Robert Buchanan and “The Ballad of Judas Iscariot”

By Addison Hodges Hart

If there is a theme that is both central to Christian revelation and yet obscured by much that has for centuries passed for “sound” Christian theology, surely it is the idea—so evident in the teaching of Christ—that at the very heart of created existence is divine love. Working in and through everything is the loving Father, who makes no distinction in his munificence: “for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt. 5:45). In Jesus’ view, this dispassionate, non-discriminating love is what makes the Father “perfect” (teleios), and it is precisely this “perfection” of love that followers of Christ are exhorted to emulate: “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48).

Christian theology has often forgotten, or at least not emphasized sufficiently, this primary truth. Instead we have been led to believe that “justice” precludes compassion and mercy whenever God’s righteousness is offended, which apparently happens quite a lot. And so we have Jesus’ admonitions related to the avoidance of “Gehenna” transformed over time by officious churchmen and “doctors” into fearful threats of “eternal” torture in “hell”. God, in this doctrinally “developed” view, is not so much a loving Father as a vindictive judge. Add to that the later, frankly barbaric Augustinian doctrine of predestination as enunciated in the West—that only a comparative handful of the elect, chosen from all eternity in the inscrutable counsels of God, will be spared everlasting torment, and that only made possible through the shedding of Christ’s blood as a “satisfaction”—and you have a dogma that is not only devoid of real love, but also of any logical coherence. “Hell”, in that scenario, can only mean unrelenting punishment visited on souls who have done nothing themselves to merit it, apart from being born (and, really, whose fault was that?). It’s as if Jesus, when speaking of forgiveness and “damnation”, had never once suggested that one could be forgiven both “in this age” and also “in the age to come” (Matt. 12:32); or as if he had said merely, when speaking of final judgment and punishment, that those condemned “will never get out”, rather than, as he actually is recorded as having said, that they “will never get out until [they] have paid the last penny” (Matt. 5:26). I would suggest that that little word “until” is rather significant.

The point I’m coming to here is not a denial of “hell” in the sense that Jesus used the metaphor of “Gehenna”. It is not a denial even of “punishment”, if by “punishment” is meant something that doesn’t merely chastise and cause pain, but something that actually corrects and sets a person right. “Punishment”, that is, that rehabilitates and restores. For that remedial outcome “torture” and “torment” do not work, and even the term “punishment” is not a particularly useful one. All I am doing here, by the way, is summarily repeating what the great Scottish writer and (often maligned) theologian George MacDonald said on the matter a century and a half ago (see his Unspoken Sermons, particularly the sermon entitled “Justice”). My point is merely this: if the primary theme of Christ’s “good news” is the love of God, that divinity is characterized by infinite compassion and grace, that sin is swallowed up by mercy, that justice is a manifestation of love and therefore has as its end the reclamation of all things— if, in other words, God “desires all human beings to be saved”, “is the Savior of all human beings, especially of those who believe”, and does not will “that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (1 Tim. 2:4, 4:10; 2 Pet. 3:9)—then it follows that “hell” is a means, not an end, for the sake of salvation. Not the best means by a long shot, and not an unavoidable means because of the cross; but a means nonetheless.

And that brings me to the subject of this essay, which is about a minor poet of the nineteenth century and his poem. The poet is Robert Williams Buchanan (1841-1901), a name no longer familiar to most readers, although at one time he was held in fairly high regard. He gained a measure of notoriety when he harshly—and originally pseudonymously—criticized Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Pre-Raphaelites. In his Appreciations of PoetryLafcadio Hearn commented upon that damaging incident:

Hard headed Scotchman as he was, [Buchanan] manifested in his attitude to his brother poets a good deal of the peculiar, harsh conservatism of which Scotchmen seemed to be particularly capable. And he did himself immense injury in his younger days by an anonymous attack upon the morals, or rather upon the moral tone, of such poets as Rossetti and Swinburne. Swinburne’s reply to this attack was terrible and withering. That of Rossetti was very mild and gentle, but so effective that English literary circles almost unanimously condemned Buchanan, and attributed his attack to mere jealousy. I think the attack was less due to jealousy than to character, to prejudice, to the harshness of a mind insensible to particular forms of beauty.

