Monday, December 04, 2006

"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 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.
by Louis MacNeice


Another poem that has lived in my head for years, and I came back to it thinking that it probably fitted my over-simple adolescent way of looking at the world, but would seem a little preachy now. But the poem re-encountered turned out to be every bit as powerful as I remembered it, and such a joy to read aloud for its music.

Louis MacNeice wrote Prayer Before Birth in 1944, during the bombing of London, but the words would be as relevant in any age, the prayer a universal one.

It's a dramatic monologue giving voice to a child in the womb, as yet unspoiled by the ways of the world he is about to enter, and a clean slate on which the world will write his fate.

The poem flows from stanza to stanza in a rapid incantation of all the possible dangers the child may face beginning with the creatures of fable and nightmare, and moving on rapidly to include the horrors created by humanity.

The repetition of words and sounds - rhyme and alliteration (the repetition of initial sounds) is particularly striking:
... tall walls wall me,/
with strong drugs dope me, with wise lies lure me,/
on black racks rack me, in blood-baths roll me.
There's a change in tone in the third stanza, which is a plea for all the things the child prays life will offer him: Not just a pure physical environment to grow up in, but also clear moral guidelines. Surely such things are the right of any child?

The pace of the poem builds rapidly as a whole catalogue of evils is compiled. The child asks for forgiveness for sins not his own, but rather the sins the world will commit through him (including even murder) as his individuality is hijacked by a morally corrupt regime.

One of the most frightening facts about war surely is this. That when the killers and perpetrators of atrocities are later unmasked, they turn out to be so utterly ordinary, so much like ourselves. While:
... the man who is beast or who thinks he is God
is probably a reference to Hitler.

MacNiece controls the pace so beautifully through punctutation, especially at the end of the poem. The penultimate stanza is one long breathless sentence and the repetition of words and sounds show the agitation of the speaker. We've had the catalogue of possible evils given to us - and now the child prays to be taught how to cope with the worst that the world may throw at him or he will end up a man totally undone, completely lost. The images (thistledown, spilled water) are of total disintegration.

The pace slows right down in the last two stanza with its two stark statements. He prays not to become "a stone" having lost all humanity, or to be destroyed.

The last sentence shocks. As it should.

(You can hear the poet reading this piece here).

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Blogger dreamer idiot said...

This is a hauntingly heartfelt cry... which I myself share and feel compelled to express, though not the words so simply and powerfully written.

Bibliobulli, yes... I agree, that is what literature (poetry, here) does. it grows on you and develops or changes in its meaning and significance, as you read it again a year, two and many years later. I haven't read Macniece before, and glad you included this one, because this will be one of my favourites for years to come.

Anybody else like/enjoy or even disloke this one?

4:26 PM, December 08, 2006  
Blogger bibliobibuli said...

dreamer idiot - i really loved macneice when i was an earnest teenager ... must go back and read him now.

i almost posted this macneice poem instead:

Jigsaw II
by Louis MacNeice

Property! Property! Let us extend
Soul and body without end:
A box to live in, with airs and graces,
A box on wheels that shows its paces,
A box that talks or that makes faces,
And curtains and fences as good as the neighbours’
To keep out the neighbours and keep us immured
Enjoying the cold canned fruit of our labours
In a sterilised cell, unshared, insured.

Property! Property! When will it end?
When will the poltergeist ascend
Out of the sewer with chopper and squib
To burn the mink and the baby’s bib
And cut the tattling wire to town
And smash all the plastics, clowning and clouting
And stop all the boxes shouting and pouting
And wreck the house from the aerial down
And give these ingrown souls an outing?

Wonderful control of pace - brilliant to read aloud ... and the same theme of our humanity being swallowed up.

I have this one off by heart!

6:15 PM, December 08, 2006  
Blogger madcap machinist said...

I've never heard of MacNeice, and I love these! Will be looking out for more of his poems.

7:01 AM, December 18, 2006  
Blogger bibliobibuli said...

i' glad you liked it ... yes, i also think i'd like to go looking for a collection. trouble with writing this blog is i keep thinking of other poems i really like and then getting frustrated because they aren't online ...

my new year's resolution by the way is to buy and read at least one book of new poetry a month! this blog is changing me!

6:06 AM, December 19, 2006  
Anonymous zeba ashraf said...

mind bogglingly beautiful. It has set a great impact on the mind with the topic's relevance in the present world. Where are we heading? what lies ahead for our future generations?

11:27 PM, November 18, 2007  
Blogger ash said...

I believe this is a shape poem.
Rhythmically in tune with that of labour.
Would you agree?

Only we studied it in Module 1 of Edexcel's English Literature for A-levels, and we discussed how that is what distinguishes it, in technical terms.

It's disturbing isn't it. I feel like it could be an interesting take on humanity's own suffering. The matrix of the womb could mirror our sufferings in this world. Instead of a state of enlightenment, a place one progresses to once one dies?

7:58 PM, August 05, 2008  
Blogger dreamer idiot said...

Thanks for your comments.

Very interesting point about its rhythm being like birth pangs. With the rise and fall, and the heavy accent on the last beat, it certainly does appear to have that effect, which makes the poem all the more powerful.

Yes, I agree to it is universal in its cry of the human suffering, more haunting that the 'I' is not just the cry before birth, but even a cry before 'being'... as if an unformed and unborn life source from which we come is already making this cry of humanity... fits in with what you mentioned about the matrix of the womb. )

11:13 PM, August 06, 2008  
Anonymous Padma said...

hi am new on dis a high school student...found this peice very useful, i have this poem in my literature book...u helped me develop my ideas on this poem...tnx a lot...

9:43 AM, January 13, 2009  
Blogger dreamer idiot said...

Glad to be of some help.

3:38 PM, January 13, 2009  
Anonymous Padma said...

The poet talks about fables in the beginning and then moves on to depict the inhumanity that has become a reality in the modern the poet draws a comparison between those old stories and the stark reality that haunts our very life, and seems to say that this is much more frightening, much more dangerous...
one more thing that struck me was

"the white waves call me to folly and the desert calls me to doom"

That is more like man caught between need (and inability to meet it ie the desert implies nothingness, absence, etc.) and greed (the white waves call me to folly)
anyone agreeing with that?

10:30 PM, January 15, 2009  
Blogger dreamer idiot said...

Nice comment on the use of fables at the beginning. Very useful comparison.

I agree with you on the desert imagery, but not sure about the association with white waves and greed.

Thanks for your comment.

4:53 PM, January 17, 2009  

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