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On "St. Judas"

Peter Stitt

[Wright is answering a question about influences on his early work.] When I wrote [The Green Wall, 1957] I was twenty-seven years old. I could tell you the kind of thing I had in mind. I wrote a sonnet called "Saint Judas" and in that sonnet I was trying to do two things technically: to write a sonnet that would be a genuine Petrarchan sonnet and at the same time be a dramatic monologue. I got that idea from [Edwin Arlington] Robinson, who has a sonnet called "How Annandale Went Out." Do you know what went out means? Well, this is conventional hospital parlance for dying. So and so went out last night. Annandale is a character Robinson had written about before, but in this particular sonnet the doctor is speaking. And, as usual in a dramatic monologue, he is speaking to another person, so that what you are doing is overhearing a conversation in which one person speaks and the other is listening. The doctor was a friend pf George Annandale. George Annandale was an alcoholic who was suffering terribly with his death, and so the doctor gave him an injection. That’s what the word engine means in this poem. He gave him an injection which killed him; that is, he administered euthanasia. Then he gets drunk, and in the poem he is talking to another friend of George Annandale’s. What is he trying to do? And Robinson – great Robinson! -- leaves you hanging there saying, yes, what was he trying to do? Here is the sonnet:

"They called it Annandale – and I was there
To flourish, to find words and to attend:
Liar physician, hypocrite, and friend,
I watched him; and the sight was not so fair
As one or two that I have seen elsewhere:
An apparatus not for me to mend –
A wreck, with hell between him and the end,
Remained of Annandale; and I was there.
"I knew the ruin as I knew the man;
So put the two together, if you can,
Remembering the worst you know of me.
Now view yourself as I was, on the spot –"
With a slight kind of engine. Do you see?
Like this … You wouldn’t hang me? I thought not."

Then we have my poem on Judas, who is, I suppose, the ultimate lost betrayer. It is a – well, I wouldn’t call it a literal imitation of Robinson, but if I hadn’t read Robinson’s sonnets I know that I wouldn’t have tried to write that poem.

from Peter Stitt, "An Interview with Jams Wright" (1972), in Peter Stitt, The World’s Hieroglyphic Beauty: Five American Poets (Athens, Georgia: U Georgia P, 1984), 200-201.

Robert Bly

The poem is moving; at the same time it is clear it is not a good poem. The transformation of Judas from a criminal who did something despicable into a saint is too quickly done – it is as if a man were to claim he dug a hole for one day and immediately comes out on the other side of the earth. Kierkegaard and others have defended awareness of guilt as one of the most valuable sensitivities. To say, however, that taking acts which increase guilt is a way toward sainthood is to give impossible directions. The poem is really an attempt to bend together, with his imagination, two ends of an iron bar – Wright’s conviction that he is in some sense a criminal, and his conviction that he is somehow a man of good will.

From Crunk [pseudonym of Robert Bly], "The Work of James Wright," originally published in The Sixties no, 8 (1966), rep. in Dave Smith, ed. The Pure Clear Word (Urbana: U Illinois P, 1982), p. 82

Andrew Elkins

… Redemption is impossible in Wright’s world, "a world where God has ceased to exist," as [Jerome] Mazzaro characterizes it [in "Dark Water: James Wright’s Early Poetry" in the Centennial Review, 27:2 (1983), p. 143]. However, "consolation," again using Mazzaro’s term, is possible, and that in the figure of Judas. …

[The entire poem is quoted.]

Once again this day, Judas must decide between giving and withholding his love. Now the man who needs his help is a simple man like himself whose only power over Judas, unlike Christ’s or the Roman soldiers’, is his humanity, his human "suffering." Under these altered circumstances, when the one needing Judas is neither God or soldier, a man Judas neither loves, respects nor fears because of his power, he emerges from himself. Judas, "for nothing," for no promise of silver, security or heaven, holds, loves and comforts a fellow man for the sheer sake of that person’s suffering humanity. It is an act of true selfless compassion, a model for us all, "a good and humane action."

Judas emerges as the archetypal symbol of the isolated individual – the "I alone" – romantically defiant to the end, and, in Wright’s inverted theology, replaces Christ as our spiritual exemplar. Wright canonizes Judas, as Peter Stitt notes [in The World’s Hieroglyphic Beauty (Athens, Georgia: U Georgia P, 19850, p. 169], "not because he has lived a pure life away from the harsh demands and temptations of reality, but because, like all men, he has redeemed his unspeakable act of human betrayal through an act of love. …Judas … is thus a kind of hero for Wright, representing the most that man can achieve (endurance and love) within the fallen world."

From Andrew Elkins, "My Names Is James A. Wright" (Chapter 2) in The Poetry of James Wright (Tuscaloosa, Alabama: U Alabama P, 1991), 63-64.

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