(Apologies for any formatting errors in what follows – this poem’s many indents make it hard to represent accurately in WordPress – this link has the full layout)
This poem demonstrates, in obvious ways, what Louis MacNeice called the “dramatic” nature of lyric poetry. In ‘Experiences with Images’ (1949), he says that “all lyric poems . . . in varying degrees, are dramatic”. Firstly, he argues this in relation to a poem’s voice and mood: “though they may pretend to be spontaneous, [they] are in even the most ‘personal’ of poets . . . a chosen voice and mood”. He also says “even in what is said (apart from the important things unsaid) all poems . . . contain an internal conflict, cross-talk, backwash, comeback, pay off . . . often conveyed by sleight of hand – the slightest change of tone, a heightening or lowering of diction, a rhythmical shift or a jump in ideas. Hence all poems … are ironic”.
In ‘Prayer before Birth’, (hear the poem read) the chosen, dramatic situation is obvious as the poem is spoken by an unborn foetus in the womb. And one of the ironies here is to what or whom this ‘prayer’ is directed: “O hear me”. Besides the increasingly desperate tone of the repeated statements which open each stanza, except the last (“I am not yet born”), MacNeice’s foetus cries out, pleading, hear me, console me, provide me, forgive me, rehearse me, hear me (again), fill me, kill me. Though there may be religious allusions in the poem, the evidence does not suggest this is a plea for any divine intervention. In fact, though the “human race” features largely as what is feared by the unborn child, the poem contains the kind of “cross-talk, backwash” that MacNeice finds in much lyric poetry, in that it is also to “humanity” that the poem appeals for protection and rescue. We are therefore present in the poem as both aggressor towards and potential saviour of the unborn child. MacNeice is dramatising the idea of ‘choice’.
This poet’s early work can be read as journalistic, reports on ‘chunks of life’, as suggested by titles such as ‘Belfast’, ‘Birmingham’, ‘Train to Dublin’ and ‘Carrickfergus’. This conception of poetry, consciously contrasted to the Ivory Towers of etiolated Romanticism and fin de siècle Aestheticism, is firmly rooted in MacNeice’s vital political concerns. It produced his (now fatally compromised) description of the ideal poet: “I would have a poet able-bodied [sic], fond of talking, a reader of the newspapers, capable of pity and laughter, informed in economics, appreciative of women [sic], involved in personal relationships, actively interested in politics, susceptible to physical impressions”. The epitome of this approach in MacNeice’s work is the great achievement of Autumn Journal, published in 1939 (read here by Colin Morgan for the BBC). But the poems published in Plant and Phantom (1941) are already asking to be read more as ‘parables’ in that they combine more nakedly emblematic and moral elements and, as Edna Longley argues, they mark the beginnings of MacNeice’s dissatisfaction with his journalistic verse, with societal panoramas, with ‘chunks of life’. ‘Prayer before Birth’ (published in Springboard in 1944) is also to be read as parabolic, its liturgical use of anaphora/repetition one obvious sign of this shift in style:
I am not yet born; O hear me.
Let not the bloodsucking bat or the rat or the stoat or the
xxxxxxclub-footed ghoul come near me.
The ‘this is’ of MacNeice’s earlier poetry has here been replaced by the parabolic, ‘as if’: in this case the imaginative conceit of a conscious, passionate, forward-looking, articulate foetus. MacNeice always liked to exploit the sounds of words and the clattering of the consonants in these opening lines, the internal rhymes and half rhymes, evoke the voice’s fear of brutal treatment.
I am not yet born, console me.
I fear that the human race may with tall walls wall me,
xxxxxwith strong drugs dope me, with wise lies lure me,
xxxxon black racks rack me, in blood-baths roll me.
In contrast to the soft sounds of “born” and “console”, internal rhyming and alliteration work in the same ‘brutalist’ way in this next stanza. The thumping, thickly clotted monosyllables (tall wall wall / strong drugs dope / black racks rack / blood-baths roll) also achieve an impressive level of evoked threat and consequent fear.
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.
The tone here changes as this stanza provides indications of the kinds of consolation mentioned in stanza 2. Comforts are largely pastoral in nature – water, grass, trees, sky, birds – which, given MacNeice’s previous achievements in portraying the realities of mid-20th century life in Britain and Ireland, is rather disappointing. The choice of ‘dandle’ pushes irony to the point of sarcasm. He reaches for an easy option of traditional, Classical imagery here. The vague “white light” is also not altogether convincing or clear. Is this a religious image? Or a more humanistic one – the guiding light of rationality? Or of innate morality? Compassion?
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.
Stanza 4 complicates the moral position of the foetus’ future life because it recognises that s/he will not only suffer but commit sins. The lines suggest a compulsion to commit such acts, a compulsion originating in “the world”, interestingly operating via language and thought control, beyond these standing shadowy “traitors” and other figures unnamed. Probably such figures are developed more precisely in the following lines:
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.
A compulsion again is prominent (I must play / I must take), here derived from “old men” and “bureaucrats”. This rings more true to the left-leaning, politically radical MacNeice, though the sense of a parable unfolding reasserts itself in the anthropomorphising of the mountains, waves and desert. The beggar’s refusal and the children’s curses are harder to interpret but seem also to derive from actions performed in bad faith – under compulsion.
I am not yet born; O hear me,
Let not the man who is beast or who thinks he is God
come near me.
My favourite line from the poem appears here in the way MacNeice identifies the roots of evil at opposing ends of a spectrum: men who are bestial, men who believe they are God-like. I’d argue it’s particularly the latter who are the focus of the final lines of the poem , “those” who deny or denigrate the individual’s humanity, turn her/him into an automaton/cog/thing, whose disregard for the individual human life results in (a very effective return of the water image from stanza 3) the spilling of the individual’s worth.
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.
The last phrase is dramatic but perhaps over-dependent on its rhyme and savage brevity for effect. The foetus’ call for abortion is full of complex issues but perhaps less so if we keep reading the poem as parable (stepping away from more literal interpretation). The parable suggests the dangers, compromises and complicities that any individual coming into the world has to face. A natural response to the poem would be to hope – indeed take action – to alleviate such fears. There is a choice implied. In this, MacNeice is remaining consistent with his earlier political activism and associated journalistic style of poetry. In a 1941 essay, he argued that “the ‘message’ of a work of art may appear to be defeatist, negative, nihilist; the work of art itself is always positive. A poem in praise of suicide is an act of homage to life”. This is how we ought to try to read the poem’s final dramatic utterance.
In the same essay (‘Broken Windows or Thinking Aloud’), MacNeice looked around in 1941 and observed “we are all being dragooned by outside conditions, we look like shuttlecocks of War”. Yet he also concludes, “it is therefore all the more necessary to think of ourselves as free agents”. This is the path of resilience taken by the pragmatic empiricist as MacNeice sees her/him: “someone who follows an ideal that is always developing, implicit rather than explicit” – no room here for God-like, fundamentalist convictions. Freedom, justice and the happiness of the individual may be under threat – as ‘Prayer Before Birth’ makes all too clear – but the poet’s belief remains in line yet with the optimistic, pragmatic, humanistic credo he expressed so elegantly towards the end of section II of Autumn Journal:
I must go out tomorrow as the others do
xxxxxxAnd build the falling castle;
Which never has fallen, thanks
xxxxxxNot to any formula, red tape or institution,
Not to any creeds or banks,
xxxxxxBut to the human animal’s endless courage.