Advice to a Prophet

by Richard Wilbur

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Themes and Meanings

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By giving advice to the prophet, Wilbur thereby becomes the prophet, obliquely assuming one of the poet’s traditional roles. Just as the prophet is “mad-eyed from stating the obvious” without being listened to, the poet in the modern world is for the most part unread, his role as prophet forgotten. It is ironic that the poet is speaking to himself. By addressing the prophet as “you,” however, he calls on the reader to become the prophet and to pass on the word of the poet’s vision. Wilbur’s view of life on Earth is summarized in the titles of two of his other poems: “A World With-out Objects Is a Sensible Emptiness” and “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World.”

The first of those titles finds expression in the poet’s idea of a “worldless rose.” There can be no world without objects. If there were, it would be a sensible emptiness: nothing there to see, touch, smell, taste, or hear, and no one there to do these things. There can be no “worldless” human beings. The poet believes this is obvious, perhaps so obvious that it has been forgotten. How else can he explain why human beings allow weapons to exist that are capable of destroying the world?

The other title mentioned above, “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World,” expresses the attitude Wilbur believes people should have toward all things of nature, including themselves. Love is the opposite of war. The things of this world are exemplified throughout “Advice to a Prophet”—the lark and the dove, the horse and the deer, the dolphin and the trout, the rose and the vine, the jack-pine and the oak tree and its locust. By viewing these things as “words” spoken to us by the “living tongue” of nature, Wilbur draws on the transcendental tradition of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, and Henry David Thoreau.

For these writers every natural fact is a symbol of a spiritual fact. The “living tongue” of nature speaks the language of God; spirit is incarnate in nature. Humanity can have heaven on Earth and save its collective soul if it answers the poet-prophet’s “call” and “believes” in nature—which is “God’s name.” If this were so, people would not allow weapons to exist. The world might become one modeled on Wilbur’s poem “The Baroque Wall-Fountain in the Villa Sciarra,” in which he envisions Saint Francis of Assisi’s desire for the “dreamt land/ Toward which all hungers leap, all pleasures pass.” The imagined land is Eden, and Wilbur believes humanity can return to it—if people do not destroy it first.

Christian Themes

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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...

(This entire section contains 296 words.)

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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.