In ‘Before I Knocked’ the poet explores themes of suffering, immortality/mortality, and destiny. The poem is told from the perceptive of Christ. He looks back on his mortal life from the perspective of an immortal being. Through the stanzas, he depicts his acute suffering pre and post-birth and how his human form came into being.
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Summary of Before I Knocked
The poem begins with the speaker, Jesus Christ, describing what it was like before he was conceived. He was a floating essence that had no knowledge of the larger world, at least specific knowledge. He was still connected to it though. Christ knew the nature of the world and had relationships with it.
The next stanzas describe the suffering that Christ endured while still yet unborn. The speaker goes into what it was like when his father forged him and made him out of “stars”. He knew the power of the winter, its cold winds and freezing temperatures. He also had an awareness of what was in his future. There are several allusions to the crucifixion. The poem concludes with a four-line stanza addressed to those who worship him.
You can read the full poem Before I Knocked here.
Structure of Before I Knocked
‘Before I Knocked’ by Dylan Thomas is an eight stanza dramatic monologue that is divided into sets of six lines, known as sestets. The only exception to this rule is the final stanza that has four lines, it is known as a quatrain. Thomas created a loose pattern of rhyme within these lines. They rhyme, with half and full rhymes, ABABAB. Then, the final four-line stanza rhymes ABAB.
Half-rhyme, also known as slant or partial rhyme, is seen through the repetition of assonance or consonance. This means that either a vowel or consonant sound is reused within one line or multiple lines of verse. For instance, “womb” and “home” in the first stanza and “ghost” and “last” in stanza seven.
Before beginning this poem it is important to understand that Thomas’s speaker in this work is Jesus Christ. The poem begins with his own formlessness and takes the reader through his birth, helplessness, and incarnation.
Poetic Techniques in Before I Knocked
Thomas makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Before I Knocked’. These include but are not limited to alliteration, sibilance, enjambment, imagery, and simile. Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “lines” and “liver” in stanza four. There are also examples of sibilance throughout the text. This is similar to alliteration but it focuses on soft consonant sounds, ones the generally make a “hisss” sound. For instance, “spring and summer” in stanza two and “sister suitor” in stanza three.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For example, the transition between lines three and four of the first stanza and lines one, two, and three in stanza five and six.
Imagery refers to the elements of a poem that engage a reader’s senses. Traditionally, the word “image” is related to visual sights, things that a reader can imagine seeing, but the imagery is much more than that. It is something one can sense with their five senses. There are wonderful examples of imagery throughout this poem. For instance, in the description of Christ’s liquid form in the first stanza and that of his conception in stanza two.
A simile is a comparison between two unlike things that uses the words “like” or “as”. A poet uses this kind of figurative language to say that one thing is similar to another, not like metaphor, that it “is” another. Take the first stanza for instance, there is a great simile in the third and fourth lines “I who was as shapeless as the water / That shaped the Jordan near my home”.
Analysis of Before I Knocked
Before I knocked and flesh let enter,
With liquid hands tapped on the womb,
Was brother to Mnetha’s daughter
And sister to the fathering worm.
In the first stanza of ‘Before I knocked’ the speaker begins by making use of the line that later came to be used as the title of the poem. The speaker, Christ, addresses the moments before his own birth. It was the time before he “let” flesh enter. Even as an un-embodied force he has the ability to control what and where he is. He was “shapeless as the water” in the womb of his mother.
Thomas uses a simile to compare the water-like nature of Christ pre-birth to the waters of the “Jordan” near Christ’s future home. Even though he is not yet even an embryo, he has a relationship with the world. He is “brother to Mnetha’s daughter”. The character Mnetha comes from a William Blake poem called ‘Tiriel’. The reference to the poem connects Christ to the human world.
I who was deaf to spring and summer,
Who knew not sun nor moon by name,
The leaden stars, the rainy hammer
Swung by my father from his dome.
