Please give a summary of the poem "Prayer before birth" by Louis MacNeice.

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Michael Ugulini eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The poem, “Prayer Before Birth”, by Irish writer Louis MacNeice, is a narrative by an unborn child, still in the woman of a woman, offering a harsh opinion of the world he or she will be born into. Right from the beginning of the poem the mood is one of gruesomeness. The opening lines are an introduction to the poem and in parallel an introduction to the reader of the tone of the poem and of the world the child will enter into. This is evident in the callous, unsparing line:

Let not the bloodsucking bat or the rat or the stoat or the
club-footed ghoul come near me.

Further indications of this unborn child’s fear is that he or she asks to be consoled. This unborn child fears a life of being doped up by drugs. The child also fears that walls (barriers) will be constructed around it, so that it cannot live free as he or she will desire to – society’s conventions may be a hindrance to his or her plan to live a peaceful, loving, free life.

This unborn child desires to experience the beauty of life – the natural world with its birds, colors, light, bright skies, as well as verdant grass and trees. The child foresees that there can be good in life, but also foresees that humankind’s destructive nature can overpower all of this and cause life to be terrible.

Not even born yet, the narrator in this poem talks of being forgiven of sins yet to be committed. The child knows that sin, wrong behavior, and wrong choices that result in harm and damaged relationships will happen. The child feels that this is inevitable and is already tortured and worried by these thoughts.

In essence, this unborn child wants to grow up, after birth, to be a person with compassion, empathy, and love for others. However, he or she fears she will become a robot, so-to-speak, in a confused and chaotic world that will beat him or her down. Ultimately, this child does not want to have a heart of stone, just functioning, and not really living a full creative and wonderful life in harmony with, and at peace with, others in a just society.

Noelle Thompson eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In the middle of the Second World War (when this poem was written) there was a lot of fear found in the hearts of citizens.  This poem exemplifies this fear and exhibits that fear in the personification of an unborn child.

The very speaker of this poem is an unborn child (still within the womb).  He/she even says, "I am not yet born," and cries out to the "white light" for protection and asks for forgiveness for the things that he/she hasn't even done yet.  For example, he she admits that "strong drugs dope me, with wise lies lure me." An altered state and lies already beckon to the child. 

Basically, it is a dramatic monologue toward God about the horrible state of the world and how scary it is to be born within it.  The world the poet reveals is one without love or compassion or happiness or remorse.  The conformity that leads to these evils calls the unborn child to reveal its future as a "lethal automaton." The poem is defeatist in nature in realizing that the world of World War II will not and cannot obtain correction from within.  As a result, violence will escalate until it is possible the world will become a complete hell, full of evil.