The Poem

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 707

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“Nicodemus” is a fifty-five-line poem divided into six stanzas and three parts. The dramatic monologue is an imaginative rendition of the New Testament Nicodemus’s response to Jesus’s statement that no man sees the kingdom of God without being born of water and spirit (in John 3). “Nicodemus” is the priest’s account to an unknown audience of his and Jesus’s encounter. Written in the persona of Nicodemus, the poem depicts the spiritual seeker as a lonely, bitter man who, although he seeks the company of Jesus, cannot or will not understand his words.

Part 1 of the poem follows the biblical account closely. John 3:1 states that Nicodemus was a Pharisee who visited Jesus at night—undoubtedly to avoid controversy, although this is not stated in the gospel. The poem opens with Nicodemus’s admission that he went down back alleys, not because he was ashamed, but from a “natural discretion.” As the Pharisee made his way to Jesus, he saw a couple embracing against a white wall and hastened to turn his eyes away, no doubt to follow the pharisaic tradition of avoiding “impure” thoughts. Although he quickly averted his eyes, he confesses to whomever he is speaking that at the sight of the lovers he was shaken. He tries to analyze whether his agitation was from the aridity of his mind or from the lovers’ hot blood. Nicodemus recalls the howling of a dog in a stone corner right after seeing the lovers—a parallel to his solitary state.

Part 2 also begins by paraphrasing John 3, “How is a man born, being old?” and then shifts to Nicodemus’s central philosophical stance, that life is miserable and empty and that nothing can ever be known. He argues against the concept that a man can be reborn, then says that even if he could, he himself would not be born again. Nicodemus views life as being forced on humankind and implies that it is a blessing that it can be forced only once. He recounts the illnesses, sadnesses, and indignities of childhood, especially that of being forced to study despite eyestrain. He cites as particularly distasteful the obedience demanded despite a child’s lack of understanding. The next stanza expresses bitterness at having trusted to the learning and conforming process so as to establish a suitable adult identity. Despite his long study, he finds that he has achieved no real knowledge or enlightenment. Nicodemus is puzzled that even though he has earned enough accolades to be called a master, he is still as ignorant as a child.

Part 3 continues in this pessimistic vein. Nicodemus argues with Jesus, saying that although the rest of nature “flowers again,” a man does not. From intellectual debate, Nicodemus shifts to an encapsulization of his life as a profound disappointment. His parents have been sorrow and humiliation, he says, and he has never been swept up in fleshly or spiritual concerns, no doubt a response to Jesus’s declaration that “What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the spirit is spirit” (John 3:6). After his confession that he has been engrossed in neither realm, Nicodemus again expresses bewilderment that he is “exalted in Israel” for “all I do not know.” He has no answer to Jesus’ question, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” (John 3:10).

The next stanza intensifies Nicodemus’s despair as he states that “the end of [his] desire is death.” His life contrasts sharply with that of his foremother Sarah, who laughed during her life and just before her death—first with a mocking laughter at God’s promise to cure her barrenness, then with a delighted laughter at God’s fulfillment of that promise. Nicodemus proclaims that not only will he not laugh but that he will produce no new word because of “the dryness” of his mouth.

The final stanza moves from unmitigated gloom into asking Jesus to let him go to the ancient burial ground and cave of Abraham and Sarah. In this wish, the old priest echoes Genesis 23, which recounts how Abraham struck the first land claim of Israel when he bought a field which contained a cave in which he buried Sarah.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 355

“Nicodemus” has a conversational tone yet also contains the stately, formal rhythms befitting a prestigious old man. The metrics are lavishly iambic but are so varied that the poem must be classified as free verse. Its slow, long lines support the often slowed speech of age and the deliberate manner in which Nicodemus tells his story. The heavy use of vowels in internal rhyme creates a mournful tone: “howled,” “once,” “stone” (line 23); “forced,” “only,” “one” (line 46); and “nor,” “not,” “born” (line 46). Juxtaposed against the dirgelike internal rhymes are sharp consonant alliterations which not only quicken the tempo but also support Nicodemus’s negative statements: “dryness,” “driving,” (line 9); “book,” “burning,” (line 20), “bitter,” “bewilderment” (line 30), “cold,” “cave” (line 55). Nemerov alternates harsh alliteration with soft s sounds when he mentions positive aspects of life, such as lilacs, honey, and the laughter of Sarah.

The poem makes use of images to heighten the contrast between life and Nicodemus’s spiritual death. Images of dryness—Nicodemus’s mind, mouth, and burning eyes—support the portrayal of Nicodemus as a dried-up intellectual who is bitter because his earnest studies have not brought him definite knowledge or understanding. Nicodemus’s death-thrust is also illustrated by images of cold. He wants to end in a “cold cave” where even Abraham’s seed is “cold.” The dog’s howl in a stone corner as Nicodemus travels to visit Jesus prefigures his lost, lonely wish to be buried in a cold cave. Other striking parallels are Nicodemus’s declaring sorrow and humiliation to be his parents but wishing to return to the parents of Judaism, Abraham and Sarah—once vital but now cold and dead. A subtle device is that the first two-thirds of the poem “answer” Jesus, although Jesus is never directly quoted. The effect of leaving out Jesus’s comments is powerful, for it suggests that Nicodemus assumes his audience knows the details of the encounter or that he is too troubled to fill in missing parts. This omission also adds to Nicodemus’s self-justification, possibly to his colleagues, who would approve of his desire to go back to his Old Testament roots.