Not Yet Born – Louis MacNeice’s ‘Prayer Before Birth’

(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.

Gun emplacement on Primrose Hill, London in WW2 – MacNeice lived close by.

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.

Two Cat Burglar Poems Compared: Copus and Crucefix

Here are two poems about climbing in through windows. I’m sure it’s ill-advised to pit something of one’s own against one of the best poems appearing in the Forward Poems of the Decade anthology, but the similarities were so interesting that I decided to lay good sense aside. I hoped also to put aside any spirit of competition and to further that you will find that I have adopted a very impersonal tone towards my own poem. That poem – ’17 Britannia Square’ – was first published in 2004 and it certainly feels remote from me now, as if written by someone else. The following essay zig-zags to compare the two poems as students are asked to do in the Edexcel A level examination (9ETO/03). The text of Julia Copus’s poem can be found here. My poem can be read by scrolling down the page on this link.


Both poems convey details of the climb into a house which, in each case, is taken to represent something about the progression of individual lives, about developing identity. Copus’s climbing girl is on the brink of womanhood, a journey into “the way of the world” and her poem implies the difficulties ahead, especially, perhaps, for a woman in a patriarchal world. Crucefix’s poem is altogether more male and concentrates more on what has come to divide the two men, the surprising shift (“strangeness”) in identity over time. The forms of the two poems are similar: continuous blocks of unrhymed verse, though Copus uses a more variable line length and flowing syntax that evokes the ‘ease’ of the girl’s passage. In contrast, Crucefix’s verse halts and re-starts on several occasions, suggestive of the disjunction between his two characters.

Julia Copus’s 13 year old girl is repeatedly imaged in border territory, a “halfway” stage, a liminal state of age, sexuality, friendship and her literal broaching/breaching of “the warm flank of the house”. The journey or passage she is taking is into adulthood, a transition presented as exciting, anxious and relatively “easy”, though what awaits her is more uncertain and even forbidding. The opening descriptions emphasise her vulnerability (crouched, trembling, narrow windowsill, sharp drop). Yet she continues to find reassurance in the presence of her (similarly aged) friend, though this is precisely what she is climbing away from. For further reassurance, she dwells on the tangible details of the moment: “the fact of the open window, / the flimsy, hole-punched, aluminium lever”. Crucefix’s ‘17 Britannia Square’ also opens with a concern to keep things “steady” but here it foreshadows the narrator’s growing awareness of changes in personal identity and relationships. The details and onomatopoeia of line 3, quickly settle us into a concrete situation, but the simile of the “coins being scraped together” is the first indication of one of the poem’s divisive elements, material wealth. Given her age, Copus’s girl was not trusted with the keys; Crucefix’s narrator readily accepts responsibility for the lock out (he forgot to pick up the keys) and self-deprecatingly confesses his own inadequacy which is again linked to the material successes of his friend: “I could not manage ten minutes / in charge of your tall, Edwardian house”.


Copus’s girl’s physical position, perched perilously on the porch roof with its rough asphalt like “a square of petrified beach” is marvellously conveyed. The word “petrified” works physically and psychologically, evoking both stoniness and felt fear simultaneously, but it also foreshadows her eventual dive through the window, mermaid-like, into the ambiguous ocean of her future. The omniscient narrative voice asks, “What can she know / of the way the world admits us less and less / the more we grow?” The narrative voice knows the future as the girl does not and the personal pronoun (“us”) probably implies the voice is female and is making a comment on the patriarchal nature of the world of adulthood into which the girl is moving. It is a world that will “admit” her less and less. The choice of the word “admit” suggests the future will acknowledge the girl’s existence less as well as give her less literal admission to what it might offer. By contrast, watching his friend climb the ladder, it is the past that preoccupies Crucefix’s narrator. It’s interesting that the “cat-burgling high-jinks” are already distanced by being something they “might” have done, though it seems likely they did not in reality. It’s not clear whether this suggests their earlier relationship also had its limits or whether the familiar image of the wall-climbing wayward students is itself being ironised – a cliché that is displaced by the later more painfully honest assessment of their relationship. The elaborate, polysyllabic phrase used to describe what the two students hoped to evade – “vigilant authority” – also suggests the way the poem looks to evade accepted modes of presenting such male friendships.

