Babies - 'Prayer before birth' by Louis MacNeice and 'The Tay Moses' by Kathleen Jamie

John O'Donoghue


A lesson focusing on two poems that explore the theme of infancy from differing perspectives.


To explore the ways poets write about infants To encourage students to write their own poems on the theme of infancy

Resources needed

Poetry Archive recordings of Kathleen Jamie reading 'The Tay Moses and Louis MacNeice reading 'Prayer Before Birth' Whiteboard linked to the Poetry Archive website for viewing the texts of the poems

Teaching sequence of activities


Both of these poems explore the experience of birth: 'The Tay Moses' from a mother's point of view; 'Prayer Before Birth' from the point of view of a baby about be born. Both invoke religious texts - the story of Moses; prayer - to create poetry. The teacher asks students to talk in pairs and suggest reasons for why the theme of birth should inspire religious approaches to writing poems, eg birth as a 'mystery' religious ritual used as rite of passage for new-born babies, eg circumcision, baptism the innocence of babies as a symbol of goodness babies as new beginnings, as an opportunity to renew humanity


The teacher plays the recording of Kathleen Jamie reading 'The Tay Moses' to the class, and displays the text on the whiteboard. Students are asked to make a note of any odd words, and/or any words they may not have come across before, such as creel, river-rashes, oriole, uplands, eddies, spawn, birl, river-pilot and grieve. Students feed back some of these words to the class. Students are then asked to predict what part of speech some of these words may be through Q & A, e.g. birl is a verb, grieve a noun. How can students tell what parts of speech the words are? Word order, or syntax, is what gives them a clue. Once they have worked out all the meanings of the odd words, the poem is played again. What differences do they note now? Do they have a fuller understanding of the poem? Why did Kathleen Jamie use these kinds of words? (Some are dialect; some come from geography or biology; some have artistic or poetic associations, eg oriole). The teacher now asks further questions about the syntactical structure of the poem: How is punctuation used to link various parts of the poem? (Dashes.) How does this use of punctuation determine the pace of the poem? (Speeds up as it goes along, or 'snowballs') What do the students notice about the overall structure of the poem? (It's one long sentence) At what point does the poet switch pronouns? (Begins poem addressing 'you' - the new-born baby; ends in italics talking about 'him'). What’s the effect of this? Next, the class listens to the recording of Louis MacNiece reading 'Prayer Before Birth'. The teacher suggests that this is another 'snowball' poem. It accumulates lines as it goes. But this is not done in an arbitrary fashion: there is a pattern to this poem. Can students in pairs discern what the pattern is? (the first line and the last line rhymes, but when the middle line(s) come they have a Biblical structure, rather like 'verses' in the Bible). This 'prayer' is a litany - that is, a prayer that uses repetition to create a sense of focus, invocation and wonder. Yet the tone of the poem is perhaps more secular than religious. The teacher explains that this poem was written at the height of WW2. Students in pairs are asked to find evidence of this context in the poem, eg the specific threats to the child which foreground the times MacNeice was living through when he wrote this poem. Then the teacher takes feedback, and reminds students that this is a poem, not a newspaper report, and that takes the form of a litany, or prayer. MacNeice, the son of a Church of Ireland minister, has made his language deliberately timeless in some parts of the poem and quite contemporary in others. Why does MacNeice use language in this way? The teacher now asks students to write either: A poem from the point of view of the 'farm-wife' who ends up with the baby in her arms. What kind of language would a 'farm-wife' use? What kind of person would she be? Do they imagine her as younger or older than the mother in the poem? What would her reaction be to the events described in the poem? Does she perhaps have a story - about babies, about motherhood, about her farm, or her husband -which we have not been told? What would that story be, and how would she tell it in a poem? Or: What modern joys, what modern woes, would a baby about to be born have to look forward to or fear today? Make a list of modern joys and woes, and using Louis MacNeice's litany form, update 'Prayer Before Birth' for contemporary readers


Sharing of poems in class.

Extension Activities

An evaluative essay reflecting on the process of creating the new poem: how students went about it, how they used the poems studied in class, what they liked about the poems studied in class, what they didn’t like, what they like about their own poems, what they think of writing poetry.

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