A weekly poem, accessibly annotated.
This week I’ve chosen “Advice to a Prophet,” by Richard Wilbur.
Advice to a Prophet
When you come, as you soon must, to the streets of our city,
Mad-eyed from stating the obvious,
Not proclaiming our fall but begging us
In God’s name to have self-pity,
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.
Nor shall you scare us with talk of the death of the race.
How should we dream of this place without us?—
The sun mere fire, the leaves untroubled about us,
A stone look on the stone’s face?
Speak of the world’s own change. Though we cannot conceive
Of an undreamt thing, we know to our cost
How the dreamt cloud crumbles, the vines are blackened by frost,
How the view alters. We could believe,
If you told us so, that the white-tailed deer will slip
Into perfect shade, grown perfectly shy,
The lark avoid the reaches of our eye,
The jack-pine lose its knuckled grip
On the cold ledge, and every torrent burn
As Xanthus once, its gliding trout
Stunned in a twinkling. What should we be without
The dolphin’s arc, the dove’s return,
These things in which we have seen ourselves and spoken?
Ask us, prophet, how we shall call
Our natures forth when that live tongue is all
Dispelled, that glass obscured or broken
In which we have said the rose of our love and the clean
Horse of our courage, in which beheld
The singing locust of the soul unshelled,
And all we mean or wish to mean.
Ask us, ask us whether with the worldless rose
Our hearts shall fail us; come demanding
Whether there shall be lofty or long standing
When the bronze annals of the oak-tree close.
Can you believe you were never assigned this in school?
I first read “Advice to a Prophet” in an anthology of contemporary poets; Wilbur stood out for his formality even among the older poets in the book. (The poem was published in 1961.) For me, reading it is to wonder why we ever abandoned rhyme.
By the time he gets to “Ask us, prophet,” in the seventh stanza, Wilbur has built up a righteous head of steam. (The rhymes seem to add to the poem’s momentum and authority.) By the end, I am in a full woe-is-us lather, ready to chain myself to people who chain themselves to trees. The poem was born of the Cold War, and you don’t have to guess about it: in an interview, Wilbur confirmed that he was responding to the threat of nuclear war and the decimation of nature that would result.
But “Advice to a Prophet” maps easily onto global warming. Wilbur is an unusually effective alarm-raiser, playing to our vanity by making the devastation of nature about humans. Ignoring the potential loss of material resources, the poem reminds us that we make meaning from the world around us. It’s funny, in a way—what will become of the metaphors, cries the poet. But it’s more than that. Wilbur shows us that we rely on nature for more than solace, more even than joy: for our ideas about ourselves.
Wilbur illustrates exactly what we stand to lose, the raw material of significance that we take for granted: “the rose of our love” and “the clean horse of our courage.” The latter phrasing looms in my mind like John Wayne filling a doorframe.
I love “Advice to a Prophet” despite, not because of, its subject matter. Usually when poets start naming plants, I close the tab. Here, though, Wilbur keeps it moving with disaster-movie pacing: the fish are “stunned in a twinkling.” There are trees, but they’re FALLING OFF CLIFFS.
Finally: the poets I usually read are not big on meter, and I have a terrible ear for it. But behold, at least, this line: “Nor shall you scare us with talk of the death of the race.” BUM-bum-bum BUM-bum-bum. Those are vivid dactyls, I do believe.
If the decades since its introduction are any indication, this poem will be in anthologies until the end of time, giving people pause about each new apocalypse. It should be a national monument, in my opinion, but for a poem to attain that status it has to literally be carved into a national monument.
Poem republished in accordance with principles of fair use.
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