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Zbigniew Herbert

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The poet and essayist, author of plays and radio dramas, was born in 1924, died in 1998. He was a writer of great accomplishment and an exceptional artistic and moral authority whose biography was tragically enmeshed in the history of the twentieth century.

On this page we present two articles devoted to Zbigniew Herbert - his biographical note originally published on, and his profile as a writer written by Piotr Matywiecki.

Herbert was born in Lwow. During the war, he began studying Polish literature at the clandestine Jan Kazimierz University. He also came into contact with the Home Army resistance movement. In 1944, in Krakow he began studying in the Fine Arts Academy. He also studied law and philosophy. Herbert moved to Warsaw in 1950. His first book of poetry, String of Light, came out only in 1956.

For many years, he was a regular contributor to "Tygodnik Powszechny", while also publishing in many other domestic and emigré journals. In December, 1975, he was a signatory of the "Protest of 59" against the planned changes in the Polish constitution. He joined the editorial staff of the illegal magazine "Zapis" in 1981, and went to France, where he lived for several years afterwards, in 1986. After returning to Poland, he lived in Warsaw until his death in 1998.

Herbert won many Polish and foreign literary awards, including the Kościelski Prize (1963), the Austrian Nikolaus Lenau Preis (1965), the Herder Prize (1973), and the Jerusalem Prize (1990). He is one of the most frequently translated Polish writers.

Reviewers have identified the keys to an understanding of Herbert's poetry as disinheritance, irony and faithfulness. His verse is an attempt at renewing tradition as a fundamental value for the life of the individual. His lyrical tales contrast the moral sterility and disorientation of contemporary man to the ethical code of the heroes of Mediterranean culture, the "defenders of kingdoms without end and cities of ashes". Pan Cogito, the hero of a famous 1974 cycle and of many later works, personifies the disparity between the feeling of reality and the yearning for fame. "He is a gray man, a reader of newspapers and habitué of dirty peripheral districts, and yet on the other hand he is the reflection of the popular consciousness without submitting to it; he seeks support in the lost heritage of mankind," wrote Stanisław Barańczak in his 1984 study of Herbert, Fugitive from Utopia. Irony complicates the apparent simplicity and unambiguity of Herbert's verse. This irony is also an artistic device and an attitude towards existence. The objects of ironic exposure are the appearances that masquerade as the essence of things (as in The Return of Pan Cogito), the appearances of truth that masquerade as truth itself (The Ornamenters), the conceit of cunning and strength (The Power of Taste), and the attachment to false concepts (Considerations of the Problem of the Nation. Irony turns out to be a form of solidarity, since it offers people liberation from the authority of the community, helping them to understand the world and to live in dignity.

Herbert's essays, on the other hand, seem to be mere "reports on journeys" to the places where European culture was born and flourished. The Barbarian in the Garden offers "accounts" of trips to France and Italy, and Still Life with Horse-Bit is an account of a trip to seventeenth-century Holland, swept with a passion for collecting paintings. "From prehistoric cave paintings through Greek temples and Gothic cathedrals, to the landscapes, interiors and still lifes of seventeenth-century Holland, Herbert constructs a lecture on the way that art becomes human nature," writes Ewa Wiegandt. In Still Life with Horse-Bit, Herbert amazes us with his depiction of how naturally art functioned in the society that produced Rembrandt, Vermeer, and hundreds of other lesser-or better-known artists. This is how Herbert concluded one of his sketches:

"We are the ones who are poor, very poor. The great majority of contemporary art comes out in favor of chaos, gesticulating in vacuity or recounting the history of its own sterile spirit. All the Old Masters, without exception, could say with Racine: 'We work in order to please the public', which means that they believed in the sense of their work, and in the possibility of interhuman understanding... Praise be to such naiveté."

