“Before I Knocked” is a monologue consisting of seven six-line stanzas and a concluding stanza of four lines. The speaker throughout is Christ, who describes his consciousness of his own existence, and the conditions under which that consciousness functions, from the prenatal state to his incarnation in human form.
In the first stanza the speaker describes his essence, before he became a fertilized egg in the womb, as liquid, shapeless as water. This essence might also be understood as the seminal fluid. Christ already possesses, before his growth in the womb, a relationship to the world: He was a brother to “Mnetha’s daughter” and sister to the “fathering worm.” Mnetha is a character in “Tiriel,” a poem by William Blake, whose daughter’s brother is named Har. Har is usually seen by commentators as old and senile, which links the unborn Christ in the poem to the tragic world of human process, an interpretation that is supported by the image of the worm, a symbol of death.
Stanza 2 reveals that the unformed, unborn Christ was unaware of the passages of the seasons and had no knowledge, at least by name, of sun and moon. Yet even when the “flesh’s armour,” his human body, was still in “molten form,” he could feel, and he had an awareness of the sexual act that created him in time.
The speaker’s relationship to the physical world is the subject of stanza 3. He knew winter, with its hail, snow, and wind, and he knew night and day. The images are largely negative, which prepare the way for stanza 4, which clearly reveals that the speaker is Christ, who describes his capacity to experience suffering, even in the womb, in terms that strongly suggest the crucifixion: “gallow crosses,” for example, and “brambles in the wringing brains,” which suggest the crown of thorns that was placed on the head of Christ.
The emphasis on suffering continues in the next stanza. Like Christ on the cross, the Christ of the poem knew thirst, but he knew it even before his mouth and throat were formed. He also knew love and hunger and was aware of decay and death and the world of natural process (“I smelt the maggot in my stool”).
Christ’s birth is described in contradictory terms in stanza 6. In the first two lines he resembles a helpless, passive infant with no control over his destiny. The situation shifts in mid-stanza with the more positive connotations of “salt adventure,” and the “tides that never touch the shores” suggest an infinite dimension to Christ’s experience. By the end of the stanza, the incarnation has become, for the only time in the poem, a wholly positive event. Already rich in eternity, Christ was made richer by partaking in the temporal world.
The paradoxes of Christ’s life, already hinted at, are approached again in stanza 7. He was born of flesh and of spirit (“ghost”), but it is the mortal side that is emphasized here. This emphasis can be seen especially in the lower-case “christ” of the final line, which humanizes him. Stanza 8 is addressed directly to the Christian worshipper. Again it is the mortal figure that speaks (the lower-case “me”), asking the worshipper to pity God (“Him”), who “doublecrossed” his mother’s womb by promising a savior but delivering only a man.
Forms and Devices
Each stanza has three feminine (unstressed) endings that all end with the r sound. These occur in lines 1, 3, and 5. In stanza 1, for example, the feminine endings are “enter,” “water,” and “daughter.” In stanza 2 they are “summer,” “armour,” and “hammer,” and so on throughout the poem. Masculine (stressed) endings occur in lines 2, 4, and 6 of each stanza. Stanza 1, for example, produces “womb,” “home,” and “worm.” The masculine endings are always monosyllabic and usually have one consonant in common: m in the first and second stanzas; s in stanzas 4, 6, and 7; l in stanza 5.
One of Thomas’s most frequent poetic devices is partial rhyme....
(The entire section is 981 words.)