Go to Knowledge4Africa.com

Louis Macneice

Prayer before birth

More challenging questions!

Keith Tankard
Updated: 26 June 2012
Contact the English4Africa Subject Coordinator

It is with great sadness that we have to announce that the creator of Knowledge4Africa, Dr T., has passed away. Helping people through his website gave him no end of pleasure. If you had contact with him and would like to leave a message, please send us an e-mail here.


The poet looks through the eyes of an unborn child at all the fears that face modern humanity, and asks God -- or humanity? -- to spare him or her these terrors.


Frederick Louis MacNeice was born in Belfast in 1907. Although he was known as Freddie in his youth, he began calling himself Louis when he was a teenager.

MacNeice was educated at Marlborough College where he showed a deep interest for ancient literature and civilisation. He then went to Oxford University where he studied in Classics and Philosophy.

While there, he began to immerse himself in poetry and began publishing his own work. He graduated in 1930 and then started work as a lecturer in Classics at Birmingham University, at which stage he married Giovanna Ezra.

He thereupon lectured Greek for a short time at the University of London before joining the BBC as a writer and producer. It was there that he found a following for his poetry amongst his radio listeners.

Early in his career, MacNeice became identified with a group of politically committed poets and writers, people such as Stephen Spender, W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood.

Although many of these were socialist in their leanings, Macneice himself remained sceptical of political programs and steered clear of political philosophies.

He died of pneumonia in September 1963. He was then 56 years of age.

Have you looked at the questions
in the right column?
Read the left column and then answer
the following questions:

Let not the bloodsucking bat or the rat or the stoat or the
club-footed ghoul come near me.
  • What do all those creatures have in common? Why should the child be afraid of them? (4)

[Need help?]

I fear that the human race may with tall walls wall me,
with strong drugs dope me, with wise lies lure me,
on black racks rack me, in blood-baths roll me.
  • Why does the poet refer to the "tall walls", the "black racks", the "wise lies" and the "blood baths"? (4)

[Need help?]

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.
  • What do the images presented in this stanza tell us about the modern world as the poet portrays it? (4)

[Need help?]

forgive me
For the sins that in me the world shall commit, my words
when they speak me, my thoughts when they think me,
my treason engendered by traitors beyond me,
my life when they murder by means of my
hands, my death when they live me.
  • Explain the "sins" mentioned here. Why should the child feel responsible for them if he doesn't actually commit them? (4)

[Need help?]

rehearse me
In the parts I must play and the cues I must take when
old men lecture me.
  • What is the overriding image used here? Why would the child need help with the part that he plays? (4)

[Need help?]

I am not yet born; O hear me,
Let not the man who is beast or who thinks he is God
come near me.
  • Why should this stanza be so short when compared to the other stanzas? (4)

[Need help?]

O fill me
With strength against those who would freeze my
humanity, would dragoon me into a lethal automaton,
would make me a cog in a machine, a thing with
one face, a thing, and against all those
who would dissipate my entirety, would
blow me like thistledown hither and
thither or hither and thither
like water held in the
hands would spill me.
  • What is the common theme with all the wishes contained in this stanza? (4)

[Need help?]

Let them not make me a stone and let them not spill me.
Otherwise kill me.
  • In the last line, the child says, "Otherwise kill me". What is this act of killing called? (1)

[Need help?]

  • Comment on this final stanza as a suitable climax to the poem. (4)

[Need help?]

Try another worksheet?

See also:
This document is copyrighted. No part of it may be reproduced in any form whatever without explicit permission in writing from the author. The sole exception is for educational institutions which may wish to reproduce it as a handout for their students.

Contact the English4Africa Subject Coordinator