‘Prayer Before Birth’ and ‘War Photographer’ both reveal poets who are captivated by aspects of society and at the same time are concerned to explore the effects society has on individuals. Both poems are well structured and have imposing language.
Through her poem ‘War Photographer’, Carol Ann Duffy casts a harsh light on the destruction and bloodshed which results from war and how apathetic and uncaring the rest of the world, who is not directly affected by it, is.
The poem starts with a description of the war photographer standing alone in his darkroom. All the photos that he had taken of the war are contained within the rolls which are organized into neat rows, making him feel like a priest who is about to lead a mass funeral. He thinks of all the places he has been to, places which had been torn apart by war, and remembering all the bloodshed he has witnessed.
He feels that everything has to die in the end and return to the earth. He then carries on with his works, but the ironic fact is that he who wasn’t afraid while amidst gunfire and death, now trembles in the safety and sanctuary of his home in rural England, where the most troubling thing is the constantly changing weather and where he does not have to worry about the ground blowing up beneath his feet.
Duffy has used a number of literary devices to describe the horror and agony of war. The phrase ‘spools of suffering’ is a metaphor, along with containing alliteration, as it isn’t the spools that are suffering but the people pictured in the photographs they carry that are doing so. Also, there is a paradox in how he has organized suffering, the chaos of pain and war, into neatly ordered rows.
Again ‘ordered rows’ could act as a metaphor, comparing the rolls to the coffins of the dead soldiers which are neatly organized into rows. The red light is symbolic of the bloodshed that the photographer has witnessed. The imagery of ‘blood-stained into foreign dust’ compliments Duffy’s previous statement that ‘all flesh is grass.’ Also, ambiguity has been used in a couple of places to portray more than one idea to the reader.
In the third stanza, the half-developed picture is described as a ‘half formed ghost’. This either implies that the image is vague and faint or the fact that the photograph shows a dead man, whose spirit is somehow evoked by the developing photograph. The fourth stanza describes the photographs to be in ‘black and white.’ This could mean both the fact that the pictures are monochrome, without color; or the contrast between good and evil.
Louis MacNeice expresses a strong disgust towards the corrupted and evil world through Prayer before Birth in which he takes the persona of an unborn child who prays to God. The poem starts with a plea to be heard as the unborn child asks God to keep away the nocturnal creatures, both real and imaginary away from him so that they might not cause him any harm.
The unborn child’s need to be comforted against people who with the help of deadly drugs and clever lies will control him and dictate his actions is made clear in the second stanza. Wary of the influence man will have on him; the unborn asks to be surrounded by nature, which man has still not been able to corrupt. He prays for a clear conscience that can show him his way on the path of life.
The unborn child knows that he will do lots of evil things in this world under the influence of Man, and asks to be forgiven beforehand. Everything that he will say, think, or do will harm someone else, and for that he asks repentance. He then asks to be prepared beforehand for all the roles that he must play in life when the entire world turns against him to the extent that even his children hate him and the beggar is indifferent to him.
Louis MacNeice uses a number of literary devices to make the stark truth behind the poem clear. The most noticeable among these is the repetition: The phrase “I am not yet born” is repeated at the start of every stanza which makes it very clear that even though the child has not appeared in the world, he is aware of the darkness which surrounds it, giving a dark and hopeless tone to the poem.
Then the abundant use of assonance juxtaposed with alliteration such as the assonance of “bat” and “rat” and the alliteration of the letter B in “bloodsucking bat or rat” give an internal rhyme to the poem. Going on to the third stanza one finds nature personified in several instances: “Trees to talk to me. Skies to sing to me” Giving nature the qualities normally attributed to Man emphasizes the disgust that the unborn child feels towards the world as he wants nothing to do with it and craves the company of nature.
However, MacNeice contradicts himself by using the paradox in the next stanza “white waves call me to folly” where white waves, metaphorically resembling purity are personified to be beckoning the unborn towards evil. This thus proves that the intensity of corruption is such in the world that nothing, not even nature, can remain pure for long.
The last stanza is flowing in metaphors as the poet describes how mankind will manipulate the actions and emotions of the child. He fears that he’ll become a “cog in a machine” or be blown like “thistledown hither and thither” or be wasted like water held in hands. These metaphorical comparisons emphasize the acute absence of control that the unborn can exercise in his life.
