Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Friday, January 2, 2009

advice to a prophet

My post a few days ago about natural signs received an interesting comment from Julana. She is wondering whether, if indeed we do largely lose our knowledge of the natural world — our very ability to name the things of Creation — we will also lose much of our ability to make metaphors. As it happens, there is a very wonderful poem by the great Richard Wilbur on just this subject. It is called “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.