Last Updated September 5, 2023.
The principal character in James Wright's poem "Saint Judas" is the eponymous Judas himself. The character in the poem is based on the biblical Judas Iscariot, the apostle who betrayed Jesus Christ. Judas Iscariot is a notorious character—and possibly the most famous traitor in history—and thus the reader will likely bring to the poem their own assumptions about the character. They may think of Judas as immoral, cowardly, and greedy, because this is how he is portrayed in the Bible.
The opening line of the poem, "When I went out to kill myself," immediately establishes that Judas is suicidal, presumably because of the guilt consequent of his betrayal of Jesus. The next lines, however, suggest that Judas is a moral and courageous man, contrary to the reader's likely preconceptions. Indeed, in the poem, Judas sees "a pack of hoodlums beating up a man," and runs over to "spare his suffering." In the second half of the first stanza, Judas, who narrates the poem, tries to balance the courage and moral fortitude he demonstrates at this moment with the selfish cowardice that he was guilty of just hours before, when he betrayed Jesus "and slipped away." Judas doesn't seem to understand how he can be immoral one moment, and moral the next.
In the second stanza, Judas embraces the aforementioned man and seems to feel tremendous sympathy for him. While he is holding the man in his arms, he remembers the kiss that he gave Jesus, which was his way of indicating to the chief priests that Jesus was the man they were looking for. At this point in the poem, Judas seems to equate the condition of the man, "beaten, / Stripped, kneed, and left to cry," with his own situation. He cries for the man, of course—but also for himself.
The Beaten Man
The second character in the poem is the man who is beaten up by "hoodlums." This man is left in a pitiful state, "Stripped" naked, "beaten," and sobbing. This character is, however, largely incidental to the narrative of the poem. His function is to illustrate the compassion of the poem's protagonist and speaker, Judas.
At the end of the poem, Judas says, "Flayed with hope, / I held the man for nothing in my arms." The phrase "for nothing" might suggest that the man has died. Judas's compassion is thus "for nothing," because it is too late. It might also suggest, however, that Judas's compassionate action has nothing to do with his own salvation: that is, it cannot save him from eternal damnation for his actions. However, it is still worth doing.
In the quotation above, the phrase, "Flayed without hope," could apply to either Judas or the beaten man. The latter has literally been "Flayed" by his attackers, and Judas's conscience has been figuratively "Flayed" by his betrayal of Jesus. In this way, the character of the beaten man might also be interpreted as a metaphor for Judas's conscience or soul. The man and the soul have both been badly beaten, left to sob and then die "without hope."