But Lafcadio Hearn—himself a fascinating character in his own right (we have him to thank, among his many outpourings, for that wonderfully curious volume, Kwaidan, which brings together Japanese ghost stories and Japanese entomology); and I will be drawing a great deal from his lecture on Robert Buchanan in what follows here—also had this to say of Buchanan, though, as it happens, mistakenly:

But the time has now passed when Buchanan can be treated as an indifferent figure in English literature. In spite of all disadvantages he has been a successful poet, a successful novelist, and a very considerable influence in the literature of criticism. Besides, he has written at least one poem that will probably live as long as the English language, and he has an originality quite apart and quite extraordinary.

Contrary to Hearn’s prediction, Buchanan has nonetheless become an “indifferent figure in English literature”, and the “one poem” that Hearn marks out as having had the potential to “live as long as the English language” is now mostly forgotten.

Well, to be honest, it’s an odd poem, certainly a period piece, and there is no use pretending it’s a great poem. Tastes have changed considerably since Buchanan wrote it and Hearn praised it. Modernism has intervened and not for the worse. Speaking only for myself, I much prefer, say, Eliot and Auden and Larkin and R. S. Thomas to Buchanan and many of his greater contemporaries. Yet, still, I have an abiding affection, if not for all of Buchanan’s oeuvre, at least for this one poem of his. Again, I find I agree with Lafcadio Hearn when he says: “If you know only this composition, you will know all that it is absolutely necessary to know of Robert Buchanan.”

The title of the poem is “The Ballad of Judas Iscariot”. And, in fact, I think it could effectively be set to music and sung in true ballad style—surely there must be some group of musicians out there, folk or medieval or Americana, who could take on this task and do it right. The poem is undiluted nineteenth-century “gothic”; Buchanan might have disliked the Pre-Raphaelites, but the imagery in it could have made a fitting subject for one of the Pre-Raphaelite artists. Its atmosphere is gloomy and dark, and it puts me in mind of Ray Bradbury’s description of what he called the “October Country”: “That country where it is always turning late in the year. That country where the hills are fog and the rivers are mist; where noons go quickly, dusks and twilights linger, and midnights stay.” Buchanan was, after all, a Celt.

“The Ballad of Judas Iscariot” is, of course, a religious poem. For quite a few readers, sensitive to such things, it will be seen as straddling the boundaries of acceptable “orthodoxy”, if it’s not seen as well within the borders of “heterodoxy”. As Hearn says of it, “[T]he great production of Buchanan is a simple ballad, … [it] is a beautiful and extraordinary thing, quite in accordance with the poet’s peculiar views of Christianity…” And, if this were not enough, he writes a little further on: “All that could be said against it from a religious point of view is that the spirit of it is even more Christian than Christianity itself.” Now this last sentiment of Hearn’s (who was himself unequivocally at odds with the organized religion of his day) should be understood as an ironic indictment of precisely the sort of Christianity described in the opening salvos of this essay. At this point I can do nothing better than reproduce at length Lafcadio Hearn’s explanation of Buchanan’s rationale for his “Ballad”, which puts a finger on exactly where the “orthodoxy/heterodoxy” difficulty lies:

Before we turn to the poem itself, I must explain to you something of the legend of Judas Iscariot. You know, of course, that Judas was the disciple of Christ who betrayed his master… Afterwards Judas, being seized with remorse, is said to have hanged himself; and there the Scriptural story ends. But in Church legends the fate of Judas continues to be discussed in the Middle Ages. As he was the betrayer of a person whom the Church considered to be God, it was deemed that he was necessarily the greatest of all traitors; and as he had indirectly helped to bring about the death of God, he was condemned as the greatest of all murderers. It was said that in hell the very lowest place was given to Judas, and that his tortures exceeded all other tortures. But once every year, it was said, Judas could leave hell, and go out to cool himself upon the ice of the Northern seas. That is the legend of the Middle Ages.

Now Robert Buchanan perceived that the Church legends of the punishment of Judas might be strongly questioned from a moral point of view. Revenge is indeed in the spirit of the Old Testament; but revenge is not exactly in the spirit of the teaching of Christ. The true question as to the fate of Judas ought to be answered by supposing what Christ himself would have wished in the matter. Would Christ have wished to see his betrayer burning for ever in the fires of hell? Or would he have shown to him some of that spirit manifested in his teachings, “Do good unto them that hate you; forgive your enemies”? As a result of thinking about the matter, Buchanan produced his ballad.

And it is at this juncture that Hearn says that all that can be said against the ballad is that its Christianity is more truly Christian (i.e., “Christ-like”) in spirit than Christianity (in its most rigidly ossified doctrinal form) had become.

