Louis MacNeice’s and Thom Gun’s poems use the first voice to look at birth through babies’ eyes. They help us see that babies, unborn or newborn, are living but powerless beings. They can think and feel but cannot make decisions or changes in their lives. MacNeice’s piece is burdened with desperate pleas from the womb for a chance to live while Gunn’s poem takes on a lighter tone towards a newborn’s protest to leaving the comfortable and familiar womb.
Written in the form of a prayer, the “Prayer Before Birth” addresses God as its audience but the poet’s intention is really to decry the horrors of abortion to the reader. The poem takes on a troubled tone of one who is facing death sentence. The effects of its tone are made stronger through the use of the first person in the impotent unborn baby to dramatize the fact that it is alive and not given a choice for its life. Each stanza repeats the fact that it has yet live. This set the reader into the speaker’s deepest burden as it reveals its concerns.
The poem also uses images associated with pains and fears the speaker faces to communicate its tone of deep depression. The first stanza shows us a child’s nightmare of “bat”, “rat” and “ghoul”; followed by equipment of torture such as “walls”, “racks” and “drugs”; then criminal acts of “treason” and “murder”; men in authority as in “old men”, “bureaucrats” and “man…who thinks he is God” and finally the vivid description of the brutal act and the detachment of the speaker from its source of humanity. All these depressive images are interrupted only in the third stanza, with a sense of longing and in warmer tone, to experience life from childhood (being “dandle”) to death (being guided by “a white light”). It brings images of nature and life and all that we take for granted.
Even the poem’s structure supports the tone. The long sentences and heavy-sounding words (“dragoon”, “dissipate” and “bloodsucking”) communicate a heavily laden heart. The poem moves slowly with increasing length at each stanza and that tells of a deepening sense of hopelessness. The sixth stanza is very short as if to communicate the end of the hope. The last stanza’s lines shorten with each subsequent plea as if to signify the shortening time left.
The poet chooses words that support the deeply burdened tone and evoke the reader’s emotional response. This is especially so when an innocent unborn has been subjected various agents of abortion in the form of creatures of the night (“bat”, “rat” and “ghoul”), equipment of torture (“walls”, “racks” and “blood-baths”), criminal acts (“treasons” and “murder”) and unloving human (“lovers”, “beggars” and “bureaucrats”). They communicate uncaring, cold and relentless in achieving their ends without regard to the subject. Many rarely used heavy-sounding and multi-syllabus words add to the ominous mood as they “dragoon”, “dissipate” and “engendered” the speaker.
And then the word “thistledown” also helps add the finality of the act as we picture the foetus as unattached weed just go directionless and lifeless (“hither and thither”) to be [spilled] like water into the drain. The use of the word “me” gives a picture of helplessness to be subjected to other people’s direction (“think me”, “beyond me”, “live me”, “curse me”, “lecture me” and “hector me”). The sum effect of the dramatic play of words is designed to create the dark, troubled mood of one facing death sentence and to draw a response from the reader.
On the other hand, Gunn also uses the first voice but he gives the protesting baby a less intense tone. His intention is to explain the baby’s first cry and he thinks that it is from its reluctance to leave an environment of security and warmth for a strange and cold world. The poem carries an angry tone of complains (“Things were different inside”)and warm tone of memories (“The perfect comfort of her inside”). Like the previous poem, the effect of its tone is made stronger through the use of the first person who shares its experience first hand. Yet unlike the first poem, the tone it carries is not as overwhelming as to evoke a respond from the reader for it hints that it is only temporal (“I may forget…”).
Gunn’s poem also uses images but those of contrasting scenes to communicate its objection to the changes. One can hear the warm and longing tone as the baby thinks of the snug and secure “jolly and padded” and “[the] perfect comfort of her inside”. Otherwise, the poem moves in exasperation as it
compares the “warm and wet and black” womb with a “rain of blood” and the discomfort of the “lighted” outside world, the exposed and spacious “rustling bed” and the changes that comes when “all time roars”. Like MacNeice’s poem, it also communicates a helpless baby in the midst of the situation it cannot change as it lies “raging, small, and red”. And it may continue to rage till it forgets for it has no choice to the matter of whether it wants to be born.
Gunn’s poem is designed to support the tone of protest through its fast-paced, easy-to-read rhythm and rhyme and its short and even sentences. These, as compared with “Prayer before birth”, give the effect of a less forceful albeit angry tone. Its pace slow down a little in the last two stanzas (with longer vowels — “sleep”, “soon”, “womb” and “room”) as the child gets tired and slips into dreams of the familiar surrounding again.
The poem keeps the lighter tone and moves with ease through informal and conversational language. Many of the words chosen in this poem refers to tangible objects as in “womb”, “bed” and “room”. The tone is also supported by choosing single-syllabi action words like “fall”, “ride”, “tuck” and “lie”. All those action words imply how quickly everything happens between birth and the baby’s sleep. Many words also indicate the drastic differences the baby has to endure at birth e.g. from “private” to a shared environment; from the “warm and wet and black” womb to a “lighted” room; and from “padded and jolly” to “rustling”. All these imply changes the baby needs to adjust to. But they are all temporal shock and the protest will not last even though the newborn may fight it… “But I won’t forget that I regret”. And eventually, all that is left of the memory of the womb may exist only in the baby’s dream.
Both poems revolve around the subject birth and give thought to life. The main difference is that MacNeice’s poem is meant to evoke a response or perhaps provoke the reader to action while Gunn’s poem only wants to share a response of a baby at birth.
Courtney from Study Moose
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