Skip to main content
By Richard Wilbur

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.


Richard Wilbur, “Advice to a Prophet” from Collected Poems 1943-2004. Copyright © 2004 by Richard Wilbur. Reprinted with the permission of Harcourt, Inc. This material may not be reproduced in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher.

Source: Collected Poems 1943-2004 (2004)

  • Living
  • Nature
  • Religion

Poet Bio

Richard Wilbur
Richard Wilbur began to write poetry in earnest only after experiencing the horrific chaos of battle during WW II service as an infantryman in Italy. No poet of his generation was more committed to careful, organized expression or more thoroughly mastered the forms and devices of traditional poetry; this conservative aesthetic and his deep love for “country things” link Wilbur to the Roman poet Horace and to his fellow American Robert Frost. 

More By This Poet

More Poems about Living

Browse poems about Living

More Poems about Nature

Browse poems about Nature

More Poems about Religion

Browse poems about Religion