Éamon de Valera's decision to keep Ireland neutral in the second World War was popular and, arguably, inescapable. But not all Irish artists agreed; the Belfast-born poet Louis MacNeice was deeply unhappy about it. In 1943 he published Neutrality, a poem that used as its title a word that encompassed both Ireland's stance and a broader temptation to disengage from the urgencies of history:
The neutral island facing the Atlantic,
The neutral island in the heart of man.
MacNeice had been in Dublin when Germany invaded Poland in 1939. He later recalled drinking in a bar with the “Dublin literati”: “They hardly mentioned the war but debated the correct versions of Dublin street songs.”
While his friends WH Auden and Christopher Isherwood controversially left for the United States, MacNeice chose to stay in London during the war years, writing propaganda for the BBC as his contribution to the war effort. It was not as obvious a decision as it might have seemed for a writer whose father was a Church of Ireland minister and who had himself been educated in England (at Marlborough and Oxford) from the age of 10. As late as the 1941 edition of Penguin New Writing MacNeice wrote, "I never really thought of myself as British; if there is one country I feel at home in, it is Eire." But he could not be at home with neutrality in a decisive struggle against fascism.
Prayer Before Birth, written in London in 1944, is part of that struggle. It uses free verse, but its incantatory rhythms, insistent alliterations and hypnotic repetitions give it the ritualised quality of a prayer. As is typical of prayers, each stanza is a single long sentence.
The speaker is an unborn child, addressing not just God but also humanity. Its demand, indeed, is to be human or nothing, to be allowed to come into a world in which it can be a free person, not a thing to be destroyed on a whim or turned against others:
I am not yet born; 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.
Let them not make me a stone and let them not spill me.
Otherwise kill me.
MacNeice uses "I" and "me" as the first and last words of each stanza, a simple but uncompromising assertion of individuality in a time of mass mobilisation and of the mass extermination of individuals who belonged to the wrong category. The images of lives blown away like thistledown or spilled like water through the hands evoke with equal simplicity the disposability of human lives in one of humanity's darkest times. Yet the repeated use of "not" suggests at least the possibility that a better life might await the embryo, that something better might be born from the struggle that is raging. Prayer Before Birth retains its power because that something has yet to be fully born.
You can read more about Louis MacNeice in the Royal Irish Academy's Dictionary of Irish Biography; ria.ie