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On "Advice to a Prophet"

An Interview with Richard Wilbur (1968)

Wilbur: … [I]f you think (and it’s very unpopular to think so at present) of the poet as an agent of society and as a servant of the language, why, then, what the poet does all the time is to see what ideas and what words are alive, and, insofar as he can, to go right to the center of the words that represent the things that are vexing us. Now, if you do that, you’re bound to make things happen, because you’ll help people to clarify their feelings. They’ll have to know, a little better, what it is that they’re feeling. The path from that kind of clarification to action is not necessarily an immediate one. You don’t necessarily read a poem and pick up the telephone. But something you might call "tonalizing" does occur, a preparation to feel in a certain way, and consequently to act in a certain way. That does occur, I think, when you read a poem which goes to the words that are bothering you. I suppose you can’t expect, by means of a poem, to produce a perfect volte face in anybody; that would be very presumptuous; even a propagandist doesn’t expect to do that; but you can help a man to see what he may be about to see.

Hutton: Do you think, perhaps, you’ve done this in your poem, "Advice to a Prophet"? Might some people have read this and looked at fear in a different way?


Hutton: Because it’s about the words, in part, that stands for the facts which we really don’t know how to face, isn’t it?

Wilbur: Yes. I believe that what I was trying to do in that poem was to provide – myself, of course – with a way of feeling the enormity of nuclear war, should it come. The approach of that poem, which comes at such a war through its likely effect on the creatures who surround us, is a very "thingy" one. It made it possible for me to feel something beside a kind of abstract horror, a puzzlement, at the thought of nuclear war; and it may so serve other people. I hope so.

Hutton: To go back a bit to [Wallace] Stevens, wasn’t it finally the mind’s mode of perceiving itself in operation that fascinated him; the cognition, or at least a sense, of how the poet comes upon his comparisons?

Wilbur: Yes, I think Stevens once said that he regarded the essential thing in poetry as comparison. Metaphor would be the highest voltage kind of comparison. I suspect that this is what most poets are up to although you can think of exceptions. Most poets are up to the enforcing of such resemblances as they see as having some truth in them. This is one reason why I’ve always felt, and annoyingly said, that poetry is essentially religious in its direction. I know a lot of people, poets, who are not consciously religious, but find themselves forever compromised by their habit of asserting the relevance of all things to each other. A poetry being a kind of truth-telling (it’s pretty hard to lie in poetry), I think that these people must be making, whether they like it or not, what are ultimately religious assertions.

From Conversations with Richard Wilbur, ed. William Butts (Jackson: U Mississippi P, 1990) 52-53.

Donald L. Hill

"Advice to a Prophet" is an attempt to imagine humanity without nature and to measure the loss. The threat of the bomb is what starts the poet thinking about earthless man and manless earth, but ultimately this threat is no more than a gambit for the introduction of Wilbur's oldest themes: What shall we make of the earth? What has it made of us? How do we need each other? The voice that speaks in the poem seems to be that of a spokesman for the community, like the voice of the chorus in one of Sophocles' tragedies. The voice addresses some lecturing scientist, likening him to an ancient prophet; and it advises him bow to touch the imagination of the people when he comes to warn them about the destructive power of modern weapons. He will reach them only by building on their experience, says the spokesman. He is not to speak of the weapons themselves, because men cannot "fear what is too strange"; nor of "the death of the race," because men cannot imagine the earth without human beings. Instead, he is to "speak of the world's own change," for that men can understand. Having experienced minor disasters that changed the world, they can imagine this major one: the utter extinction of animals and vegetation, the boiling away of rivers. They will be moved, says the speaker, when they consider not what the world would be without them, but what they would be without the world:

[. . . .]

The language is worth--indeed requires--the closest attention. With characteristic tenacity Wilbur develops the point that not only our image of ourselves but even our terms to describe ourselves come from the world outside us. The other creatures are a "live tongue," a language by which alone we can "call our natures forth"--think and act, express love, show courage, conceive of ourselves as human. These creatures are also a mirror in which we see ourselves as we are or want to be. Our conceptions of human virtues like love and courage depend ultimately on the qualities of the rose or of the horse, in which we have glimpsed our own potentialities. The qualities of creatures are perceived and named; their behavior is likened (and, no doubt, contrasted) to our own; already in their gestures there exists a language that we see and interpret; in our own terms for these creatures and in their gestures we tell each other what we have learned and what we want of ourselves. Without the world to perceive and respond to in this way, we could not be human.

