Advice to a Prophet

by Richard Wilbur

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The Poem

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“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. Also, the poet states in stanza 5, people have watched deer flee into a forest and birds fly away, disturbed by human presence. A pine tree growing at a cliff’s edge, its roots half-exposed, about to fall, is also a familiar sight. The poet returns to the effects of war on nature in stanza 6, providing an example from history. The ancient city of Xanthus was burned so severely in war that the debris of the Xanthus river caught on fire, stunning the trout.

After focusing attention on changes in the natural world, the poet recommends, in stanza 7, that the prophet ask what humanity would be without nature. The poet explains that nature is a “live tongue,” giving images, such as “the dolphin’s arc, the dove’s return,” that people use to express their own thoughts and feelings. The poet gives more examples in stanza 8: the rose, representing love, and the shell of a locust, expressing the idea of the soul leaving a body at death. Images from nature also enable people to represent ideal selves—perhaps graceful like the dolphin or faithful like the dove. In the concluding stanza, the poet asks if human language would be possible without the images of nature. He tells the prophet to ask if human hearts would “fail” if people had only the “worldless rose.” Without the oak tree, could there be ideas like “lofty” and “long standing”?

Forms and Devices

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In “Advice to a Prophet,” Wilbur uses a variety of verbal devices, most of which exemplify ways in which human language and nature depend on each other for meaning. He uses personification to show how human characteristics are projected onto things in the natural world. The leaves are “untroubled,” the stone has a “face,” and the locust is “singing.” Nature, itself, is a “live tongue.” In this construction, “tongue” is also a metaphor for nature. The poet uses “glass,” or a mirror, as another metaphor to represent nature. Wilbur also draws a metaphor from the language of weaponry, in “rocket the mind,” where “rocket” means to go beyond the mind’s capacity to imagine, as well as to destroy the mind.

In this context,...

(This entire section contains 452 words.)

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other words take on double meanings. The phrase “death of the race” refers to the human race but also suggests the arms race. If people do not end the arms race, the human race itself may end. “The locust of the soul unshelled” implies the shells of weaponry as well as the literal shell of a locust. Some double meanings in the poem are expressed in puns. When the poet refers to ways nature “alters,” he evokes the “altars” of religious worship, indicating that nature should be treated with reverence. Similarly, he puns on “arc” in “the dolphin’s arc, the dove’s return,” making an allusion to Noah’s “ark” and the story of the first destruction of the world by flood.

Wilbur makes other allusions to the Bible. When he writes that the prophet will not speak of humanity’s “fall,” he refers to the fall of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. He also evokes Old Testament prophecies of coming plagues of locusts. The historical allusion to the destruction of Xanthus by fire reminds the reader of the biblical prophecy that the second destruction of the world will be by fire. It is likely that the poet intends the reference to Xanthus to evoke modern parallels—the destruction of Nagasaki and Hiroshima by the fires of atomic explosion. These events made it clear that the destruction of the world by fire is possible. In this context, the phrase “the dreamt cloud” brings to mind the mushroom cloud accompanying the explosion of atomic and nuclear weapons.

When Wilbur writes that nature may become a “glass obscured” by the use of such weapons, he alludes to the biblical idea that in this world people see as through a glass, darkly. By using variations of the word “dream” as a metaphor representing human perception, the poet implies a need for clear vision. Wilbur’s prophet, himself a figure of biblical tradition, hopes to clarify human sight.


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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.”