Saint Judas Summary
by James Wright

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Saint Judas Summary

This poem is narrated by Judas Iscariot, one of Jesus Christ's disciples; in the Bible, Judas betrayed Jesus after what is now called the Last Supper in the garden of Gethsemane. Judas identified Jesus with a kiss so that the Roman soldiers could arrest him and crucify him the next day, and Judas did this all for thirty pieces of silver. He was never named a saint by the church, and he killed himself not long after his betrayal.

In the poem, Judas has already betrayed Jesus and is on his way to take his own life by hanging himself from a tree. He sees a gang of men who are beating up another man, who is helpless and alone. Judas runs toward the group, hoping to save the man from his attackers, and he completely forgets about his own problems in the moment. He forgets about the soldiers to whom he betrayed his friend, Jesus; about how he traded his friend's life for mere money; about how he slipped away from the garden, avoiding the other disciples after Jesus was arrested.

He knows now that he will not be allowed into the kingdom of heaven after he dies, and it is at this time that he happens upon this helpless, beaten, and victimized man. Judas drops the rope that he intends to use to hang himself and runs to the man. He recalls again the Last Supper with Jesus: how he ate the bread that Jesus said was a symbol for his own flesh, how he kissed Jesus, and how it feels as though that kiss of betrayal has destroyed Judas himself. Now, though he has no hope for himself, he holds the beaten man in his arms "for nothing": that is, for no redemption in heaven, though his compassion is a kind of salvation on earth.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

The title figure of Saint Judas, the paradox of the consecrated villain, reflects much of the spirit of this book. The poems are arranged in three sections which, at first, do not seem to have much connection: “Lunar Changes,” “A Sequence of Love Poems,” and “The Part Nearest Home.” They ultimately disclose continuity, both internally and with Wright’s previous work. Formally and thematically, the links to the past are quite clear. Wright is still working primarily with traditional formal patterns, still approaching poetry as if it consisted of art objects carved carefully by the artist out of all the resources of language. His subjects remain death, loss, the suffering intrinsic to life, and the way these experiences bind all life into a single sheaf.

Near the end of “Lunar Changes,” one poem, “The Revelation,” provides a key. The speaker is meditating about his dead father, recalling how anger continues to divide the two of them. Even as he feels the anger rising again, a beam of moonlight illuminates a vision of his father weeping and reaching out to him. As they embrace, formerly barren apple boughs shed petals. Love can overcome even the separation of death; through love, death can be a solvent for life, unifying all living things in its embrace. Death may even be necessary for the existence of love.

This bridges into “A Sequence of Love Poems,” which needs the title, because otherwise few readers would identify these as such. “In Shame and Humiliation,” for example, is overtly about the distinctly human act of cursing, especially the way in which males define themselves by that act. “A Breath of Air” similarly seems a lissome mood piece, but its connection to...

(The entire section is 890 words.)