My erstwhile master taught me well
And I supposed I could adjust
As did the comrades in our cell,
But when he said he’d bite the dust
I levied that I’d say goodbye
And champion another trust.

I should have known he’d testify,
“Somebody will betray me soon.”
We all said, “Tell me, Is it I?”
In confidence did we commune:
Said he to me, “What you must do,
Do now: The time is opportune!”

Well did his verbiage construe
Impending fates when he said, “Damn
That man who gives the fatal cue—
Betrays the Son, the paschal Lamb.
How better if he’d not been born,
That baleful son of Abraham!”

I framed my master as he’d sworn.
My royal hope was dashed. I swore,
“How better if I’d not been born!”
I dashed the silver to the floor,
Went out and made my grand farewell,
And fell to where the hell-fires roar.



Jeff Kemper has been a biology teacher, biblical studies instructor, editor, and painting contractor. He lives in York County, Pennsylvania.

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16 Responses

  1. Sally Cook

    Dear Mr. Kemper,

    Yours is a graceful and thought provoking poem. Thank you for writing and publishing it.

  2. Julian D. Woodruff

    A memorable poem, neatly constructed. I admire the rhymes linking 5tains and the -ell rhymes in the last line to close off the linking process and maybe suggest ongoing or recurrent woe.
    “Bite the dust” stands out. Do you mean the lapse into slang as a deliberate irony on the part of Judas?

    • Jeff Kemper

      Thank you, Julian. Concerning “bite the dust”: I used it for two reasons. The first was for the rhyme, intending to alter it later. But I kept it because the slang seemed to capture his disgust with how things were turning out. I assume that Judas had a reaction to Jesus’s revelation different from his fellow disciples.

  3. lionel willis

    Jeff has created a neat bundle of terza rima for an appropriate subject. One graceful way to end such a piece is to give the pattern closure by bringing back the opening rhyme in the penultimate line. Dante’s cantos complete themselves with couplets. Shelly follows Dante’s scheme in the famous Ode. But the other scheme seems to me equally fine for a short bundle like Jeff’s. Julian has already very ably identified an expressive advantage of the scheme. I feel as if I can hear faint overtones of Dante here. I feel at home in the company of poets who care enough about such technicalities to work them out right. Thanks to Jeff for adding a small treasure to the canon.

    • Jeff Kemper

      As a sophomore in college I found Dante pure drudgery. As a latecomer to the humanities I ought to try him again. Thanks, Lionel, for your kind comments.

  4. Margaret Coats

    Jeff, this is an excellent voice to create for Judas. Tetrameter lines suggest hasty carelessness; the hellish logic is flawless and unrepentant; the last farewell is “grand.” Judas manages to blame Jesus for his damnation!

    Putting Dante’s divine terza rima into six-line stanzas makes for inspired form, as six is the Biblical number of evil because it comes so close, but falls short of the perfect number seven. Judas had the opportunity to be one of the greatest of saints, but failed and stayed where he was in a determined manner. Julian Woodruff and Lionel Willis have already noticed your closing strategy of returning to the opening rhyme sound; I call this “rounding,” and I would say it speaks of the choice not to express repentance and not to escape evil consequences. Judas keeps traveling in a circle.

    Also noticed your careful placement of the word “well” at the beginning, middle, and end of the poem. Remarkable how at the end it becomes part of the ironic “farewell,” rhyming internally with “fell” to “hell.” All very effective!

    • Jeff Kemper

      Margaret, I always appreciate your comments; they are little lessons on poetry that I never had in academia. However, I must admit that some of your analysis just sort of fell into place, as it were, accidentally (vis., the tetrameter and 6-line stanzas). The poem emerged from a study of Matthew’s gospel. I would like to think about arranging the construction to fit the subject and mood in future poems! Thanks for commenting!

  5. Cynthia Erlandson

    I love this, Jeff! The storytelling and characterization are stunning and profound; and I echo the above comments about the genius of the form. Specifically, Damn/Lamb/Abraham is a cunning rhyme. And the title sets the tone perfectly.

    • Jeff Kemper

      Thank you, Cynthia, for your very kind words. I hardly feel deserving; I’m a pessimist by nature.

  6. C.B. Anderson

    Jeff, you might want to read Taylor Caldwell’s novel with the same name. It’s interesting and puts a different twist on the subject. But let us all be cognizant of the fact that without the betrayal for bits of silver (sealed with a kiss), the Crucifixion might not have happened as planned. As much as we might like to view Judas as a traitor, he played a crucial role in the Mystery of Golgotha.

    • Jeff Kemper

      Thanks, C.B., for the tip. I’ll look into Caldwell’s book. You bring up a dubious accomplishment of Judas’s, but one that admittedly had to happen.

  7. Yael

    This is a fascinating Judas poem. I like the rhymes and the construction of 6 lines to each stanza. What really stands out in my mind though is the allusion to communism in the third line. It’s a very interesting juxtaposition with the theme of Judas betraying Jesus, as the terms comrade, cell, and the concept of communism to which these terms belong are modern phenomena which are not mentioned in the Bible. It adds implications of vast proportions to the story which your poem is telling.

    • Jeff Kemper

      Yael, this is fascinating! I wasn’t consciously injecting communism into the story, but your observation gives me food for thought. Any historical writing is, of course, interpretation in light of the interpreter’s experience, and communism is certainly all around us! Thanks for your input!

  8. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Jeff, to me, this is a fresh and wholly relatable look at an age old depiction of events, and I love it. It engages me and affords a greater understanding of the Judas mindset. Very well done, indeed!

    • Jeff Kemper

      Thanks ever so much. This guy fascinates me. I wish we knew more about him. I’ve known people I deemed followers of Christ, only to learn later from their words and deeds that Christ “never knew” them. It’s puzzling.


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