Themes

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Last Updated on September 16, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 318

The Ever-Present Possibility of Human Goodness

It is always possible to make a right choice, even in the midst of many wrong ones. Judas Iscariot not only betrays Jesus Christ in the garden of Gethsemane, selling his friend out for thirty pieces of silver, but he also goes on to commit one of the gravest sins a Christian can commit—that is, suicide, as he hangs himself when he learns that Jesus will be crucified. However, Wright's poem shows Judas performing an act of compassion, behaving kindly even when he knows that it cannot benefit his soul. Judas knows that he will never be allowed into the kingdom of heaven after he dies, but he holds and comforts a beaten man nevertheless.

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The Need for Empathy

We can sympathize with even the most apparently sinful of people. By titling the poem "Saint Judas" when Judas was never sainted by the Catholic Church, and by showing him performing an act of goodness rather than the act of evil with which he is most commonly associated, Wright encourages the reader to empathize with and feel compassion for this damned man. Even having Judas himself narrate the poem, expressing his own feelings of despair and hopelessness, helps to compel readers to feel empathy for him rather than hatred or judgment.

Humans' Expansive Capacity

We all contain the capacity to do evil and to do good. Even Judas, possibly the most criticized and condemned man in Christianity, has the capacity to do good, to be good. Judas may have betrayed Jesus, sacrificing his friend—and lord—for something as small as a bag of silver, but he also behaves compassionately toward a fellow human being when he knows that he can gain nothing by it. He is completely without hope of ever reaching heaven, and yet he rushes toward a suffering fellow, hoping to relieve his suffering, thus showing that Judas still possesses his humanity.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 363

“Saint Judas” is fundamentally a moral poem that deals with two of Wright’s favorite themes: alienation and despair. Judas is alienated from the rest of humanity because of his despicable crime; the reader knows that he despairs, because at the opening of the poem, he is on his way to kill himself. Is there any hope? That is the unusual question that Wright thinks to ask, and it is the kind of question that distinguishes him from so many of the fashionably nihilistic poets of the 1960’s. The poem seems to answer: Where there is life, there is hope.

Wright chooses to imagine a Judas who is outside the traditional theological context, who faces his life and death like any other man, and who makes moral choices right up to the moment when he must inevitably swing upon the ash tree. This Judas, confronted with another’s suffering, does not play the role of the predictable villain of melodrama, but instead is envisioned as caught up in an act of humanity so complete that he loses himself entirely. If Judas Iscariot is capable of this, what acts might the man on death row be capable of performing? What might anyone be capable of doing?

“Saint Judas” is not only a reassessment of common notions of “the good man” but also a cautionary tale. It warns one not to judge others too harshly. Many people do not doubt that Judas Iscariot must be burning in hell; religion and common sense both seem to confirm this easy verdict. Wright, however, wants his readers to question what anyone can really know about the state of another’s soul. One must wonder whether one fatal act condemns a man forever and whether there can be redemption through human kindness. Can even the worst criminal have a moment of goodness? The answer to all of these questions, from Wright’s point of view, is made clear in the title, in which he sees Judas as an essentially good man, frail and prone to error like so many others. He made a terrible mistake, but he need not despair, because God, unlike man, is merciful in his judgments.

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