The Last Poem I Loved: “Prayer Before Birth” by Louis MacNeice


After years of people telling me that I would love Louis MacNeice, last week I stumbled on “Prayer Before Birth”. In the poem, the notion of the undead, the nosferatu as plague-carrier, the underworld and incarnate evil are not supernatural phenomena that threaten to appear to us. For the unborn voice in “Prayer”, hell is already on earth.

Every night when I was a boy, I prayed the prayer to St. Michael like the good Catholic I was told to be: “Protect me in my day of battle/be my protection against the wickedness and snares of the Devil”. MacNeice summons that same primordial fear of despoilment: “Let them not make me a stone and let them not spill me/Otherwise kill me”. While the poem portrays a world devoid of hope, I don’t view the poem itself as hopeless because the unborn’s acknowledgment of its own purity and the very intention of the prayer to maintain purity are presented by MacNeice as the possibility, however slim, of true goodness in an evil world.

The poem’s rhythm and weight converge to the end just like evil in the poem seems to be spiraling in power. The unborn speaker begs pardon in advance for his sins, most of which seem to derive from becoming a “lethal automaton” overcome by the world. Yet the awareness is also the resistance. The belief in evil is a testament of goodness. MacNeice’s “Prayer” cuts to the heart of existential crises: the healthy human life fears corruption, obliteration, and meaninglessness. Everyone retreats to the amniotic darkness of the soul. “Prayer” is what resides there.

Michael Carlson is a guidance counselor and teacher at West Philadelphia Catholic High School. A 2008 graduate of Loyola University Chicago, he is applying to MFA programs for the 2011-12 school year. He trains for marathons, plays jazz trombone, and writes fiction and poetry. More from this author →