A Comparison of Prayer Before Birth, the Tyger and Half-Past Two

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English Literature Coursework

Prayer Before Birth, The Tyger, and Half-past Two are poems which explore encounters between the speaker, or a character, and a force that is greater than he is. How do the three poets develop and contemplate this experience?

Prayer before Birth, The Tyger and Half-past Two are three poems which explore an encounter between the character and a force much greater than he is. The first, by Louis MacNeice, uses imagery of religion and innocence to present God as a higher power acting above us, whilst The Tyger, by William Blake, describes the creation of the tiger and who its creator might be, again showing God as immensely powerful, but in this case he is shown as intimidating and frightening. Half-past Two, by U.A. Fanthorpe, portrays a young child, ignorant of the adult measurement of time, and his experience as he “escaped into the clockless land for ever”; this poem introduces a different force acting upon the character: time, and the different manners in which we conceive it. Louis MacNeice presents God as an important force with power over the speaker; he does this by making use of liturgical language throughout his poem. Terms such as “Prayer”, “sin”, “forgive me”, “console me” or “let not” emphasize this. The way the child asks someone to “hear”, “provide”, “console” him, as well as the title “Prayer Before Birth”, implies that he is praying to God to create a better world for him to live in before he is born, which adds to the biblical language. Another line which reinforces that the child wants to speak to God is “Let not […] who thinks he is God come near me”: this shows that the child wants to see God and no one else. Another powerful force the poet develops throughout is that of society and its leaders. The chid begs not to be born into a world which is devoid of love, compassion and remorse, full of people prepared to “make [him] a stone”, “make [him] a cog in a machine, a thing with / one face, a thing”, or “dissipate [his] entirety”. This is underlined with the confused, panicky state of mind the character is in, which is shown by “hither and / thither or hither and thither”, and also the rhythm of the poem: upbeat and desperate, with lines containing alliterations such as “strong drugs dope me, with wise lies lure me”. This latter phrase particularly emphasizes the unnerved disposition of the character with the opposition of the strong [d] sound, which reinforces the content+, and the soft, luring [l].By the end, the child is so desperate not to be born into such a world, he makes a firm decision that if his wishes are not possible then “Otherwise kill me”. The poem was written during World War II, during which countless men were sent to their death, thus MacNeice also condemns leaders of men who try to control the world and politicians who force others to kill in their name. This is shown when the infant says “they murder by the means of my / hands”, “they live me”, “those who would freeze my / humanity” or “dragoon me into a lethal automaton”. This poignant and impressive language goes so far that the baby asks for forgiveness before he is born. This shows that the greater force is not yet acting upon him, but will be in the near future, a fact which is reinforced by the structure of the poem, eight stanzas, which represent eight of the nine months of pregnancy, so as to show that the child is about to enter the world. The way by which MacNeice represents the external force as one which will act in the future is the opposite of D.H. Lawrence in Piano, who shows the character desiring a force which is no longer accessible: “I weep like a child for the past”. In The Tyger, William Blake uses religious language to describe the creation and the creator of the tiger such as “Lamb”, “heaven” and “skies”: the liturgical language is comparable to Louis MacNeice, but in Prayer Before Birth, God is shown as the character’s only hope in a world of despair, whereas...
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