So goes the argument, logically complete at this point but given further illustration in the final stanza:

[. . . .]

The "worldless rose" would be, I assume, our memory of the rose, our conception of it, or our word for it. But "kept spirit is corporate," as Wilbur said in "Lament" (Ceremony): without the objects, the things of this world, we shall not drink at "the spirit's right/Oasis, light incarnate." "The rose of our love" depends on the rose of the world, without which, perhaps, "Our hearts shall fail us"--meaning both that we shall lose our courage and that we shall be unable to love. The oddness of the phrase "whether there shall be lofty or long standing" wears off with familiarity. Shall there be qualities when there are no things? The implied answer is no. If we let the world, our language and our mirror, escape us, we may lose our humanity, our natures.

This view of our intimate dependence on nature is striking; certainly in some sense it is true. Wilbur offers it wisely as a hypothesis, the last five stanzas being cast not as assertions but as questions by which the prophet may stir us to a consciousness of our true dependence on the world. It is like Wilbur to set this fancy gravely before us, to ask what human life would be like in a world utterly barren--as if there could be human life at all. But if, as he argues, this is the fancy that moves us, the practical prophet will be well advised to evoke it.

"Advice to a Prophet" is not a radically new poem, either in theme or in technique. It recalls Wilbur's earlier forays into the topic of our relationship, ideal and actual, with other things and creatures: the theme of man on earth. It gathers up from many earlier poems ("Objects," "Sunlight Is Imagination," "’A World Without Objects . . .,’" "Lamarck Elaborated," "Lament," "An Event," "A Voice from Under the Table," "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World," and others) Wilbur's hints that our attachment to this world is a matter of self-interest. In "Advice to a Prophet" Wilbur sees that his old question--what use do we have for the world?--is the one raised in a peculiarly dramatic way by the threat of the bomb. Those who don't raise it for themselves, as Wilbur has--out of philosophical curiosity, or mistrust of abstraction, or fear of asceticism--have it raised for them by the bomb's vast contempt for life. Some readers have found the style of this poem too oratorical for their taste, but the reviewers admired it almost without exception; and I imagine that it has appealed to many people who would not otherwise have been much interested in Wilbur's work. M. L. Rosenthal wrote, "I have seen at least one audience deeply moved by it, some to tears, when Mr. Wilbur read it aloud."

From Richard Wilbur. New York: Twayne, 1967. Copyright 1967 by Twayne Publishers, Inc.

Raymond-Jean Frontain

In "Advice to a Prophet," the title poem in Richard Wilbur's 1961 collection, the poet addresses one of the most important social and political problems of the atomic/nuclear age—the danger of mankind's destroying itself and its planet. It also answers one of the most difficult questions addressed by the poets of his generation—namely, how to reach an alienated, uninterested, even apathetic audience grown deaf to the poet/prophet's voice of admonition and entreaty. The speaker's advice is that the anonymous prophet not emphasize the destruction that will result if the community continues on its present course: people have grown so incapable of imagining a world without them that the prophet's traditional scare tactics cannot serve any purpose. Rather, the prophet should employ a gentle, prophetic voice and, in a quiet celebration of passing beauty, remind the listeners of the poignant fragility of everything that is worth valuing in this world and thus of their own existence. Wilbur's "Advice" maps a new poetic program for an age no longer capable of being shocked out of its complacency by what Hungarian poet Endre Ady calls "the prophet's mad red rage / that storms against the seat of heaven." The poem's opening line assumes the inevitable: "When you come, as you soon must, to the streets of our city. . . . " Conditions have become so extreme in the speaker's time that it is no longer a question of whether a prophet will come to upbraid them but simply of when. The tension that animates the poem is the urgency that animated the Hebrew prophetic oracles: the people's day are numbered; they are on the verge of horrible destruction and can be saved only if they heed the prophet's message and repent totally and immediately. In the Bible, the destructive wrath of Yahweh is figured variously as the smashing to the ground of an earthenware pot, as the sexual ravishing of an adulterous woman, and as the leveling of a proud city's walls by an invader's army. But Wilbur's speaker anticipates an even worse catastrophe: when the prophet arrives in this city, it will be too late for him to "proclaim . . . our fall" (line 3) or the fall of any single city, as the prophet will be confronted by the possible annihilation of the human race in an atomic war.

