Advice to a Young Prophet

By Thomas James Merton 1915–1968
Keep away, son, these lakes are salt. These flowers   
Eat insects. Here private lunatics   
Yell and skip in a very dry country.

Or where some haywire monument   
Some badfaced daddy of fear   
Commands an unintelligent rite.

To dance on the unlucky mountain,   
To dance they go, and shake the sin   
Out of their feet and hands,

Frenzied until the sudden night   
Falls very quiet, and magic sin   
Creeps, secret, back again.

Badlands echo with omens of ruin:
Seven are very satisfied, regaining possession:   
(Bring a little mescaline, you’ll get along!)

There’s something in your bones,
There’s someone dirty in your critical skin,
There’s a tradition in your cruel misdirected finger   
Which you must obey, and scribble in the hot sand:

“Let everybody come and attend   
Where lights and airs are fixed
To teach and entertain. O watch the sandy people   
Hopping in the naked bull’s-eye,

Shake the wildness out of their limbs,
Try to make peace like John in skins
Elijah in the timid air   
or Anthony in tombs:

Pluck the imaginary trigger, brothers.   
Shoot the devil: he’ll be back again!”

America needs these fatal friends
Of God and country, to grovel in mystical ashes,   
Pretty big prophets whose words don’t burn,   
Fighting the strenuous imago all day long.

Only these lunatics, (O happy chance)
Only these are sent. Only this anaemic thunder   
Grumbles on the salt flats, in rainless night:

O go home, brother, go home!   
The devil’s back again,
And magic Hell is swallowing flies.

Thomas Merton, “Advice to a Young Prophet” from The Collected Poems of Thomas Merton. Copyright © 1963 by The Abbey of Gethsemani, Inc. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation.

Source: The Collected Poems of Thomas Merton (New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1977)

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Poet Thomas James Merton 1915–1968

Subjects Religion, Faith & Doubt


A monk who lived in isolation for several years, and one of the most well-known Catholic writers of the twentieth century, Thomas Merton was a prolific poet, religious writer, and essayist whose diversity of work has rendered a precise definition of his life and an estimation of the significance of his career difficult. Merton was a Trappist, a member of a Roman Catholic brotherhood known for its austere lifestyle and vow of . . .

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SUBJECT Religion, Faith & Doubt

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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