Louis MacNeice (1907-1963) was a friend and contemporary of W. H. Auden and Stephen Spender at Oxford and his poetry has often been linked to their own. Whilst sharing certain characteristics with them, including a sharp political awareness, in recent years MacNeice's poetry has been re-evaluated on its own terms, particularly by a new generation of Northern Irish poets such as Michael Longley and Paul Muldoon who've acknowledged him as a major influence. MacNeice's family were from the West of Ireland but he was born in Belfast to a Protestant clergyman father and a mother whose mental illness and premature death disturbed MacNeice for the rest of his life. These early years were recalled later as a time of darkness and loneliness presided over by the strict figure of his father. MacNeice was sent to England for his schooling, to Marlborough, and he then went on to read classics at Oxford. His professional life began as a lecturer in classics but in 1941 he joined the BBC and for the next twenty years produced programmes for the legendary Features Department, including his own celebrated parable-play, The Dark Tower. He died from pneumonia in 1963 following an expedition to the pot-holes of Yorkshire to record sounds for a radio play.
Longley has described MacNeice's poetry as "a reaction against darkness", his childhood memories of puritanism and rigid ideology fostering in him a contrasting love of light, of the variety and flux of the world as expressed in his famous phrase "the drunkenness of things being various". However, the darkness remained a presence in his work as in this poem 'Prayer Before Birth' written at the height of the Second World War. In the poem MacNeice expresses his fear at what the world's tyranny can do to the innocence of a child. Although written at a particular historical moment, by making the speaker of the poem an unborn child MacNeice gives it a stark universality.
This recording, made in 1946, was part of a series masterminded by the author and literary impresario John Lehmann (and also includes Edith Sitwell featured elsewhere in the Archive) on behalf of 'The Writers Group of the Society for Cultural Relations between the Peoples of the British Commonwealth and the USSR', though what the Soviet authorities would have made of MacNeice's impassioned cry against totalitarianism is an interesting thought. In the reading MacNeice brings out the driving momentum of the poem, its largely anapaestic rhythm building to a crescendo which makes the terseness of the final line all the more shocking.