The question that the poem attempts to answer concerns the best tack for the prophet to take. Prophetic utterance, John Becker concludes, is "a perennial act of resistance against the complacency of the mind"; it aims to attack, and to "protest with the extravagant gestures" of the prophet's outrage the centers of political and social power. For this reason, as Abraham Heschel points out, Hebrew prophetic language is "luminous and explosive, firm and contingent, harsh and compassionate, a fusion of contradictions" as the prophet both alarms and urges his listener onward to recognition and reform. The prophet's channeling of "divine derision and scorn" makes prophecy intrinsically satiric.

But traditional prophetic utterance fails in the face of modern complacency. The prophet, when he finally gets to Wilbur's city, will already be "mad-eyed from stating the obvious" (2). One can recite statistics regarding the stockpiling of weapons and their destructive capacities, but people will no longer be persuaded. "Mad-eyed" suggests both the angry gaze of the prophet who speaks in an accusative mode and his going mad with frustration and despair because no one heeds. The enormity of the statistics and their constant repetition have the unintended effect of immuring the audience emotionally from the probability of their self-destruction. The problem, Wilbur's speaker understands, lies not in the people's unreasonableness, which paradoxically threatens to drive the prophet mad, but in their "slow, unreckoning hearts" that are "unable to fear what is too strange" (7-8). How to make those hearts "reckon"—in the dual sense of rationally computing the significance of the prophet's statistics and of accepting the consequences ("face the reckoning of") of their actions—forms the "advice."

Wilbur is, in effect, attempting to resolve the "Catch-22" that is inimical to prophecy: The only biblical prophet ever listened to by his audience was Jonah, whose narrative is a comic one. Jonah is acutely frustrated by the Ninevites'—being so completely and immediately persuaded by his single-word oracle, "Repent." If people heed the prophet's warning and reform, then the doom that the prophet prophesies is averted, and no one will ever know if what the prophet threatened would have come to pass. People who scorn the prophet's message, on the other hand, do not live to acknowledge its authority, their deaths being that authority's proof. As Jesus sadly observed, a prophet is never respected in his own time or country (Mark 6:4), and, in classical tradition, Cassandra was condemned to foresee the future but never be believed by the people whom she tried to warn. The difference, perhaps even the scorn, of the people whom he would save leaves the prophet "mad-eyed from stating the obvious" and drives him or her to speak even more impassionedly, thus appearing crazed and further alienating the audience.

And thus the radically different form of address that Wilbur's speaker advocates: "Speak to us" (13); "Ask us, prophet" (26); and "Ask us, ask us whether" (33). The speaker advises the prophet to employ a gentle, questioning voice that can "call / Our natures forth" (26-27) in the root sense of to educate by "leading out" the knowledge that is an essential part of our humanity and by actualizing through use what the listener had only an implicit grasp of before. The prophet must be a gentle Socratic educator rather than a threatening, cajoling satirist.

Not only the prophet's voice but the message must change. If, as the speaker claims, the prophet's traditional threat of annihilation is rendered ineffective by human inability to see itself as anything but the center of creation, then the prophet must quicken the reckoning heart by rendering the possibility of death only too familiar. The exquisite beauty of Wilbur's poem derives from the complex, twofold program that is implied here. First, the prophet must show how transience is the very essence of all experience by speaking "of the world's own change." Thus, images of the white-tailed deer slipping into perfect shade of stillness, of the lark soaring just beyond the reach of human sight, and of the gliding trout suspended for just one moment in a rainbow of light represent the uncountable instances of nature holding in perfection for one brief moment before suffering inevitable eclipse. "The dolphin's arc" (24) recalls Cleopatra's eulogy for Antony, whose delights, she claims, "were dolphinlike, they showed his back above / The element they lived in" (5.2. 88-90). The dolphin's momentary transcendence of its watery or mortal part makes its aerial soaring all the more joyous and intense. Everything in the world bespeaks change, allowing us finally to conceive of' "the death of the [human] race."