Selected Bibliography:

  • Struna światła (String of Light). Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1956.
  • Hermes, pies i gwiazda (Hermes, Dog, and Star). Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1957.
  • Studium przedmiotu (A Study of the Object). Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1961.
  • Barbarzyńca w ogrodzie (The Barbarian in the Garden). Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1962.
  • Napis (Register). Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1969.
  • Pan Cogito. Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1974.
  • Raport z oblężonego miasta i inne wiersze (Report from the Besieged City and Other Poems). Paris: Instytut Literacki, 1983.
  • Elegia na odejście (Elegy on Exit). Paris: Instytut Literacki, 1990.
  • Rovigo. Wrocław: Wydawnictwo Dolnoślaskie, 1992.
  • Martwa natura z wędzidłem (Still Life with Horse Bit). Wrocław: Wydawnictwo Dolnoślaskie, 1993.
  • Epilog burzy (Epilogue to a Storm). Wrocław: Wydawnictwo Dolnoślaskie, 1998.
  • Labirynt nad morzem (Labyrinth on the sea-shore). Warsaw: Fundacja Zeszytów Literackich, 2000 (more...).
  • Król mrówek (King of the Ants). Krakow: a5, 2001 (more...).
  • Węzeł gordyjski (The Gordian Knot). Warsaw: Biblioteka Więzi, 2001 (more...).

Selected translations

  • German: Ein Barbar in einem Garten. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1997.Gedichte. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1964.Inschrift. Gedichte aus 10 Jahren, 1956-1966. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1973.Im Vaterland der Mythen. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1973.Herr Cogito. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1974.Gedichte. Berlin: Neues Leben, 1974.Bericht aus einer belagerten Stadt. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1983.Das andere Zimmer. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1966.Die Höhle der Philosophen. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1966.Das Land nach dem ich mich sehne. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1987.Rovigo. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1995.Stilleben mit Kandare. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1994.Der Tulpen bitterer Duft. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1995.
  • French: Monsieur Cogito et autres poemes. Paris: Fayard, 1990.
  • Danish: Hr. Cogito. Copenhagen: Brundum, 1980.Rapport fra den belejrede. Copenhagen: Brundum, 1986.Stilleben med bidsel. Copenhagen: Brundum/Aschehoug, 1995.
  • Catalan: Informe de la ciudad assetjada. Valencia: Ediciones de la Guerra, 1993.

Source:; copyright: Stowarzyszenie Willa Decjusza.


The output of Zbigniew Herbert includes poetry, plays, essays, and feature articles.

The most important, and the best known all over the world, is his poetry, which from his very debut had a distinctive, recognizable tone; this was poetry which critics and readers immediately welcomed with great enthusiasm. It had one special feature in an era of unbridled and extravagant individualisms: the most important thing shaping the poet's style was the voice of the community of righteous people - this stemmed from the conviction that righteousness was the dominant ethical quality of the human race, though on the other hand Herbert had no illusions about the evil present in human nature. Herbert's poetry placed its point of view in the eyes of a sensitive and honest person living in difficult times, sublimating his sense of rapture, beauty and goodness, revealing his hurt, pain and indignation. Herbert was the kind of intellectual who draws wisdom more from universal meaning than erudition, though he was rightly considered a representative of the "poetry of thought".

One can distinguish three periods in this poetry.

      **o** The first period lasted from his mature book debut, delayed due to the rule of socialist realism - Struna światła / Chord of Light (1956), through successive volumes: Hermes, pies i gwiazda / Hermes, a Dog, and a Star (1957), Studium przedmiotu / Study of the Object (1961), to Napis / Inscription (1969). In those years Herbert's poetry, starting with the influence of the poetics of Miłosz and Różewicz from which it soon freed itself, developed all of its formal and content-related possibilities, confirmed them with poetic masterpieces, and quickly won recognition from Polish and foreign readers. (Then and later, the poet's poems and essays, translated into many languages, were greatly popular around the world and acclaimed by critics. At one point even, one of the most influential poetic periodicals in America was called "Mr. Cogito"!)