Hearn’s lecture then gives most of the text of the poem, interspersed with his comments, and I will follow him here, though I will reproduce the entire text. But, before Hearn presented Buchanan’s poem, to set the stage he first explained its medieval folkloric background:

In order to understand the beginning of the ballad clearly, you should know the particulars about another superstition concerning Judas. It is said that all the elements refused to suffer the body [of Judas] to be committed to them; fire would not burn it; water would not let it sink to rest; every time it was buried, the earth would spew it out again. Man could not bury that body, so the ghosts endeavoured to get rid of it. The Field of Blood referred to in the ballad is the Aceldama of Scriptural legend, the place where Judas hanged himself.

And with all that in mind, Hearn gives us the text of the ballad. I would remark before I do the same that the dualism of body and soul is a striking feature of the poem. The great conundrum for the soul of Judas, his own Sisyphean task, is what to do with his body, since none of this world’s elements will receive it. In effect, this becomes the living hell of the dead Judas—the bearing of his own suicide’s body. For a poem that will, as we will see, undermine the notion of an everlasting (and thereby unjust) punishment, I can think of few images more truly hellish in nature than Buchanan’s vision of Judas’s torments.

‘Twas the body of Judas Iscariot
Lay in the Field of Blood;
‘Twas the soul of Judas Iscariot
Beside the body stood.

Black was the earth by night,
And black was the sky;
Black, black were the broken clouds,
Tho’ the red Moon went by.

‘Twas the body of Judas Iscariot
Strangled and dead lay there;
‘Twas the soul of Judas Iscariot
Look’d on it in despair.

The breath of the World came and went
Like a sick man’s in rest;
Drop by drop on the World’s eyes
The dews fell cool and blest.

Then the soul of Judas Iscariot
Did make a gentle moan—
‘I will bury underneath the ground
My flesh and blood and bone.

‘I will bury deep beneath the soil,
Lest mortals look thereon,
And when the wolf and raven come
The body will be gone!

‘The stones of the field are sharp as steel,
And hard and cold, God wot;
And I must bear my body hence
Until I find a spot!’

‘Twas the soul of Judas Iscariot,
So grim, and gaunt, and gray,
Raised the body of Judas Iscariot,
And carried it away.

And as he bare it from the field
Its touch was cold as ice,
And the ivory teeth within the jaw
Rattled aloud, like dice.

As the soul of Judas Iscariot
Carried its load with pain,
The Eye of Heaven, like a lanthorn’s eye,
Open’d and shut again.

Half he walk’d, and half he seemed
Lifted on the cold wind;
He did not turn, for chilly hands
Were pushing from behind.

Whose are the “chilly hands” we can only guess. I imagine they belong to the “ghosts” that Hearn mentions in his retelling of the original legend.

The first place that he came unto
It was the open wold,
And underneath were prickly whins,
And a wind that blew so cold.

(Whins, it should be mentioned, are thorny shrubs or gorse.)

The next place that he came unto
It was a stagnant pool,
And when he threw the body in
It floated light as wool.

He drew the body on his back,
And it was dripping chill,
And the next place be came unto
Was a Cross upon a hill.

A Cross upon the windy hill,
And a Cross on either side,
Three skeletons that swing thereon,
Who had been crucified.

And on the middle cross-bar sat
A white Dove slumbering;
Dim it sat in the dim light,
With its head beneath its wing.

And underneath the middle Cross
A grave yawn’d wide and vast,
But the soul of Judas Iscariot
Shiver’d, and glided past.

This, in my opinion, must be the most disturbing image of the entire poem. At least it should be for those who believe in Christ’s bodily resurrection. I don’t presume to know Robert Buchanan’s belief regarding it, and I would have preferred that he had not included these verses at all. But, he did, and we have to take the poem as we find it.

That said, however, it’s also true that, as Lafcadio Hearn points out, Buchanan knew that Christ’s and the two thieves’ bodies had been removed from the crosses on Calvary. They had not been left there to decompose, and so the three skeletons in the ballad must mean something other than the immediately obvious. They do not constitute a denial of the resurrection. Hearn suggests the following meaning to explain the baffling image:

The ghostly hand had pushed Judas to the place of all places where he would have wished not to go… [W]e may suppose that the whole description is of a phantasm, purposely shaped to stir the remorse of Judas. The white dove sleeping upon the middle cross suggests the soul of Christ, and the great grave made below might have been prepared out of mercy for the body of Judas. If the dove had awoke and spoken to him, would it not have said, “You can put your body here, in my grave; nobody will torment you.” But the soul of Judas cannot even think of daring to approach the place of the crucification.