But as Wilbur proclaims in what is perhaps his best-known poem, "Love calls us to the things of this world." People learn to love—that is, their hearts learn to reckon—only when they are faced with the loss of what they value most. In this, Wilbur is close to John Keats, whose goddess Melancholy

. . . dwells with Beauty—Beauty that must die;
    And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips
Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh,
    Turning to Poison while the bee-mouth sips.

Nature at its most fragile and beautiful is for Wilbur the "live tongue" that calls "our natures forth," the mirror that reflects back to us (by eliciting from us) our love and courage. Like the locust that sings during its most vulnerable stage of metamorphosis, nature teaches us to celebrate what is passing. And the song that nature gives voice to is "all we mean or wish to mean"—that is, the most significant or meaningful part of us, as well as the highest meaning that we can aspire to, the meaning that we cannot, on our own, find words to express but which we must rely upon the "live tongue" of nature to articulate.

Thus, if man destroys the world, the rose will have no place to grow, and our unreckoning hearts will finally have failed us. The prophet must make humans aware both of their own mortality and of how they hasten their eventual dissolution by the proliferation of atomic and nuclear weapons. By speaking of "The Beautiful Changes" in nature, the prophet holds up a mirror to human hearts, paradoxically strengthening and quickening them.

The root of the word prophet, the Greek prophetes, means "to speak for, or on behalf of." The colloquial oath that is sworn in lies 3 and 4 ("begging us / In God's name to have self-pity") seems only to emphasize the fact that it is not God who is speaking through the prophet, but Nature, that "live tongue" that "call[s] / Our natures forth." The biblical prophet, frenzied with righteous indignation and alienated from his fellows by the gift of divine inspiration, is out of place in the modern world, where people's solipsism prevents them from understanding the destructive consequences of their acts. Instead, the poet insists, the prophet must quietly direct his listener's or reader's attention to the details of a sacramental universe, one of "sensible fullness."

from The Explicator 51:1 (Fall 1992), pp. 55-59.

 John B. Hougen

In "Advice to a Prophet" Wilbur suggests that the most potent argument against nuclear weapons is that their use would put an end to this dialogue between persons and the world. Of more concern to us than the prospect of physical loss is the prospect of losing meaning from the lives of individuals and from the whole human family:

[. . . .]

The prophet wants to tell what is obvious, that nuclear war would destroy the planet; and Wilbur urges that he shock us into an awareness of the enormity of our potential loss. But, he says, the rhetoric of "weapons, their force and range, / The long numbers that rocket the mind" will not convince "Our slow unreckoning hearts." Neither will "talk of the death of the race," for it too is beyond comprehension. So Wilbur proposes that the prophet "speak of the world’s own change," to speak of familiar incidents of loss within the natural realm. Though the heart is "slow and unreckoning," it knows how to grieve. The human heart will know the pang of loss that comes when a familiar shape disappears in the clouds or when leaves change from vital green to deathly black due to an overnight frost. The losses from nuclear annihilation are these losses that we know so well made "perfect," total and final. Then the poet tells the prophet why the prospect of these losses touches us so deeply. He says just as the natural world cannot be itself without our projections of meaning; so, too, we ourselves are inexplicable without a world to provide apt metaphors for "all we mean and wish to mean." We are homo loquens and our language, the essence of our being, depends on the "live tongue" of nature. The prophet must remind us, in other words, that the self and nature are radically interdependent.

From Ecstasy within Discipline: The Poetry of Richard Wilbur. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1995. Copyright 1995 by The American Academy of Religion.

John Gery

Wilbur's "Advice to a Prophet" reverses his earlier appreciation of things of this world from the perspective of a sensible emptiness to an appreciation of that same emptiness from the perspective of the things of this world. Considered one of his most overtly political poems, "Advice to a Prophet" also reveals a Wilbur apparently even more confident than before in the power of the physical world (specifically, in nature itself) to provide meaning. At the same time, he seems less concerned about any allegorical resonance to that meaning--regardless of the fact that the image of the rose in the last two stanzas seems deliberately symbolic.