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This is even more clear when we reach the narrator’s statement about the subject of their earlier, collegiate discussions. They focused on personal identity and the allusion to John Keats points to that poet’s ideas about Negative Capability. Keats records the sensation of feeling annihilated in a crowded room because “the identity of every one in the room begins to press upon me”. Yet this absence of a resolved (what the poem calls “determined”) self, pushing confidently outwards, facilitates delicately perceptive encounters such as catching a glimpse of a “fieldmouse peeping out of the withered grass – the creature hath a purpose and its eyes are bright with it” (229). The resultant freshness and truth, the absence of pre-judgement in such a moment, is what Keats valued and perhaps it is what this poem strives for in its examination of male friendship. The startling simile introduced here (“how a man / could possess no determined self, like a state / that sees no need of a constitution”) also gestures towards an underlying concern about national identity too. This is reinforced by the title of the poem and suggests that the issues of identity and division on a personal level might be reflected more broadly in contemporary Britain and the narrator’s observation that such a view now “looks as much risk as opportunity” indicates he sees subsequent developments (personally or politically) as putting closeness and cohesiveness at risk.

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In ‘An Easy Passage’, lines 19-22, create a dramatic pause or lull in the poem, a briefly “lit”, but still present, paradise of innocence. The statement that “for now the house exists / only for them” pre-empts the most significant change in perspective in Copus’s poem. Their innocence is indicated by the girls’ small scope of vision and the second half of the poem enacts its innocence / experience theme by drawing away to the wider perspectives of the street, the absent mother, the workers and finally the secretary. It is the latter who is said to be “most far” from the girl. The phrase ironically has the effect of associating the two characters, perhaps implying that the girl’s future can be seen in the older woman’s present situation. If so, the portrait is not inspiring with her small plans for an “evening class” or contrastingly improbable plans for the “trip of a lifetime”. The tone adopted about the “stirring omens” in an astrology column comes close to a sarcasm at the secretary’s expense. Growing distance and division are also indicated in lines 19-27 of ‘17 Britannia Square’ via the vivid details of the friend’s climb to the top of the ladder and his awkward tipping in through the bathroom window. The paralleling of the climb up the (social?) ladder and the reflections on identity are made explicit in the yoking together of literal and psychological facts: “I see you pull up the sash, begin to wriggle /into your bathroom and it seems less a truth / to last beyond our teens”. The simile describing the damage caused by the friend’s flailing foot, as he slips through the window (breaking it and making a “white star-burst like a rifle shot”), perhaps implies the demise of the earlier self. This is again reinforced by the forcible linking of immediate, physical events with more personal developmental vocabulary: “you vanish at last, absorbed to your house, / your job, your family”.

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But ‘17 Britannia Square’ is not really a poem about envy. In fact, the narrator waits below, watching his old friend vanish into his house/life, yet remains “in love with mine”. Furthermore, the closing lines of the poem present an act of Keatsian sympathetic imagination as the narrator melds past and present, himself and his friend into a moment of alertness to the possibilities of life, even if the possibilities are of growing alienation. The tone is not dark – the friend will re-appear at his own front door “laughing” – and the explicit birthing image of line 30 is equivocally described with the phrase “bruised and quivering”. The poem leaves the reader with a heightened sense of the unpredictability of individual lives as expressed in the choice of the word “strangeness”. The word implies estrangement but also of the richness of mutability and the unexpected, perhaps reminiscent of Ariel’s song to Ferdinand in The Tempest: “Nothing of him that doth fade, / But doth suffer a sea-change / Into something rich and strange”.

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By contrast, I think the youth and still-retained freedom of Copus’s two girls is described (from the secretary’s perspective now) with some envy (silver, neat, shimmering, flash, gracefully). It’s not clear if this is mere personal envy or that of an older generation viewing the more secure freedoms of younger women. Certainly, Copus loads ambiguity in at the close. The “shimmering- / oyster-painted toenails” re-evoke the beach image of line 16 and the graceful movement of the girl into the house suggests an assured transition into another element/time. Yet the simile of the nails flashing like “armaments” complicates matters. Is the suggestion that she will need not only grace and beauty but also an arsenal of weapons with which to defend herself in the adult world? Does the simile persuade us that the girl does possess such means to defend herself? Or that she lacks it (what use are painted toe-nails)? There is something surely ominous in the very last phrase, as she drops “into the shade of the house”.

So ‘An Easy Passage’ is full of the girls’ grace and beauty on the verge of adulthood. Through predominantly concrete description, the poem conveys complex emotions about their likely transition into the adult world and Copus leaves the nature of their future experiences carefully undefined. Crucefix’s poem is equally honest about what divides his two male figures as they have grown into maturity. It is largely money but also the divergent demands of house, job and family. Yet the poem develops ideas about the fluidity of personal identity from Keats’ thoughts on the matter and concludes that the human heart draws its sustenance as much from distance as closeness, pain as much as pleasure.