Reading Time: 5 minutes

Prayer Before Birth is a poem by the Anglo-Irish poet Louis MacNeice, written during World War II. The speaker, an unborn child, prays for future guidance and protection from the horrors of the modern world and possesses excellent foresight about humankind’s capacity for self-destruction and violence. The speaker ultimately insists that if this prayer cannot be answered, the speaker will not be born. The poem is thus a damning condemnation of the state humanity found itself in around the middle of the 20th century.


Prayer Before Birth is a dramatic monologue from the perspective of an unborn child. The unborn child expresses fears of entering a world filled with human failings and cruelties. He prays to God that they can live a good life and asks to protect him from the evils of the world, including war, poverty, murder, evil men and women, and more. The prayer reflects the anxieties and fears associated with the human condition and the desire for guidance and strength in the face of potential adversity. The striking juxtaposition between the unborn infant and his knowledge of the world’s worst features is incredibly effective.  

Each stanza reflects the child’s anxieties about different aspects of life, from the loss of individuality to the threat of violence and the oppressive nature of societal expectations. He contemplates his future sins, asks for forgiveness, and rehearses the “parts [he] must play, and the cues [he] must take”. He is going to face all the difficulties the world can throw at them but hopes that he will never be made a “stone” and spilt. Otherwise, he’d rather die. The poem culminates in a desperate plea for protection and a meaningful existence, free from the burdens and corruptions that plague humanity.


This poem is critically acclaimed for its emotive power and the poignant concerns it raises about humanity and morality. MacNeice employs vivid imagery, repetition, and a varied structure to create a rhythm that mimics the urgency and intensity of the child’s pleas. The repetition of “I am not yet born” reinforces the innocence and fragility of life subject to the overwhelming forces of a world that can often be cruel and unforgiving.

The use of personification and metaphor throughout the poem, such as “bloodsucking bat” or “club-footed ghoul”, adds a layer of horror to the child’s fears, highlighting the violence and dehumanization present in the world. Thematically, the poem touches on freedom, individuality, morality, and the innate human desire for a life of purpose and dignity.

MacNeice’s language is potent and evocative, interweaving a sense of the sacred and the profane. The poem oscillates between the desires for protection and nurturing and the dark recognition of evil and corruption. The use of the future tense emphasizes the anticipatory anxiety of the yet-to-be-born.

The poem also reflects the times in which MacNeice wrote during the uncertainties and horrors of World War II. The cry for individuality against totalitarianism and the need for moral integrity in a time of war is evident throughout. MacNeice’s existential concerns transcend his time, resonating with contemporary fears about the future of humanity in a complex and often threatening world.

Structurally, the poem’s irregular stanza lengths and uneven rhyme schemes contribute to instability and unpredictability, mirroring the chaos of the world into which the child fears it will be born. The concluding stanzas, fashioned as an incantation, underscore the intense desire for a life that retains its purity and purpose, ending on a haunting plea for existence to be filled with humanity and integrity.


The poem explores universal themes of war, injustice, and the human capacity for cruelty. The speaker’s plea for protection resonates with readers across different contexts and times. Throughout the poem, the poet engages with themes of religion and life struggles. Readers will not have trouble understanding the speaker’s view on religion, God, and life’s struggles. They spend the lines discussing the hard life they have to deal with once they’re born and their hope that God will grant them joy.

Structure and Form

Prayer Before Birth is an eight-stanza poem that is divided into uneven sets of lines. The first and sixth stanzas have three lines, the second and third have four, the fourth has six, the fifth has seven, and the seventh has ten. The poet chose to write this poem in free verse. This means the lines do not conform to a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. But that doesn’t mean the poem is entirely without rhyme. Even those written in free verse still use some examples of structure. For example, the exact rhyme with “me” is repeated twice in stanzas six and eight.

Expressive Imagery

MacNeice employs vivid and evocative imagery to convey the speaker’s fears and concerns. The use of sensory details creates a poignant and memorable impact on the reader.


The poem’s irony lies in the speaker seeking protection from the potential horrors of life before even experiencing it. This adds depth to the exploration of human anxieties and future uncertainties.

Desire for Innocence

The speaker’s plea for protection before birth reflects a desire to preserve innocence and purity in a world that may corrupt and compromise those qualities.

Fear and Vulnerability

The poem captures the vulnerability and fear associated with the human experience. The unborn speaker expresses a deep concern about the corrupting influences of the world and the potential for harm.

Spiritual Imagery

The prayer-like structure of the poem and the use of religious imagery contribute to a sense of seeking divine intervention. The speaker’s appeal to be shielded from various negative influences mirrors the structure of traditional prayers.

Social and Political Commentary

Prayer Before Birth can be seen as a commentary on the social and political climate of the time. It reflects concerns about the impact of war, totalitarianism, and the potential loss of individual freedoms.

Prayer Before Birth is a poignant and profoundly reflective poem that delves into the human condition, expressing the fears and concerns of an unborn child entering a troubled world. Through its rich imagery and emotional resonance, the poem invites readers to contemplate the fragility of innocence and the impact of external forces on the human spirit.