Richard Wilbur stated in “On My Own Work,” reprinted in his book Responses: Prose Pieces, 1953-1976 (1976), that his experiences serving as a soldier in Europe in World War II provoked him into becoming a poet. However, unlike other poets of his era who wrote about the war, such as Robert Lowell and Randall Jarrell, Wilbur did not focus on the horror of war but on the need to establish order in the world to restrain the chaos of war. His poetry has been characterized as bloodless, lacking a head-on confrontation with the problems characteristic of modern life. In addition, unlike many poets of his era, his voice is not “confessional” and does not address only how the world affects him as an individual. He is more of a classicist, seeing the world outside himself. Yet, in his close observation of nature, he echoes the Romantic poets, particularly William Wordsworth.
Wilbur is a master of the English language. With a translator’s patience, Wilbur searches for the precise word to convey both the immediate meaning and a deeper connotation. Consequently, when he chooses a word, that word may have multiple meanings. As suggested by critic John Hougen, Wilbur uses wit “to surprise his readers,” to shake them from traditional ways of seeing and thinking. Wilbur also uses allusions, providing layers of meaning to his poetry. In “Advice to a Prophet,” Wilbur refers to Xanthus, the ancient city of Lycia in Asia Minor. The city was besieged by the Persians and, centuries later, by the Romans. In both instances, the inhabitants destroyed their city before surrendering. Using the word “Xanthus” underscores the theme of destruction as well as humankind’s participation in its destiny. For some readers, Wilbur’s specificity of word choice, classical allusions, and strict adherence to poetic form are daunting.
“Advice to a Prophet” was published in Wilbur’s poetry collection Advice to a Prophet, and Other Poems (1961). The tone is conversational; the unnamed speaker is the poet. However, the speaker uses the first-person plural to indicate he is also part of the prophet’s audience and that group’s spokesperson. The concept of a prophet...
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