This witty poem written by William Cowper sometime in the later decades of the 18th Century AD is one of my favourites. It is a disturbing tragedy with heavy Biblical references which makes it a difficult read for anyone with a less-than-par didactic knowledge of the Christian go-to book.
Judas was one of Jesus Christ’s disciples who sold out his ‘Master’ to the Jewish High Priests for a paltry thirty pieces of silver. It takes no great imagination to conceive that Judas was and still is disliked by Christians hence the line “Damned below Judas: more abhorred than he was.” This line is the pivot of the entire poem. In actual fact the entire poem sounds like a suicide note. The fact that Judas killed himself gives credence to my assertion.
The other character that needs unmasking is Abiram who is described in the book of Numbers as the leader of a group of dissidents who rebelled against the authority of Moses and Aaron. The poet laments that he deserves “to receive a sentence/ Worse than Abiram’s“. Self-pity is heightened when the narrator claims that even Hell will refuse to receive him after his death for his sins are so great than hell will actually feel like a sanctuary for a sinner of that stature – a sinner worse than a traitor and a rebel against the ‘Master’ himself.
When all these nuances are factored in it becomes somewhat more apparent that there is a tinge of madness in it all. We are left wondering, “how on earth can someone think they are that evil?”. The form of madness alluded to in this poem is not the psychotic Schizophrenia-type but the deep depression type. Depression was considered a form of madness in that era and the poet himself suffered from serious bouts of depression. It is believed that William Cowper wrote this poem around 1773 when he was in the middle of one of his dark days.