John Gery: On "Advice to a Prophet"

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.


Title John Gery: On "Advice to a Prophet" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author John Gery Criticism Target Richard Wilbur
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 14 May 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Ways of Nothingness: Nuclear Annihilation and Contemporary American Poetry
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