Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Saint Judas” is fundamentally a moral poem that deals with two of Wright’s favorite themes: alienation and despair. Judas is alienated from the rest of humanity because of his despicable crime; the reader knows that he despairs, because at the opening of the poem, he is on his way to kill himself. Is there any hope? That is the unusual question that Wright thinks to ask, and it is the kind of question that distinguishes him from so many of the fashionably nihilistic poets of the 1960’s. The poem seems to answer: Where there is life, there is hope.

Wright chooses to imagine a Judas who is outside the traditional theological context, who faces his life and death like any other man, and who makes moral choices right up to the moment when he must inevitably swing upon the ash tree. This Judas, confronted with another’s suffering, does not play the role of the predictable villain of melodrama, but instead is envisioned as caught up in an act of humanity so complete that he loses himself entirely. If Judas Iscariot is capable of this, what acts might the man on death row be capable of performing? What might anyone be capable of doing?

“Saint Judas” is not only a reassessment of common notions of “the good man” but also a cautionary tale. It warns one not to judge others too harshly. Many people do not doubt that Judas Iscariot must be burning in hell; religion and common sense both seem to confirm this easy verdict. Wright, however, wants his readers to question what anyone can really know about the state of another’s soul. One must wonder whether one fatal act condemns a man forever and whether there can be redemption through human kindness. Can even the worst criminal have a moment of goodness? The answer to all of these questions, from Wright’s point of view, is made clear in the title, in which he sees Judas as an essentially good man, frail and prone to error like so many others. He made a terrible mistake, but he need not despair, because God, unlike man, is merciful in his judgments.