Richard Wilbur | Critical Essay by Raymond-Jean Frontain

This literature criticism consists of approximately 6 pages of analysis & critique of Richard Wilbur.
This section contains 1,571 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Raymond-Jean Frontain

Critical Essay by Raymond-Jean Frontain

SOURCE: "Wilbur's 'Advice to a Prophet'," in The Explicator, Vol. 51, No. 1, Fall 1992, pp. 55-59.

In the following essay, Frontain cites classical and biblical sources and influences of Wilbur's "Advice to a Prophet."

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 days 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 lines 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."

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This section contains 1,571 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Raymond-Jean Frontain
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