That is as good an explanation as any, I suppose, and I think it at least comes closest to what Buchanan intended.

Fedor Bronnikov

The fourth place that he came unto
It was the Brig of Dread,
And the great torrents rushing down
Were deep, and swift, and red.

He dared not fling the body in
For fear of faces dim
And arms were waved in the wild water
To thrust it back to him.

‘Twas the soul of Judas Iscariot
Turned from the Brig of Dread,
And the dreadful foam of the wild water
Had splashed the body red.

Regarding this particular image, Hearn writes: “There is here a poetical effect borrowed from sources having nothing to do with the Judas tradition. In old Northern folklore there is the legend of a River of Blood, in which all the blood ever shed in this world continues to flow; and there is a reference to this river in the old Scotch ballad of ‘Thomas the Rhymer.'”

In this way, then, Judas’s betrayal of Christ’s blood is connected to all the bloodshed of human history. This is an image that might just possibly suggest at once the greatness and horror of Judas’s guilt, and likewise an implicit first indication of the hope of redemption even for so grave a crime.

For days and nights he wandered on
Upon an open plain,
And the days went by like blinding mist,
And the nights like rushing rain.

For days and nights he wandered on,
All thro’ the Wood of Woe;
And the nights went by like moaning wind,
And the days like drifting snow.

‘Twas the soul of Judas Iscariot
Came with a weary face –
Alone, alone, and all alone,
Alone in a lonely place!

He wandered east, he wandered west,
And heard no human sound;
For months and years, in grief and tears,
He wandered round and round,

For months and years, in grief and tears,
He walked the silent night;
Then the soul of Judas Iscariot
Perceived a far-off light.

“Days and nights… months and years” pass “in grief and tears”. This is both purgatory and hell that Buchanan describes, and the two are one. “Punishment” is, as we are about to see, remedial. Now a light—far off, dim—is beginning to shine for Judas:

A far-off light across the waste,
As dim as dim might be,
That came and went like the lighthouse gleam
On a black night at sea.

‘Twas the soul of Judas Iscariot
Crawl’d to the distant gleam;
And the rain came down, and the rain was blown
Against him with a scream.

For days and nights he wandered on,
Push’d on by hands behind;
And the days went by like black, black rain,
And the nights like rushing wind.

‘Twas the soul of Judas Iscariot,
Strange, and sad, and tall,
Stood all alone at dead of night
Before a lighted hall.

And the wold was white with snow,
And his foot-marks black and damp,
And the ghost of the silvern Moon arose,
Holding her yellow lamp.

And the icicles were on the eaves,
And the walls were deep with white,
And the shadows of the guests within
Pass’d on the window light.

The shadows of the wedding guests
Did strangely come and go,
And the body of Judas Iscariot
Lay stretch’d along the snow.

The body of Judas Iscariot
Lay stretched along the snow;
‘Twas the soul of Judas Iscariot
Ran swiftly to and fro.

To and fro, and up and down,
He ran so swiftly there,
As round and round the frozen Pole
Glideth the lean white bear.

‘Twas the Bridegroom sat at the table-head,
And the lights burnt bright and clear—
‘Oh, who is that,’ the Bridegroom said,
‘Whose weary feet I hear?’

Hearn writes:

But only the body [of Judas lies stretched along the snow]. The soul which has carried it does not lie down, but runs round and round the lighted hall, where the wedding guests are assembled.

He runs, I believe, in amazed excitement and, perhaps, an awakening joy. The reason is both painful and obvious:

What wedding? What guests? This is the mystical banquet told of in the parable of the New Testament; the bridegroom is Christ himself; the guests are the twelve disciples, or rather, the eleven, Judas himself having been once the twelfth. And the guests see the soul of Judas looking in at the window.

But not all within are glad to see the betrayer without. There is something of the elder brother’s anger at the Prodigal’s return in the grumbling of the apostles in the stanzas below, and also something of the harshness of a church ready to condemn. Here are the ballad’s final stanzas:

‘Twas one look’d from the lighted hall,
And answered soft and slow,
‘It is a wolf runs up and down
With a black track in the snow.’

The Bridegroom in his robe of white
Sat at the table-head—
‘Oh, who is that who moans without?’
The blessed Bridegroom said.

‘Twas one looked from the lighted hall,
And answered fierce and low,
’Tis the soul of Judas Iscariot
Gliding to and fro.’