In the poetry of this first period, the most important impression is pain - pain kept under control, because to Herbert the art of poetry was also the art of detachment, valour, stoicism. It is only when such detachment is achieved that existential anxieties can become the subject of poems. He wrote (later) in the well-known poem Dlaczego klasycy / Why The Classics:

  jeśli tematem sztuki
będzie dzbanek rozbity
mała rozbita dusza
z wielkim żalem nad sobą

to co po nas zostanie
będzie jak płacz kochanków
w małym brudnym hotelu
kiedy świtają tapety
if art for its subject
will have a broken jar
a small broken soul
with a great self-pity

what will remain after us
will be like lovers' weeping
in a small dirty hotel
when wall-paper dawns
Translated by
Czesław Miłosz and Peter Dale Scott

Herbert's poetry has its original way of setting in motion that familiar mechanism present in all art - sublimation of suffering.

The most painful thing is the experience of World War II, with its tragedy of violent deaths. Herbert does not highlight the mass character of mass murder during war - he focuses separately on the absurdity of every violent end to a life (Pięciu / Five Men). Like other writers of his generation he points to the futility of high-brow culture and developed civilisation which failed to defend societies. This was revealed with the greatest disappointment and bitterness during the post-war years, under the pressure of communist ideology, in times of "pseudo-peace". Herbert gave the most excruciating expression of pain caused by futile cultural and ethical resistance. This was the special suffering of a humanist: in the face of modern ideologies and wars, something like justice, or a pure and open-minded view of people and the world developed in a group spiritual effort of many generations of thinkers and artists, seems impossible.

The pain and despair are brought under control, though not completely... First they are controlled by showing historical precedents of the present moral situation. The poet draws examples from ancient myths and history. This gesture of a cultural archaeologist allows him to use comparisons with ancient times to objectivize present-day pain, but at the same time this gesture projects today's kind of suffering onto archaic times which did not know such suffering. The poet thus throws the gloomy shadow of modern-day, particularly sophisticated evil on the entirety of human history! Another defence against pain and despair is personal detachment - many times the poet speaks like an actor on behalf of someone familiar from literature and history (Powrót prokonsula / Return of the Proconsul, Tren Fortynbrasa / Elegy of Fortinbras). Herbert became a maestro of the "poetry of roles", "poetry of masks". However, even this means of objectivization cannot be fully effective, for not only the created character but also its creator feels a most deeply personal violation - pain, hurt, humiliation which nothing can assuage. The only possibility is defence at a higher level, generalizing the experience of pain and its incomplete relief. That defence is a stoic and sceptical attitude, an ironic take on the values of personal and human culture, values that are so ineffective in treating evil. Irony is all very well, though, but in the end the feeling of despair always triumphs bitterly, for instance in the poem Do Marka Aurelego / To Marcus Aurelius:

  więc lepiej Marku spokój zdejm
i ponad ciemność podaj rękę
niech drży gdy bije w zmysłów pięć
jak w wątłą lirę ślepy wszechświat
zdradzi nas wszechświat astronomia
rachunek gwiazd i mądrość traw
i twoja wielkość zbyt ogromna
i mój bezradny Marku płacz
Well Marcus better hang up your peace
give me your hand across the dark
Let it tremble when the blind world beats
on senses five like a failing lyre
Traitors - universe and astronomy
reckoning of stars wisdom of grass
and your greatness too immense
and Marcus my defenseless tears
Translated by
Czesław Miłosz and Peter Dale Scott

A stoic and sceptical stance is similar to Tadeusz Różewicz's asceticism. The difference is: Różewicz bids culture and civilization farewell with a feeling of such cruel pain that it kills his longing for them. Zbigniew Herbert retains a note of regret. Różewicz seeks new masters of ethics in a post-war world completely devoid of morality, and Herbert - in a world where dreams of ethical canons have been preserved... Even victorious pragmatists and "political realists" with all their cynicism retain some respect for the ethical maximalist losers (Tren Fortynbrasa / Elegy of Fortinbras).In his first volumes, beside moralism which harshly exposes the infantilism of the romantic visionaries and 20th-century avant-gardists' exuberant imagination (Kołatka / A Knocker), we find prose poems dictated by a "naïve", childlike imagination. Though the irony towards it is obvious, this naiveté is not mocked, because the simplicity of a child's view means hope of innocence also for the world of mature people and societies. It needs emphasizing that in this period of his work Herbert became - next to Julia Hartwig - a master of the prose poem. He later abandoned the genre.

