Dear Judas was a controversial flop, but this was to be expected inasmuch as it depicted Jesus as an aspiring savior who ultimately succumbed to a megalomaniacal God complex, his love for mankind a sort of lust for possession beyond the reach of mere power mongering. Clearly, the subject of Jesus gave Jeffers a stage on which he could put love on trial. Meanwhile, the poem saw Judas as the most devout of Christians. This is hinted at by the title of the poem, for “Dear Judas” can be a description, such as with “a dear friend,” as much as it is an address to indicate the recipient of a statement. It should of course be born in mind that being endearing does not likely make one a hero in Jeffers’ world. Judas is seen by Jeffers, all in all, as a rather pathetic figure. Together, Jesus and Judas represent two aspects of the sickness of Christian love.
In this verse-drama, Judas betrays Jesus out of love for his savior, full of regret that his savior has been morphed into a monster by a lie told him throughout his youth by Mary, his mother. Judas commits the deed reluctantly at the behest of Jesus, for it is by means of this betrayal that Jesus plans to attain a state of divinity among men. Jeffers, son of a Bible scholar, does an exemplary job of tapping an undercurrent of violence and malignant love in the Gospels, and makes efficient use of Gospel verses to craft an admirably heretical passion play wherein only the blue dead are sane.
The reputation of this poem was so scandalous in 1930 that Jeffers published an apologia for it, but I fear he may have damned it with his overly diplomatic attempt to make it seem inoffensive. The poem, in truth, is quite offensive, though not hatefully so.
Not only was this poem controversial among Christians, it was attacked by critics like nothing Jeffers had written before. It was this poem that inspired the venomous Stanford critic Yvor Winters to show his canines at Jeffers, though Winters seemed to misunderstand the poem, for instance he misinterpreted the Jesus character in this poem as heroic. Though Winters claimed to champion reason, he showed himself incapable of intellectual sobriety. This observation is not offered in defense of Jeffers (who was deserving of rough criticism), but in pure astonishment at the depths of irrationality that “sober academics” sink to time and again.
Winters, by the way, did not save all of his wrath for Jeffers, but likewise crucified Walt Whitman and Hart Crane on his personal Calvary.
The conservatism characterized by Yvor Winters was not unique to that sour critic. The Stock Market crash in October 1929 ushered in a quarter-century of conservatism in the arts that suffocated American poetry, a beast stabbed at by the likes of Cummings and Roethke until Allen Ginsberg finally cut through the crust of mid-century conformism. Even then, Jeffers’ art would not be vindicated, Only the earth itself, it seemed, could achieve that.