The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Advice to a Prophet” is composed of nine quatrains with an abba rhyme scheme. The formal structure of the poem is appropriate to its serious content. Richard Wilbur begins the poem by addressing a hypothetical prophet who needs to appear in reality to persuade the human race to eliminate the weapons of twentieth century warfare, which can annihilate life on earth. The poet imagines that the prophet, when he states this danger, will be “mad-eyed” from being ignored. Consequently, the prophet needs the poet’s advice on how to tell the truth in effective language.

The poet imagines that the prophet will not speak of humanity’s “fall,” like the prophets of the Old Testament, but will beg people in “God’s name” to have self-pity. The poet begins to offer advice in stanza 2, telling the prophet not to speak of the “force and range” of weapons, because people cannot imagine numbers so large or the destructive power to which they refer. Similarly, the poet explains in stanza 3, the prophet’s talk about the death of the human race will have no effect, because humanity is incapable of imagining an unpeopled world.

Instead, the poet recommends in stanza 4, the prophet should speak of the changes the use of weapons would cause in the natural world. These are comprehensible because they are familiar. Humanity has witnessed changes brought about by natural processes, such as a cloud dispersing or a vine killed by frost....

(The entire section is 477 words.)