Analysis

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Last Updated on September 16, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 307

One of the first things one may notice about this poem is its title, "Saint Judas," and the title is notable for one major reason: Judas Iscariot, the disciple of Jesus Christ, was never named a saint by the Christian Church. After the meal now referred to as the Last Supper, Judas betrayed Jesus, revealing his identity by kissing him on the cheek in front of the soldiers who would arrest him. Jesus was arrested in the garden of Gethsemane, and Judas claimed thirty pieces of silver for his betrayal. After he learned that Jesus was to die by crucifixion, a truly horrific death, it is said that Judas tried to return the money, but he was turned away and later hanged himself. Not only, then, did Judas behave immorally, costing Jesus his life, but then he also went on to take his own life, one of the gravest sins a Christian can commit. By titling the poem "Saint Judas," Wright seems to encourage the reader to feel some sympathy for the disciple, to see him as someone who was capable of goodness despite the terrible sins he committed.

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This sympathy is also encouraged by the fact that the poem begins after Judas's betrayal of Jesus, showing him putting himself in harm's way to help another man—and holding this man, showing him kindness, even though Judas himself knows that his behavior cannot now affect his soul's fate. He performs a good deed, a compassionate act, even though he believes that he will never benefit from it. He will never, he believes, be allowed into the kingdom of heaven, and so this act proves that he has a capacity for selflessness despite his greed and betrayal, as well as the impossibility of salvation. The fact that Judas himself narrates the poem furthers the reader's identification with him.

The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 427

“Saint Judas” is a nearly Petrarchan sonnet, in nearly regular iambic pentameter, with an unusual rhyme scheme. Its title suggests that its contents, as well as its form, will represent a modification of tradition, since anyone familiar with the story of Judas Iscariot, apostle and betrayer of Christ, will be surprised to see him canonized in the title of the poem as “Saint Judas.” The title simultaneously stimulates curiosity and encourages an open mind for the unorthodox interpretation of character that follows.

The sonnet is written in the first person. Readers of James Wright’s later, more confessional poetry will expect the speaker of the poem to be Wright himself, but “Saint Judas” instead takes the point of view of the infamous traitor of the title. It is important to note that the persona of this poem is not to be confused with Saint Jude, another of Christ’s apostles, who is known by the Catholic church as the patron saint of desperate cases. The Judas referred to here is the apostle Judas Iscariot, whose story, as it is traditionally told, appears in the Bible in Matthew 27:3-5. Like Robert Browning’s murderer in “Porphyria’s Lover,” or Vladimir Nabokov’s child molester in Lolita (1955), James Wright’s “Saint Judas” is a character who could only arouse sympathy by being seen from the inside.

The narrative of the poem begins in the octave, where the reader finds Judas on his way to commit suicide. He has been momentarily sidetracked by the suffering of a man who has been beaten by a “pack of hoodlums.” In his rush to help and give comfort, he forgets himself and his problems. He even forgets the sordid bargain in which he had earlier betrayed Christ to the Roman soldiers in the Garden of Gethsemane for thirty pieces of silver. Most important, he forgets his overwhelming despair.

In the sestet of the sonnet, Judas rushes to the recent victim of brutality, drops his rope and his suicidal intent, ignores the soldiers for whom he had so recently committed the highest treason, and succors the unfortunate man in his arms. It is then that he remembers the last supper that he had with Christ and the traitorous kiss with which he turned Christ over to the Romans. Even though he is haunted by these damning memories, even though he sees himself as “Banished from heaven” and “without hope,” he still “held the man for nothing” in his arms. The poem ends with a poignant image of selfless humanity and absolute generosity of spirit.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 416

“Saint Judas” is a pivotal poem in James Wright’s canon. It is a stylistic bridge between the 1950’s formalism of his first two books, The Green Wall (1957) and Saint Judas (1959), and the freer, more colloquial verse of his later volumes, The Branch Will Not Break (1963) and Shall We Gather at the River (1968). This sonnet, which is both the title and the last poem of Saint Judas, is a powerful farewell to the traditional rhyme and meter of his early mentors, Edwin Arlington Robinson and Robert Frost, and a tentative welcome to the stark, unadorned diction and powerful imagery of his contemporaries, Robert Bly and William Carlos Williams.

“Saint Judas” relies heavily on the traditional poetic strategy of literary, historical, and religious allusion. Many of Wright’s later poems deal with society’s outcasts—the drunks, the murderers, the lonely, the alienated, and the discarded—but in “Saint Judas,” Wright has taken on the Herculean task of vindicating the archetypical villain and outcast of Western culture: Judas Iscariot. Poets who use allusions know that they risk losing the attention of readers who do not have the requisite cultural background. “Saint Judas” will mean very little to the person who is unfamiliar with the life of Christ and his mercenary betrayal by one of his own disciples with a hypocritical gesture of affection. Traditional poets have always been willing to take the risk that using allusions entails in order to bring even stronger pleasure to those readers who are prepared for the intellectual challenge. It is a risk of which modern poets have become increasingly wary. “Saint Judas” is the last of Wright’s poems in which he is willing to rely so completely on the power of archetypical material to inform his verse. It is the last of his poems that would inspire a critic to compare his work with Wordsworth’s.

In “Saint Judas,” Wright mixes a traditional use of allusion to older literature with the colloquial language of contemporary America. Despite its two-thousand-year-old subject, there is nothing archaic about this poem. Wright refers to the men who brutalize the “victim” of the poem as “hoodlums.” He says that Judas forgot his “name,” his “number.” These simple, direct words force the reader to see the plight of Judas in modern terms. It is not enough, the diction suggests, to have compassion for the historical “Saint Judas”; it might also be necessary to reassess one’s opinion of the downtrodden and the condemned of this time.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 61

Dougherty, David. James Wright. Boston: Twayne, 1987.

Dougherty, David. The Poetry of James Wright. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1991.

Roberson, William. James Wright: An Annotated Bibliography. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 1995.

Smith, Dave. The Pure Clear Word: Essays on the Poetry of James Wright. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1982.

Stein, Kevin. James Wright: The Poetry of a Grown Man. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1989.

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