In the second stanza, the speaker continues to describe himself as pre-birth or conception. He was “deaf to spring and summer” and did not know “sun nor moon by name”. There was a great deal about the world that he didn’t know by sight and sound but he soon would.
In contrast to that which he did not know is that which he did, the “thud beneath [his] flesh’s armour” (that was still in “molten form”) the stars. In this line, the poet uses an image of a forge to depict the nature of Christ’s form. The reference to led, armour, and “molten” bring it together. As do those to the “hammer / Swung by” God from “his dome”. This imbues the creation of Christ with a great deal of importance. He is made of stars, forged by God, and soon to enter into the world.
I knew the message of the winter,
Ungotten I knew night and day.
In the third stanza of ‘Before I Knocked’ Christ describes his relationship to the physical world. He “knew the message of the winter”. His essence was in communication with the essence of the season. He might not know its name but he understood it. The same can be said of all its individual elements as well as night and day.
The “wind” was part of him and flowed through his veins. He was still “Ungotten” but he understood a great deal.
As yet ungotten, I did suffer;
And brambles in the wringing brains.
The fourth stanza of ‘Before I Knocked’ is more painful. It begins with the repetition of the word “ungotten”. He still was not of the physical world but he was suffering. The lines of this stanza allude to the crucifixion. It is as though the unborn Christ is looking into and predicting his own future.
His “bones / Did twist into a living cipher” of what was to come and his “flesh was snipped to cross the lines / Of gallow crosses on the river”. These vague but powerful images depict an unhappy present and future. The “brambles in the ringing brains” very clearly suggest the crown of thorn Christ was forced to wear.
My throat knew thirst before the structure
I smelt the maggot in my stool.
The fifth stanza of ‘Before I Knocked’ is similar to the fourth in that it goes over additional elements of Christ’s suffering. He was thirsty before he could drink and before he even know “Of skin and vein around the well”. This is a complex way of speaking about one’s mouth and throat. It connects back to the lack of names that the speaker has in his mind. He didn’t know what to call the seasons nor did he know his own body parts.
The other elements that Christ outlines in thee lines speak of disaster, death, and decay. He describes blood running foul, hunger, love, and the “maggot in [his] stool”. The world is made clear to him before he can do anything about it.
And time cast forth my mortal creature
By sipping at the vine of days.
The sixth stanza depicts Christ’s birth. It is the time in which his body came forth. It was his “mortal creature” in which he was inhabiting. The negativity of the previous stanzas disperses somewhat in the middle of this stanza. He describes the “salt adventure” of the tides that “never touch the shores”. This alludes to an infinite capacity to be on earth and experience earthly things, or perhaps just the feeling of it. These lines are some of the only positive ones in the whole poem. They address Christ’s choice to take in the world and how he was made richer because of it.
I, born of flesh and ghost, was neither
The message of his dying christ.
In the seventh stanza of ‘Before I Knocked’, he speaks more about his nature. He is not a man, nor is he a ghost. He is a bit of both, a “mortal ghost” sent to walk the earth for a period of time. Christ was mortal for the time he was on the earth and then he was struck down. The final image of this stanza is a beautiful one. It describes the message that Christ’s death sent to his father. The word “christ” is lowercase in the final stanza. This alludes to the mortal nature of his human form and his temporary life on earth. It is with the knowledge of his upcoming death and Christ addressed his future and his humanness.
You who bow down at cross and altar,
Remember me and pity Him
Who took my flesh and bone for armour
And doublecrossed my mother’s womb.
The final stanza of ‘Before I Knocked’ is only four lines long. It is directed at any who worship him. “You,” he begins, are one who “bow down at cross and altar”. He asks that “you” remember “me and pity Him”. The lower-case “me” is an example of the same humble mortality seen in the seventh stanza.
The worshipper is asked to pity and remember the mortal “me” and the immortal Christ and who “doublecrossed” in his mother’s womb. He came to earth a human being, a savior who was only protected by “flesh and bone armour”. The weakness in this image is obvious and is juxtaposed against the strength of the words and the immortal nature of the story as a whole.