The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

(The entire section is 707 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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.