Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 518

The first two versions of the poem appeared in Botteghe Oscure (a quote from which appeared above) and Poetry, respectively. Wright was unsatisfied with both versions and asked James Dickey (the J. L. D. to whom the final version is dedicated), the poet who would later write “The Fiend” and other psychological poems, for help. While aboard a train, without a copy of the earlier versions and with only the memory of Dickey’s verbal comments, Wright wrote the final version.

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Topical poems such as this are difficult. No matter which insights the poet brings to bear, opinions precede him. With controversial subjects like capital punishment and sympathy for criminals, he knew he could not avoid treading on zealously held beliefs of the 1950’s. As a result, he and the poem were vulnerable to attack. Commendably, Wright allowed his beliefs and feelings to shine forth, and the subsequent development of not only his own poems but also of modern poetry in general is better for this painstaking exhibition.

The epigraph of the poem is from Sigmund Freud’s Das Unbehagen in der Kultur (1930; Civilization and Its Discontents, 1961), a work that shows that civilization is possible only by the individual’s renunciation of deep-seated pleasures and aggressions. The puzzling quote is about the biblical admonition “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” a topic that leads Freud to declare subsequently, “[Civilization] hopes to prevent the crudest excesses of brutal violence by itself assuming the right to use violence against criminals.”

A poet who was to grow with each of his books, Wright’s first poems glittered with promise. This is true because he possessed a fine ear for meter and rhyme early in his career. Later, when he abandoned these devices, his ear held fast to near-perfect rhythms and economies of emotive phrase. His ability to turn personal experience into poetry was his finest asset.

“To a Fugitive” and “American Twilights, 1957” are also about slain prisoners. The latter is about Caryl Chessman, the Red-Light Bandit, who smuggled his writings out of death row before being executed in California for murder and rape. “The Fugitive” is a sonnet advising a man in flight from the law to “break the last law” and “race between the stars.” The title poem, “Saint Judas,” is a sonnet about one who knew “The kiss that ate my flesh.” Ostensibly from the Gospel, this poem reveals the betrayal of man by man.

The theme of the grave occurs throughout Wright’s writings. “A Dream of Burial,” in The Branch Will Not Break (1963), is a vision about his own decomposition. The poem preceding “At the Executed Murderer’s Grave,” entitled “Devotions,” tells how “I must find/ A grave to prod my wrath/ Back to its just devotions.” Wrath seems a doubtful quality to turn into devotion, yet Wright is able to assume the “dual role” (as Edward Butscher says in Smith’s book) “of outcast and savior.” This spiritual stance, not unlike that of poet Sylvia Plath, produces an “inward voice” capable of turning death into art. Even so, Wright is one who affirmed the goodness of life.

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