Advice to a Prophet Summary
by Richard Wilbur

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Advice to a Prophet Summary

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

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 providing warnings to humankind is not uncommon. Biblical prophets such as Ezekiel and those of antiquity such as Cassandra tried to alert humankind to various destructive futures and were not heeded. Wilbur remarks that because of the state of the world created by nuclear fears, it is natural to assume a prophet, “mad-eyed” with stating the obvious and frustrated with the indifference of humankind, will issue warnings “When you come, as you soon must, to the streets of our city.” What is uncommon in this poem is that the speaker will advise the prophet, stating that the prophet’s words of doom will not be understood and, consequently, not heeded. “Spare us all word of the weapons, their force and range,/ The long numbers that rocket the mind;/ Our slow, unreckoning hearts will be left behind,/ Unable to fear what is too strange.” How can people understand the unimaginable? Rather, why not provide examples from the “everyday” world, such as how “the white-tailed deer will slip/ Into perfect shade” or “How the dreamt cloud crumbles”? The disappearance of a deer and the breaking up of a cloud are things humankind has seen. Imagining the world without familiar natural sights provides insight into a world without people: “Speak of the world’s own change.”

By converting the abstract horror of nuclear destruction into the tangible loss of “the...

(The entire section is 899 words.)