Here, you will find a summary and questions/answers to the poem “Prayer Before Birth” by Frederick Louis MacNeice which is a part of the Class 12 syllabus for students studying under the Nagaland Board of School Education (NBSE).
Summary: An unborn child’s agonised plea is conveyed in the poem. The unborn baby pleads with God before being born into this cruel world. It asks for the protection of the Divine and for forgiveness for all the evil that it will commit once it is no longer under the protection of the mother. The poem’s dramatic style makes a statement about what is wrong with the world. Life is painful, but birth is horrifying.
The child’s cries are symbolic of the poet’s grief, sadness, and fear in a world that’s steadily devolving into hell. As a result of the unborn infant’s haunting appeal, the poet depicts a world void of compassion, love, and remorse. In the poem, the poet expresses his utter dejection and hopelessness, expressing his belief that evil will not be corrected, but will instead perpetuate itself at an ever-increasing rate. By assuming that the child will live a life of evil, we paint a picture of a world that is nothing but hell.
MacNeice employs alliteration and assonance to help create rhythm in the poem: “strong drugs dope me, with wise lies lure me.” The expression “I am not yet born” is reiterated in order to give the poem a spiritual quality.
Furthermore, the writer refers to himself as a “cog in a machine,” implying that society will shape the child to become an insignificant part of the overall collaboration, rendering him worthless and insignificant. By using the words “I” and “me” as the first and last words of each stanza, the poem affirms individuality at a time when the world was mobilizing and exterminating individuals who did not fit into its categories.
Answer these questions
1. 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.
a. What is it that the speaker is seeking in these lines?
b. Do you think the speaker is a lover of nature?
c. What does the poet refer to as ‘a white light’?
Answer: a. The speaker wants to be provided with water to dandle him, grass to grow for him, trees to talk to him, sky to sing to home, birds and a white light in the back of his mind to guide him.
b. Yes, the speaker is a lover of nature.
c. Here, the “white light” that the poet refers to is the source of purity, awareness, or wisdom.
2. I am not yet born; forgive me
For the sins that in me the world shall commit,
when they speak me, my thoughts when they
a. For what does the speaker seek forgiveness?
b. Why is the speaker so sure that he will commit sins? Is it reflective of the world we live in?
Answer: a. The poet of the poem “Prayer Before Birth” asks for forgiveness for the sins that the world will force him to commit. He asks forgiveness for his wrong words and his evil thoughts.
b. He is certain that he will commit sins once he is born since it is inevitable. Yes, it is a reflection of the world we live in.
3. …. 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. Why will the mountains frown at the speaker?
b. What is the beggar’s and the children’s reaction to the speaker?
c. Why do you think the speaker has decided that all and everything will respond negatively to him?
Answer: a. Here the poet has personified the mountain. “The mountains frown at me” refers to the speaker’s sense that nature will not approve of his actions.
b. The beggar will refuse the speaker’s gifts and the children will curse him.
c. The speaker believes that everything will respond negatively to him because he believes that after his birth, he cannot stop himself from sinning and being a disappointment.
4. I am not yet born; O fill me
With strength against those who would freeze my
humanity would dragoon me into a
would make me a cog in a machine, …
a. What is the speaker’s plea in these lines?
b. Whom does the speaker want to fight?
c. Is it possible for the speaker to turn into a ‘lethal automaton’ or ‘a cog in a machine?
What do these phrases signify?
Answer: a. In these lines, the speaker pleads for the strength of will to stand against tyrants that could destroy his humanity and individuality.
b. He wants to fight against those who will starve his humanity, make him a killer machine, and make him lose his humanity and individuality, so that he becomes just a cog in a machine.
c. It is possible for the speaker to become a lethal automaton or cog in a machine.
This implies that the speaker’s individuality and humanity will be lost. Since the poem was written in the Second World War, the poem contains references to war, where the phrase “lethal automaton” refers to deadly killing machines and soldiers, while the phrase “cog in a machine” describes just one among many.
