African American Poetry (1870-1928): A Digital Anthology

Judas Iscariot by Countee Cullen (1925)

Editor's Note

I think when Judas' mother heard
   His first faint cry the night
That he was born, that worship stirred
   Her at the sound and sight.
She thought his was as fair a frame
   As flesh and blood had worn;
I think she made this lovely name
   For him— "Star of my morn."

As any mother's son he grew
   From spring to crimson spring;
I think his eyes were black, or blue,
   His hair curled like a ring.
His mother's heart-strings were a lute
   Whereon he all day played;
She listened rapt, abandoned, mute,
   To every note he made.

I think he knew the growing Christ,
   And played with Mary's son,
And where mere mortal craft sufficed,
   There Judas may have won.
Perhaps he little cared or knew,
   So folly-wise is youth,
That He whose hand his hand clung to
   Was flesh-embodied Truth;

Until one day he heard young Christ,
   With far-off eyes agleam,
Tell of a mystic, solemn tryst
   Between Him and a dream.
And Judas listened, wonder-eyed,
   Until the Christ was through,
Then said, “And I, though good betide,
   Or ill, will go with you."

And so he followed, heard Christ preach,
   Saw how by miracle
The blind man saw, the dumb got speech,
   The leper found him well.
And Judas in those holy hours,
   Loved Christ, and loved Him much,
And in his heart he sensed dead flowers
   Bloom at the Master's touch.

And when Christ felt the death hour creep,
   With sullen, drunken lurch,
He said to Peter, "Feed my sheep,
   And build my holy church.”
He gave to each the special task
   That should be his to do,
But reaching one, I hear him ask,
   “What shall I give to you?”

Then Judas in his hot desire
   Said, "Give me what you will." 
Christ spoke to him with words of fire,
   “Then, Judas, you must kill,
One whom you love, One who loves you
   As only God's son can:
This is the work for you to do
   To save the creature man."

"And men to come will curse your name,
   And hold you up to scorn;
In all the world will be no shame
   Like yours; this is love's thorn.
It takes strong will of heart and soul,
   But man is under ban.
Think, Judas, can you play this role
   In heaven's mystic plan?"

So Judas took the sorry part,
   Went out and spoke the word,
And gave the kiss that broke his heart,
   But no one knew or heard.
And no one knew what poison ate
   Into his palm that day,
Where, bright and damned, the monstrous weight
   Of thirty white coins lay.

It was not death that Judas found
   Upon a kindly tree;
The man was dead long ere he bound
   His throat as final fee.
And who can say if on that day
   When gates of pearl swung wide,
   Christ did not go His honored way
With Judas by His side?

I think somewhere a table round
   Owns Jesus as its head,
And there the saintly twelve are found
   Who followed where He led.
And Judas sits down with the rest,
   And none shrinks from His hand,
For there the worst is as the best,
   And there they understand.

And you may think of Judas, 'friend,
   As one who broke his word,
Whose neck came to a bitter end
   For giving up his Lord.
But I would rather think of him 
   As the little Jewish lad
Who gave young Christ heart, soul, and limb,
   And all the love he had. 

Published in Countee Cullen's Color, 1925

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