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.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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, 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.


(The entire section is 452 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.”