Think and answer
1. Who is the speaker of these lines? What is the general mood of the speaker in the entire poem and why?
Answer: These lines are spoken by an unborn child. In the entire poem, the speaker displays despair and fear. As it was written during the Second World War, the poem presents a bleak picture of the world. Many European countries were in ruins, with millions already dead, as the world faced a likely fascist future. The thought of bringing a newborn into such an environment must have seemed like a death wish. This poem, written by Louis MacNeice, evokes the fears and anxieties of a baby not yet born. Each stanza illustrates the reader’s growing insight into the fears of adults, parents, generations, and demographics that have allowed such an environment to exist in the first place.
2. This poem was written during the Second World War. Do you think war, its torments and repercussions are understood well by the poet? Does the plea of the speaker have anything to do with the ravages caused by war?
Answer: The poet knows war very well, its burdens and consequences. That’s why he prays for freedom – freedom from fear, restraints and delusions.
In this poem, Prayer Before Birth, written as the terrors of World War II struck the world, a baby not even born speaks the truths of his evil world. By speaking through a baby, the author enables readers to view the contrast between evil and innocence. The newborn baby is quite innocent, as he has barely taken his first breath. However, this infant’s knowledge of all things evil enables the reader to understand the gravity of evils of the world and wars. Readers are moved by the thought of the innocent new baby, and what he or she will eventually face throughout life. They are motivated to protect his or her own innocence as well as that of their own children. In Prayer Before Birth, the unknown listener is called out as the only one who can protect him against the sins of the world. The speaker makes his views clear by speaking through the baby’s mouth.
3. What does the term ‘entirety’ refer to in the poem? Do you think the speaker’s entirety is at risk? What is life in its entirety?
Answer: Wholeness is referred to as “entirety” in the poem “Prayer Before Birth”. It refers to the speaker’s humanity and what makes him a human.
The speaker’s entire self is at threat. The speaker fears that once he is born, society will destroy his humanity and individuality. Here, the poet reveals what he thinks about wars. When the unborn child asks not to let him become “a thing with one face, a thing…against all those who would dissipate my entirety”, it is clear that the poet feels hatred toward war. Though he is aware the other side is trying to “dissipate” him, he still does not wish to become that person on the other side. He does not wish to become a lethal robot trained to kill. He wants to be free from this type of lifestyle. Life is to maintain one’s individuality without losing one’s self and to achieve a fulfilling life.
4. What significance does the repetition of the words ‘I am not yet born’ have in the poem?
Answer: The repeated phrase “I am not yet born” strengthens the agonizing plea of the unborn child in the poem “Prayer Before Birth”. It highlights the fact that from the moment of birth man is no longer immune from sin and corruption. This phrase adds to the sense that the speaker wants to emphasize his desperate pleading to be let out of the system. An unborn child is already traumatized before birth, when he or she knows the fate of a human being. The repeated refrain “I am not yet born” stresses the unborn child’s innocence and is meant to remind people, God and humanity, that there may still be time to make things right before the birth of the unborn child and that the world will come to its senses in time.
5. What message does the poem convey to the readers?
Answer: In the poem “Prayer Before Birth” the speaker points out that the world is not suitable neither for children nor for adults. He tells this from the perspective of an unborn child. Frightened by this disastrous prospect, the child prays for protection and for forgiveness. In the poem, the poet expresses the fears that modern humanity faces, and the world as devoid of love, compassion, and regret. In MacNeice’s day, the world was experiencing a particularly dark period when he wrote this poem. As the Second World War raged in Europe and elsewhere, the poet saw the world at its worst. MacNeice’s poem refers to the social evils of wars, treason, violence, and progressive robotization of the individual. The unborn child longs to be free and to follow God’s white light. In the poem, the unborn child pleads for death rather than being born into a world where he will become an inanimate object and be stone-hearted.
Ron’e Dutta is the Co-Founder and Editor of Online Free Notes. He is a journalist, a blogger, a creative writer, and a teacher. He is currently writing his first thriller novel on time-travelling. Read the prologue of the novel here. Connect with him on social media.