Saturday, 10 January 2015

'Prayer Before Birth' by Louis MacNeice: "I Am Not Yet Born..."

Oriental Magpie Robin (Copsychus saularis) on Barbed Wire by See-ming Lee. Used under Creative Commons license

In another dark week for the world, I was thinking of Louis MacNeice's 'Prayer Before Birth', which you can read on the link below - or even listen to MacNeice himself reading it to you, in the rather stentorian tones of the time.

This was, among other things, an anti-fascism poem reflecting the fears of the 1930s and 40s, but I think MacNeice would have recognised that in the future, old horrors might take on only somewhat new faces.



  1. I'll be teaching this poem next week (a text set by the examination board for study by 16 year olds). I taught it last year as well, and it didn't grab me as much as some of the others also set. However, it's a grower. Do you have any views on the layout?

    1. Thanks for stopping by and asking!

      I have a couple of thoughts about layout. One is that in fact the layout is not well done on the Poetry Archive website. I put this poem in an anthology I was working on recently and in typesetting I was very anxious about them getting the layout right. The second stanza, for instance, should look like this:

      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.

      So the suggestion is that each stanza actually contains only two lines. The second line is just very long and so it is progressively inset down the stanza to indicate that the line is continuing. It's a shame they didn't get that on the Poetry Archive site - it does seem to be the correct way to lay out the poem as I have seen that way in books.

      The two lines in each stanza, one short, one long, sets up a sort of incantatory quality which is suitable for a formal type of prayer. What I really notice, though, is in the second to last stanza, where the second line is very long indeed. In terms of both sound and appearance on the page, there is a kind of forward rush to it which feels catastrophic to me. The words seem a little less controlled - it is almost as though the speaker is starting to panic. On the page it looks like an avalanche. Something is happening that can't be controlled. Then the last stanza has that abrupt, shockingly short final line: "Otherwise kill me." It could be resigned, or hopeless, or brusque...

    2. Well, unfortunately my above comment didn't get the layout right either - I think that was too much for the Blogger comment formatting! Essentially on that stanza, "with strong drugs..." should be slightly inset, and then below that "on black racks..." slightly inset again.

      Really best if you can get hold of a book where it has been properly laid out!

    3. Trying this once more: using .... instead of spaces, here's what that stanza should look like:

      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.