      **o** The second period is defined by the volume Pan Cogito / Mr. Cogito (1974), and Raport z oblężonego miasta i inne wiersze / Report from the Besieged City and other Poems (1983) - a collection of works from many "underground" publications from the times of the democratic opposition of which Herbert was a participant. His poems from this period are characterized by an increased ethical tension between social suffering which humiliates people and ways of controlling it which are supposed to uplift them. The spiritual worthlessness of the era exacerbates the suffering (Przepaść pana Cogito / The Abyss of Mr. Cogito) and, as a means of overcoming the worthlessness and a medicine to control the pain, the poet recommends heroism against all hope. This attitude is manifested in what is perhaps Herbert's most famous poem, Przesłanie pana Cogito / The Envoy of Mr. Cogito. This work was considered a kind of credo of the anti-totalitarian opposition in Poland. Here is its significant ending:

powtarzaj stare zaklęcia ludzkości bajki i legendy
bo tak zdobędziesz dobro którego nie zdobędziesz
powtarzaj wielkie słowa powtarzaj je z uporem
jak ci co szli przez pustynię i ginęli w piasku
a nagrodzą cię za to tym co mają pod ręką
chłostą śmiechu zabójstwem na śmietniku


Bądź wierny Idź
repeat old incantations of humanity fables and legends
because this is how you will attain the good you will not attain
repeat great words repeat them stubbornly
like those crossing the desert who perished in the sand
and they will reward you with what they have at hand
with the whip of laughter with murder on a garbage heap
Be faithful Go
Translated by
John Carpenter and Bogdana Carpenter

The moral rigorism of this attitude gave rise to numerous polemics, it was contrasted with the ethics of compromise, political pragmatism. Poland's intelligentsia probably owe the inspiration to reflect on their own ethics to Przesłanie pana Cogito / The Envoy of Mr. Cogito.

During this period Herbert's most important poetic achievement was the invention of the very character of "Mr. Cogito", who became the porte-parole of the writer (though the poet often ironically commented on his thoughts). This allegorical and symbolic figure embodies the fulfilment of the fate of modern-day people - in their personal lives, initiation into tradition, in current history and politics. "Mr. Cogito" received his name from the Cartesian apotheosis of thinking, also owing a great deal to "Monsieur Teste", the hero of Paul Valéry's philosophical and moral reflections. Because the vicissitudes of "Mr. Cogito" turn him against the fanaticism of "pure thought", it is thought that this character is an allegory, hopelessly entangled in reality, of mental discipline. Literary commentators also think that only irony justifies the heroism and tragicomedy of "Mr. Cogito" in his attempts to find order in a world that is murky and cruelly blind. But "Mr. Cogito" eludes crudely understood irony. His thinking is equally ruled by pathos, trust, tenderness - he thinks through feeling, thinks through helplessness, thinks through his senses. He practises philosophising on an equal footing with chaotic, emotional investigation of human nature. "Mr. Cogito" has a real life, he is placed in a specific era - ours, but at the same time in a "generalized" human family: his mother and father are his parents alone, and they are the parental myth of all of humanity.

The poems from this time reflect the state of mind of people subjected to Soviet occupation and Stalinism and resisting that oppression (17 IX / 17 September, Potęga smaku / The Power of Taste). In poems on these themes, a feeling of contempt for the "functionaries" of oppressive, totalitarian systems is mixed with an apotheosis of ethical simplicity, with praise for elementary values such as honest views, moral courage. A major work in this context, and one that is often quoted, is Potęga smaku / The Power of Taste:

To wcale nie wymagało wielkiego charakteru
nasza odmowa niezgoda i upór
mieliśmy odrobinę koniecznej odwagi
lecz w gruncie rzeczy była to sprawa smaku

