Advice to a Prophet

by Richard Wilbur

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First published: 1959, in Advice to a Prophet, and Other Poems, 1961

Edition used:Collected Poems, 1943-2004. Orlando, Fla.: Harcourt, 2004

Genre: Poetry

Subgenre: Lyric poetry

Core issues: Beauty; connectedness; death; guidance; nature; sanctification


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...

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By converting the abstract horror of nuclear destruction into the tangible loss of “the white-tailed deer” or the result of “the vines blackened by frost,” Wilbur makes us understand. To him, the “things of this world” provide a way for us to communicate. “These things in which we have seen ourselves and spoken” are what make our world real, and humankind is a part of the world, not the center of it. In “Advice to a Prophet,” the argument Wilbur proposes is that destruction by nuclear weapons is unimaginable, but the loss of people’s dialogue with nature and the world around them can be comprehended. “Nor shall you scare us with talk of the death of the race./ How should we dream of this place without us?” Rather than warn us of the destruction of the planet, the end of humankind, the prophet needs to couch his warning in humbler terms, reminding us that who we are depends on “the live tongue” of nature. Since “we have seen ourselves and spoken” through the external world of nature, without the natural world, we cannot be human.

In Responses, Prose Pieces 1953-1976, Wilbur states that poets can be either “poet-citizens” or “alienated artists.” Like the Romantic poets, he chooses to be involved in the human world and its concerns, and in “Advice to a Prophet” the poet counsels the prophet to show a way for the community to preserve itself not by dire, end-of-the-world warnings, but by describing a world without those things that people value, such as “the rose of our love and the clean/ Horse of our courage.” And the poet-speaker asks the prophet whether humanity will fail itself or “come demanding/ Whether there shall be lofty or long standing/ When the bronze annals of the oak-tree close.” The intimation is that humanity will not allow itself to become a victim of a nuclear holocaust. Like the residents of Xanthus, people will take charge of their own destiny.

Christian Themes

Although Wilbur is a lifelong Episcopalian, his poetry does not shout Christian doctrine. Instead, he reinforces the concept of finding “the invisible through the visible.” Like the poet Wordsworth, he sees God (order) in nature, and through the perception of nature, people are able to understand and value both themselves and the world around them. Rather than focusing on the end of the world as being the end of humankind, Wilbur equates such a possibility with an end of the natural world. Like the Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Wilbur sees spirit within matter and the interdependence of all of life’s parts, reflecting the divine working through the mundane. Much like the Metaphysical poets, whom he admired, Wilbur, as he remarked in “On My Own Work,” favors a “spirituality that is not abstracted, not dissociated and world-renouncing.” Looking at the “things of this world” and what they mean to humankind, Wilbur shows a reverence for all life and works to achieve a fusion between the tangible world, with its deer, roses, and trout, and the spiritual. To Wilbur the spiritual realm, the world of the Creator, exists united with the physical.

In “Advice to a Prophet,” Wilbur alerts us to the necessity of balance between the two worlds. Although the poem speaks of the prophet’s concern with the end of humankind, the poet is more troubled by the loss of the world outside humanity, the world of nature. It is this world that people can understand and that provides beauty and truths that are visible and, consequently, part of what defines humanity. Rather than people accepting the inevitability of the Apocalypse, Wilbur and the townspeople reject the doomsaying of the prophet and embrace the faith that people can save themselves and their world.

Sources for Further Study

  • Bixler, Frances. Richard Wilbur: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1991.
  • Edgecombe, Rodney Stenning. A Reader’s Guide to the Poetry of Richard Wilbur. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1995.
  • Hill, Donald. Richard Wilbur. New York: Twayne, 1967. Each chapter concerns a book of Wilbur’s poetry, focusing on subject categories such as war, nature, and daily life.
  • Hougen, John B. Ecstasy Within Discipline: The Poetry of Richard Wilbur. Atlanta, Ga.: Scholars Press, 1995. The focus in this volume is on Wilbur as a meditative poet, grounded in religion, who sees the spiritual in the natural world.
  • Michelson, Bruce. Wilbur’s Poetry: Music in a Scattering Time. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1991. An extended study of Wilbur’s poetry that shows his range of styles and how the poems relate to aesthetic and moral issues.
  • Reibetang, John. “What Love Sees: Poetry and Vision in Richard Wilbur.” Modern Poetry Studies 11 (1982): 60-85.
  • Salinger, Wendy, ed. Richard Wilbur’s Creation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1983. Salinger discusses Wilbur’s concept of the things of the world as “not merely a pretext for the ideal” but as a way to perceive truth.
  • Stitt, Peter. The World’s Hieroglyphic Beauty: Five American Poets. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985. Stitt’s essay “The Sacramental Vision of Richard Wilbur” discusses the poet’s concern with “the unseen realm of spirit.”