him and surround him with nature, the only remnant to be corrupted by man. He also asks for some guiding light in the back of his mind.
The baby seems to be a little matured in the stanza four. He asks to God to forgive him for the sins that world commits through him, the words that speak through him, his “treason engendered by traitors.” The child means to say the society may compel him to murder someone or the traitors may cause him to betray his own motherland. He asks for forgivance for all these sins.
The next stanza is about lessons. The child asks God to be his teacher and teach him about how he should react when he faces situations like bureaucracy, old men lecturing, mockery from lovers, his own children cursing him or the beggars refusing his gift.
The sixth stanza more or less summarizes the whole poem. The first lines of the sixth stanza may refer to men like Hitler and Xerxes who think themselves to be God and he asks Him to keep him away from such men. Moreover, he asks to ‘fill’ him with courage and willpower to stand up against the inhumanity and such humans who would destroy him to recreate him into an insignificant part of a machine, or turn his face into one expressionless face or like as if the child was a small stone which the winds plays with, “hither and thither or hither and thither.”
Loius MacNiece uses a number of poetical devices like the alliteration, assonance, repetition, personification and so on to enhance the truth behind his poem. The punctuation shows that the child is in a hurry in making the pleas to God.
The lines “I am not yet born” are repeated in each stanza signifying that even if the child is not born, he is aware of the cruelty and darkness that prevails in the world. The technique ‘O hear me’, ‘O fill me’ gives the child’s prayer more power and emphasizes his emotions and portrays his fears vividly. Loius MacNiece uses alliteration and assonance in great deal. The noticeable alliterations are ‘strong drugs dope me’, ‘with wise lies lure me’, ‘black racks rack me’ showing the horror captivated in the mind of the little child. The assonance of ‘bat’ and ‘rat’, ‘tall wall’, ‘wise lies’ provides a different yet appealing rhyme to the poem and its readers. The poem contains religious themes and metaphor, the one being the use of the child as the metaphor of Christ.
In the third stanza, the poet has used personification and has personified Nature in the lines ‘trees to talk to me, skies to sing to me, water to dandle me’ and so on. It shows that the child wants the company of Nature more than the company of cruel world. Nature still remains unaltered by man’s influence. Additionally, the poet uses ‘mountains frown at me’- an image created in our minds that the only refuge, when everything else is lost, is Nature- but even now Nature seems to have deserted him.
There are historical references too. The poem was written during the height of the Second World War and certain references are linked to it. The phrase “cog in a machine” symbolizes that the child feels that the society will mould him into something insignificant and totally worthless. This has a connection to the First and the Second World Wars where soldiers were ‘dragooned’ into being an ‘automaton.’
The ultimate stanza is a long breathless sentence and the repetition of images bring out the agitation of the speaker. All through the poem, we find the poet effectively creates evil and devilish images which reflect the decadent state of the world and the presence of evil that lingers and continues to haunt our humanity.
Therefore we can say that Prayer Before Birth is a powerful monologue, copious with alliteration and assonance, rhyme and repetition making each of the verses poignant and dramatic in intensity.
The poem ends with a stark conclusion and the child finally asks to be killed instead of being born and sent to such a cruel world, if his pleas are not granted. Through the prayer of the child, the poem makes an outright statement about the deplorable condition of our world which may soon turn into Hell.
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This is very useful
I am a high school teacher of English. I did find the analysis very useful.
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