‘Prayer Before Birth’ makes a sweeping statement on the deplorable state of the world. Living is a painful experience; being born is a terrifying one. The poem reflects the poet’s utter dejection and hopelessness expressing the thought that the world will not correct itself, but perpetuate its evils in an ever-ascending spiraling pattern of violence.
On the other hand, ‘War Photographer’ is a chilling and disturbing poem in general, which evokes many conflicting feelings, a feat which is accomplished widely by Duffy’s use of strong yet simple words to say complex things.
‘War Photographer’ and ‘Prayer Before Birth’ reveal to the reader poets who are fascinated by aspects of society and at the same time are concerned to explore the effects society has on individuals. Both poems are striking in their language and challenging in their subject-matter.
In War Photographer, the reader is given a graphic portrait of a man whose profession is war photography. The poem deals with the experiences he encounters when witnessing the cruelty of war, in parallel with his life back at home.
When he is at home, his darkroom is his sanctuary. Disturbed by all the sights of war that he has encountered in the killing fields of Asia, he is brought face to face with the nightmare scenes he has witnessed as they emerge on the film, trapped in eternity. He thinks of the mourning woman whose permission ‘he sought without words to do what someone must’ in order to take her dead husband’s picture, to bring this image of war’s horror back home.
As he travels from one realm to the other, from the everyday society in which he is living, with its ignorance and apathy, to the warfields where people suffer and die pointlessly, he is deeply saddened: he starts to hate his work and those, like him, who make a living out of recording the misery of others.
That man is the tragic image of our reality. All human values are lost. Wars are fought over wealth, hatred and greed; innocent people die and suffer over causes that have no value. He faces it, he lives it. He takes these moments of despair – ‘A hundred agonies in black-and-white’ and captures them forever in his film and heart, only so that an ‘editor will pick out five or six/ for Sunday’s supplement’.
The typical man will look at them and shed a hypocritical tear ‘between the bath and pre-lunch beers’, thinking he understands and sympathizes. Society lives carelessly of what happens in other parts of the world to people just like us. The war photographer, however, lives both kinds of reality – the mundane life at home in what Duffy describes as ‘Rural England’, a place where ‘fields don’t explode beneath the feet of running children’, and the remote, war-torn existence he records. The tension of these two worlds eats him up inside. He gives a picture of how we go on living, careless with our lives, while others suffer for futile reasons and excuses, and ends the poem with the strong comment ‘they do not care’.
In Prayer Before Birth, the poet presents us with a yet-to-be-born child who despises humanity and prays for death. The child’s words, from the outset, vividly present a picture of a society of demons and horrors: ‘the bloodsucking bat…. club-footed ghoul’. The effect is reinforced by assonance and harsh alliteration: ‘bat’, ‘rat’, ‘bloodsucking bat’.
Such striking sound effects recur throughout the poem; the unborn child fears that humanity may ‘with tall walls wall me’. At times, the horror is softened by softer reflections on what life might be, especially in the third stanza, where the harshness of the opening stanzas is replaced by a gentle view of nature and ‘a white light …to guide me’.
However, this tranquil mood does not last, and the inhumanity of humanity rapidly returns to haunt the unborn child, with fears of death and depersonalisation. He fears society will turn him into ‘a lethal automaton or a ’cog’.
The images are especially tragic because of the fact that we think of newborn children as innocent, so a child not even born yet ought to be even freer from cares: it has no knowledge or understanding of the world or life, but despite this prays not to have anything to do with it.
‘Let them not make me a stone and let them not spill me/Otherwise kill me.’ The poem takes the form and style of prayer in its use of an initial repeated phrase, rather like the responses used in many prayers. The fact that the unborn child prays to a God whom we, with our experience of life, can barely comprehend, makes it even more chilling.
To find such despair on the lips of someone who has not lived highlights emphatically the deep flaws in a society that MacNeice feels. The human race, he shows, is one of sin and cruelty, and the pure words of a soul not yet delivered into this world tell the truth with frightening and disturbing honesty.
The two poems are profoundly unsettling in their imagery. They set out to present a strong contrast between a peaceful and simple society and one which is full of horrors: MacNeice’s ghouls are matched by Duffy’s ‘half-formed ghost’.
Both paint dark scenes where life becomes unbearable. Death is never far from the surface, and the settings with their religious imagery and intense feelings highlight the fears of what society is becoming.
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