‘Twas the soul of Judas Iscariot
Did hush itself and stand,
And saw the Bridegroom at the door
With a light in his hand.

The Bridegroom stood in the open door,
And he was clad in white,
And far within the Lord’s Supper
Was spread so broad and bright.

The Bridegroom shaded his eyes and look’d,
And his face was bright to see—
‘What dost thou here at the Lord’s Supper
With thy body’s sins?’ said he.

‘Twas the soul of Judas Iscariot
Stood black, and sad, and bare—
‘I have wandered many nights and days;
There is no light elsewhere.’

‘Twas the wedding guests cried out within,
And their eyes were fierce and bright—
‘Scourge the soul of Judas Iscariot
Away into the night!’

The Bridegroom stood in the open door,
And he waved hands still and slow,
And the third time that he waved his hands
The air was thick with snow.

And of every flake of falling snow,
Before it touched the ground,
There came a dove, and a thousand doves
Made sweet sound.

‘Twas the body of Judas Iscariot
Floated away full fleet,
And the wings of the doves that bare it off
Were like its winding-sheet.

‘Twas the Bridegroom stood at the open door,
And beckon’d, smiling sweet;
‘Twas the soul of Judas Iscariot
Stole in, and fell at his feet.

‘The Holy Supper is spread within,
And the many candles shine,
And I have waited long for thee
Before I poured the wine!’

The supper wine is poured at last,
The lights burn bright and fair,
Iscariot washes the Bridegroom’s feet,
And dries them with his hair.

The conclusion, some will notice, is reminiscent of George Herbert’s poem “Love”:

Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lacked anything.

“A guest,” I answered, “worthy to be here”:
Love said, “You shall be he.”
“I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on thee.”
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
“Who made the eyes but I?”

“Truth, Lord; but I have marred them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.”
“And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame?”
“My dear, then I will serve.”
“You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat.”
So I did sit and eat.

The theme of love and forgiveness overcoming sin and unworthiness is similar, as is the image of the banquet and the Lord’s Supper as the sign and sacrament of divine love. The difference between the two poems is that, while Herbert’s is a sort of parable about the sinner’s approach to his merciful Lord in the here and now, Buchanan’s “Ballad of Judas Iscariot” takes that same theme beyond death and hell and stretches it to its ultimate limit, to include in mercy’s embrace the worst of sinners as the greatest expression of grace imaginable.

In my own opinion (and the reason why I have an abiding affection for this quirky ballad), nothing less than that can or should ever be attributed to God. What Buchanan does is show us a striking and strangely moving vision, one that—again, in the words of Lafcadio Hearn—“is even more Christian than Christianity itself”. Whatever heterodoxies the author himself may have entertained, his ideal vision is as “Christian” as Christ and Christ’s good news of a loving God, whose unchangeable will is—no matter how long it may take (and “length of time” means nothing in eternity)—“that all should reach repentance”. To my mind, that is the greatest “orthodoxy”—“right glory”—one could ever accord to God.

Fr Addison Hart is a retired pastor and college chaplain presently living in Norway. He is the author of The Letter of James: A Pastoral Commentary, The Hour, the Woman, and the Garden, Strangers and Pilgrims Once More, and The Ox-Herder and the Good Shepherd.

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6 Responses to Robert Buchanan and “The Ballad of Judas Iscariot”

  1. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I had intended to publish this piece tomorrow, but I accidentally hit the wrong button. All under the Providence.

    I’d like to express my special thanks to Fr Hart for writing this article for Eclectic Orthodoxy.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. brian says:

    Can men imagine a better gospel than the truth of God’s love? Anything less than this is not as good, as beautiful, as true. A nice assessment of the poem’s quirks and relative place as art, but the message transcends all that.

    And perhaps it’s my Celtic blood, but I love the aesthetic of autumn.

    Thank you, Father Hart.


  3. Debra Cano says:

    Would it be possible to name the artwork (& dates) you use to accompany your articles? I find the artwork very enriching, but usually don’t recognize it – your research and Study are extraordinary. Thank you for such intensive labor.

    Sent from my iPad


    Liked by 1 person

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Debra, I’m afraid that I simply scour the internet to find images that seem to be appropriate. If you copy the URL of an image, you can then use Google image search to find all the places it can be found.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Find an image that interests you and right-click on it. You will be given an option to copy the address of the image. Copy the address and then go to Google Image Search (, paste in the image, hit enter and … voila! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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