Louis MacNeice

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In Louis Macneice's poem "Prayer Before Birth," what is the poetic speaker's attitude toward society?

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Louis Macniece's "Prayer Before Birth" is written from the perspective of a child who, while "not yet born," is already craving consolation, fearing the oppression it may experience once it exits the womb. The attitude of the speaker towards the "human race" is unexpectedly cynical and fearful, given that the...

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Louis Macniece's "Prayer Before Birth" is written from the perspective of a child who, while "not yet born," is already craving consolation, fearing the oppression it may experience once it exits the womb. The attitude of the speaker towards the "human race" is unexpectedly cynical and fearful, given that the baby has not yet had any experience of living. The speaker expresses a fear that people will "wall" him, "with wise lies lure" him, "in blood-baths roll" him. The imagery of the poem, alluding to "black racks" and "strong drugs," identifies the darkest parts of human existence as the "fears" of this unborn child.

There are beautiful things in the child's imagination, too—he craves "water," "grass," "trees," and a "white light in the back of my mind to guide me," an allusion to God. The child also knows that he will commit sins, but the phrasing suggests that it is in fact "the world" which will commit these sins through the vessel of the child: "my words when they speak me, my thoughts when they think me." It is the world, and the way it is structured, which is responsible for human sin, rather than the individual human itself who was once innocent and unborn.

The child anticipates a battle once he is born, with humans dictating to him how he should be: he asks for help in knowing how to behave when "old men lecture me," "lovers laugh at me," "the desert calls me to doom" (an allusion to Christ's temptation in the desert) and "my children curse me." He exhorts God to "fill me / With strength" against those who would "make me a cog in a machine" or "dissipate my entirety." The great fear of the child seems to be that his "humanity" will be taken from him, and that the world will force him to play a part that is not himself, or turn him into "a thing with one face."

At the end of the poem, the speaker suggests that if this is impossible, and he is forced to live the life he fears, death would be preferable—"otherwise kill me."

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The speaker's attitude is set up from the very first lines of the poem in which an implied metaphor likens society to a "bloodsucking bat." This is followed by a subjective explanation for this extremely negative attitude when the speaker lists the fears driving the attitude:

I fear that the human race may with tall walls wall me, with strong drugs dope me, with wise lies lure me,

Since these expressions and fears are coming from one yet unborn, the negative attitude is heightened and dramatized because it is antithetical to the traditional expectation of an unborn baby's attitude toward the life and society that awaits: the expected attitude is innocence, joy, and expectation of good.

The speaker's negative attitude of fear and repulsion is further explained with more detail later in the poem (e.g., "rehearse me / In the parts I must play ...") and is summarized in this line:

O fill me
With strength against those who would freeze my humanity,

The speaker's attitude toward society--one that expects the worst kinds of treatment and is summarized in the line above--explains the meaning of the concluding lines that equate loss of humanity, through another implied metaphor, with becoming stone; with life being spilled; and with what might be called living death:

Let them not make me a stone and let them not spill me.
Otherwise kill me.

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