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"Advice to a Prophet" by Richard Wilbur

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by

Nick Rackus

on 16 December 2013

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Transcript of "Advice to a Prophet" by Richard Wilbur

About the Author
Wilbur was born on March 1st, 1921 in New York City.
He graduated from Amherst College in 1942, then served in the US Army from 1943-1945.
He received the Pulitzer Prize for peotry twice, once in 1957 and once in 1989.
He has 4 kids.
"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.
Poem Explanation
This poem was written during the Cold War. During an interview with Wilbur, he said it was his means of coping with the possibility of nuclear war and how it would affect us and the creatures around us.
Theme
I think that the theme of this poem is to think
deeper on things and how their impacts
can hurt much more than you think, and
also not to think so negatively.
"Advice to a Prophet" by Richard Wilbur
In this poem Wilbur is trying to give advice. He tries to emphasize that the "Prophet" (Perhaps news media, government, etc,) should not be reinforcing the nuclear threats (stanzas 1-3), but the threats to all other things like nature and how we and nature need each other.
Literary Chart
Poem-
"Advice to a Prophet" by Richard Wilbur
Form
- 9 stanzas, 36 lines
Rhyme Scheme
- ABBA CDDC EFFE GHHG IJJI KLLK MNNM OPPO QRRQ
Repititon
- None
Imagery
- "When the bronze annals of the oak tree close" stanza 9, line 36
Figurative Language
- "On the cold ledge, and every torrent burn/As Xanthus once" Stanza 6,lines 24&5
Tone
- Serious and concerned
Theme
- I think that the theme of this poem is to think
deeper on things and how their impacts
can hurt much more than you think, and
also not to think so negatively.
Stanza 1- Describing the coming of the "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,
Stanza 1
Stanza 2
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
Telling the "prophet" what not to say
Stanza 3
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?
Again, telling what not to say because it will not help.
Stanza 4
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

Telling "prophet" what to say
Stanza 5
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
Discussing the impacts that these weapons would have on nature, not just us
Stanza 6
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,
Talking about how everything would burn so badly like the ancient city Xanthus, which burned so much that burning debris stunned the trout in the water.
Stanza 7
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
He is asking what humanity would be without nature.
Stanza 8
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
He is continuing on what humanity would be with a lack of nature.
Stanza 9
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.
He is concluding the poem with the question of whether or not people will be able to keep the good in their hearts.
Symbolism
- throughout poem
Full transcript