The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 557

“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.

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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

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 424

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. He employs it extensively in one of his most famous poems, “The Force That Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower,” which was written within a few weeks of “Before I Knocked.” Partial rhyme is a noticeable feature of the latter poem, occurring with both vowels and consonants. Examples include enter-water, womb-home, womb-worm (stanza 1); name-dome, winter-suitor, snow-dew, dew-day (stanza 3); suffer-cipher-liver; bones-lines-brains (stanza 4); structure-mixture (stanza 5); creature-adventure (stanza 6); neither-feather (stanza 7).

The language is less dense and more lucid than is usual in Thomas’s early style, and the predominant imagery establishes an interplay of the cosmic with the individual and the infinite with the finite; the physical universe is found within the human physiology. In stanza 1, for example, the formless liquid that will become the fetus is compared in a simile to the River Jordan; the “rainy hammer” suggests at once rain in the natural world, the mythological hammer of Vulcan the blacksmith at his forge, and, in anatomical terms, the phallus of the father. The cosmic image of “leaden stars” also suggests—because of its link to “molten form” in the previous line—the drops of the seminal fluid as seen by the as yet unformed fetus. This is an imaginative leap typical of this period of Thomas’s work. In stanza 3, the wind that leaps in the still unborn Christ is also, perhaps, the oxygen that reaches him in the womb. His veins flow not with blood but with the “Eastern weather.”

Thomas himself commented almost apologetically on the “almost totally anatomical” imagery of a group of five poems that included “Before I Knocked.” Yet he continued, “[I]t is impossible for me to raise myself to the altitude of the stars, andI am forced, therefore, to bring down the stars to my own level and to incorporate them in my own physical universe.” In this characteristic practice of incorporating the entire universe in the human form, Thomas was following his mentor, Blake.

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Themes