The first three of this poem's nine quatrains (their alternating pentameter and tetrameter lines counterpointed by the abba rhyme scheme) open with the poet's advising the "prophet" what not to tell us when warning us of our approaching doom. Nothing in the poem identifies the prophet as priest, scientist, or poet, subsuming all three under the traditional notion of the prophet as doomsayer, or a "mad-eyed" prophet such as Ezekiel or Cassandra. Such a prophet, the poet reminds us, will not come "proclaiming our fall but begging us/ In God's name to have self-pity," that is, imploring us to put life above the sensible emptiness our minds seem to hanker after. We will not, he goes on to say in the second stanza, be swayed to self-pity by an account of the "force and range" of weapons of mass destruction, because any such description will "rocket the mind," thus actually feeding the imagination rather than curbing it. "Our slow, unreckoning hearts," on the other hand, "will be left behind," unable to accommodate our feelings to whatever unfamiliar notions our minds may grasp. Nor can "talk of the death of the race" carry much emotional weight, since we cannot really imagine a state of annihilation, and we have no basis to "dream of this place without us":

The sun mere fire, the leaves untroubled about us,
A stone look on the stone's face?

The tone and imagery here recall the "pure mirage" of " 'A World without Objects . . .’" ("the long empty oven/ Where flames in flamings burn"), but in this rendition Wilbur is thinking of an absence created by the elimination of any perceiver, rather than "the brink of absence," as that which a perceiver cannot fully understand. This shift in emphasis is a slight but crucial one: In the earlier poem the failure to be able to conceive of an immaterial state is expressed with a hint of resignation, but in "Advice to a Prophet" not to conceive of it means not to feel the full import of the prophet's warning. What has become more important than the preeminence of "light incarnate," of the things of this world, is the presence of the watcher of that light, of those of us who "cannot conceive/ Of an undreamt thing" but who, because we can dream, remember, and speak, can also attribute meaning to the things of this world.

The poem next urges the prophet to present his or her prophecies in terms we can accept, in terms of "the world's own change," and throughout stanzas four, five, and six he catalogues a variety of images from nature that "we know to our cost"--the dissipated cloud, the "blackened" vines, the disappearing white-tailed deer, the evasive lark, the lost "grip" of the jack-pine, and the flow of a burning river such as the mythic Xanthus, which was destroyed rather than surrendered to invaders. These earthly images, together with "the dolphin's arc" and "the dove's return" to Noah's ark, are all "things in which we have seen ourselves and spoken." In this line Wilbur introduces the vital connection hinted at earlier between seeing, knowing, and saying, and as the poem approaches its climax, all of his concerns are heaped on one another: Not only does he ask the prophet to explain our apocalypse in terms of changes in nature, as well as the termination of those changes, so that we might better comprehend its implications; he also links our experience of nature's changes both to our consciousness and to our acknowledgment of our consciousness, both to our seeing and to our speaking about what we have seen. Unlike "'A World without Objects...,’" "Advice to a Prophet" becomes increasingly preoccupied with our perception of the world more than with the things in it. Therefore, even though nature itself is prominent both as the source of the heart's understanding and as the source of our physical existence, the annihilation of nature is meaningless unless or until it is articulated in terms of the human experience of it:

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.

Though urging the prophet to couch his prophecy in the context of nature, Wilbur in fact draws attention to our awareness of nature, as revealed by our speaking of it ("we shall call," "live tongue," and "we have said"). Once we see the relation between language and nature, he suggests, we will better sense annihilation as silence and understand that "with the worldless rose/ Our hearts shall fail us." Then in the final stanza, he further emphasizes our perception of nature ("the bronze annals") rather than nature itself ("the oak-tree"), as he isolates our sense of time's continuity by isolating, in what seems a deliberately awkward fashion, our vocabulary for that sense: "come demanding/ Whether there shall be lofty or long standing/ When the bronze annals of the oak-tree close". "The final, urgent plea of 'Advice to a Prophet' is that we not destroy vocabulary!" Wendy Salinger notes, "Wilbur's most moving political poem is at its heart about language." It is about language, but specifically it is about feeling the loss of language (and through that the loss of perception) as our only means of appreciating the dangers of nuclearism. Annihilation, in other words, is a physical and psychic condition that encompasses the signifiers "lofty" and "long standing" together with whatever they signify, as well as everything else imaginable.

With its intricate interweaving of natural imagery and language, "Advice to a Prophet" ingeniously conveys how our experience of nature, perception, and language is the key to our grasping the implications of annihilation.

From Ways of Nothingness: Nuclear Annihilation and Contemporary American Poetry. Gainseville, FL: University Press of Florida, 1996. Copyright 1996 by the Board of regents of the State of Florida.

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