Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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“Nicodemus” is about an old man who will not take chances on a new way of living or on anything he cannot understand. His modus operandi of understanding is intellectual, and he will not brook the possibility of any other knowledge. Like many old people, he looks backward instead of forward—to the glorious foundation of Israel, which even Nicodemus himself knows is now “cold.”

It is not simply age which causes Nicodemus to reject the possibility of rebirth or perhaps even rebirth itself, but Nicodemus’s assessment of life as essentially suffering and disillusionment. His intellectual attainment produced respect from the people but emptiness in himself. He trusted that study would produce answers, but it failed him, and he admits to knowing nothing. In answer to Jesus’ declaration about life in the flesh or life in the spirit, Nicodemus states that he has attached himself to neither, thereby revealing another reason for his emptiness. His bitterness is enhanced by what he implies is his community’s stupidity for exalting him. To Nicodemus, life is a bad joke. Therefore, he clings to his belief that a “man may not flower again,” principally because he himself does not want to flower again.

In a painful summing up, Nicodemus states that he has had nothing to laugh over and that unlike Sarah, who produced an heir in her old age, he will produce no new word of truth or knowledge. Instead he is confounded by Jesus’ words and wants to return to the source of his roots, however cold and dead. Ironically, if Nicodemus had immersed himself in aspects beside the intellectual, he might not have become dry and might have found life worthwhile enough at least to delight in some of its incongruities. Although Nicodemus is honest in his admission that study has taught him nothing, he remains convinced that he is right rather than admit that his lifelong perceptions might be wrong. Nicodemus visits Jesus because he has a hunger for knowledge, but when he is presented with something he does not understand, he rejects further learning. In the last analysis, he will not again be the child who must endure the “malady of being always ruled to ends he does not see or understand” (lines 22-23). Despite Nicodemus’s rejection of Jesus’ teaching, he treats Jesus as an authority. He asks permission not to enter the kingdom of God but to go back to his cold “home” to die. Although Nicodemus ends his story on a proper political note, his reverence for Jesus reveals the subversiveness that first brought him to visit under “cover of night.”