Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 487

“Before I Knocked” is a poem about Christ, but what sort of Christ does it portray? In orthodox Christian thought, Christ was both fully man and fully God; he combined two natures within one person. He suffered and died to save fallen man, and he rose from the dead.

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It is obvious that “Before I Knocked” is not a pious poem in the traditional sense. Christ is not exalted as God; his death is emphasized without implication that anyone is saved as a result of it, and there is not even a hint of the resurrection. It is by no means clear that Thomas means to impute any divine status to Christ at all. While it is true that his Christ possesses a consciousness prior to his incarnation, there is little about it that could properly be said to be divine. Moreover, it is not uncommon in Thomas’s poetry for a fetus, or simply an unborn spirit, to be the speaker, so the fact that in this poem Christ has life, feelings, and thought prior to his birth does not mean that any special status is attributed to him.

From an orthodox point of view, then, “Before I Knocked” might be seen as heretical. It emphasizes the human dimension of Christ while slighting the divine. Even the two lines in which an exalted status is suggested (“I who was rich was made the richer/ By sipping at the vine of days”) subverts orthodox thought, in which Christ, even before his incarnation, was fully God and therefore could not be made richer by entering the temporal world. Indeed, traditionally, the incarnation is referred to as an emptying, not an augmentation. It was humanity, not Christ, who was enriched by it.

The Christ of this poem is therefore not transcendent but human, and in that respect he is simply a representative of humanity: All people are Christ. Once again Thomas may have been inspired by Blake, who wrote in “The Everlasting Gospel,” “Thou art a Man, God is no more/ Thy own humanity learn to adore.”

The bringing down of Christ to human level and the debunking of orthodoxy is implied also in the powerful last line of the poem, with its reference to “doublecrossed.” Attempts have been made to interpret this in an orthodox sense: The Holy Spirit first crossed the womb to make Christ’s mother pregnant, then crossed it again in the form of the Son of God, whom she bore. The implication of betrayal in “doublecrossed” seems too strong to ignore, however, and might be seen in the context of the annunciation scene in the Gospel of Luke, in which the angel announces that Mary is to give birth to the Son of God who would rule without end over the house of Jacob. Instead, Thomas’s Christ is “struck down by death’s feather” and asks only that God himself should be pitied.

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