The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

(The entire section is 427 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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 entire section is 416 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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.