Kto wie gdyby nas lepiej i piękniej kuszono
słano kobiety różowe płaskie jak opłatek
lecz piekło w tym czasie było jakie
mokry dół zaułek morderców barak
nazwany pałacem sprawiedliwości
It didn't require great character at all
our refusal disagreement and resistance
we had a shred of necessary courage
but fundamentally it was a matter of taste

Who knows if we had been better and more attractively tempted
sent rose-skinned women thin as a wafer
but what kind of hell was there at this time
a wet pit the murderers' alley the barrack
called a palace of justice
Translated by
John Carpenter and Bogdana Carpenter

      **o** The third period saw the publication of volumes in an elegiac tone: Elegia na odejście / Elegy for the Departure (1990), Rovigo (1992) - the poet placed gentle accents over his poetry, sharpening or toning down meanings, sometimes letting himself be guided by a gentle melancholy. Many of the poems are about the passing of the cultural props of the old world, a passing that symbolizes the downfall of everything those props served - to mention the art of writing, as described in Elegia na odejście pióra, atramentu, lampy / Elegy for the Departure of Pen, Ink and Lamp:

  srebrna stalówko
wypustko krytycznego rozumu
posłanko kojącej wiedzy
wielmożny panie inkauście
o świetnych antenatach
urodzony wysoko
jak niebo wieczoru


kto was dzisiaj pamięta
umiłowani druhowie
odeszliście cicho
O silver nib
outlet of the critical mind
messenger of soothing knowledge
O ink
illustrious Mr. Ink
of distinguished ancestry
highly born
like the sky at evening


who remembers you today
dear companions
you left quietly
Translated by
John Carpenter and Bogdana Carpenter


Near the end of his life Zbigniew Herbert managed to compile his poetic summa, in three forms. He published separate editions of the final versions of all the volumes, from Struna światła / Chord of Light to Rovigo. He put together a selection of poetry, 89 wierszy / 89 Poems (1998) - an anthology of what he considered the most valuable in his output. He published a farewell volume of new poems, Epilog burzy / Epilogue of the Storm (1998). In this way, having drawn attention to the fullness of meanings characterizing his output, he prevented the danger of hasty short-term interpretations to which critics were often prone.

The volume Epilog burzy / Epilogue of the Storm, published shortly before his death, deserves a special place. For the first (and last...) time, in several poems Herbert expressed his pain restricted by nothing, his physical and moral sufferings. For example, in Ostatni atak / The Last Attack:

  [...] lawinowy ogień artylerii
to ten łajdak Parkinson zwlekał tak długo
aż wreszcie nas dopadł
[...] an avalanche of artillery fire
it's that bastard Parkinson who is taking so long
he caught up with us at last [...]
Translated by Alissa Valles
"Poetry", January 2007

This is all the more poignant in that it contrasts with the extraordinary farewell poems from the Brewiarz / Breviary cycle, which are hymns, prayers, testimony to an eschatological calmness. The following excerpt from one of the poems in Brewiarz / Breviary is perhaps the most beautiful:

  życie moje
powinno zatoczyć koło
zamknąć się jak dobrze skomponowana sonata
a teraz widzę dokładnie
na moment przed kodą porwane akordy
źle zestawione kolory i słowa
jazgot dysonans
języki chaosu
my life
should come full circle
close like a well-built sonata
but now I see clearly
just before the coda the broken chords
badly set colors and words
the din of dissonance
the tongues of chaos

After this tremulous self-accusation comes an image of unfinished harmony, an image whose calm strength negates the earlier regret of non-fulfilment:

życie moje
nie było jak kręgi na wodzie
obudzonym w nieskończonych głębiach
początkiem który rośnie
układa się w słoje stopnie fałdy
by skonać spokojnie
u twoich nieodgadnionych kolan
was my life
not like circles on the water
welling from infinite depths
like an origin which grows
falls into layers rungs folds
to expire serenely
in your inscrutable lap
Translated by Alissa Valles
"The Collected Poems: 1956-1998" (Ecco Press, 2007)

It would be hard to find a more poignant summary of the great poet's life...


In his youth, beside poetry Herbert's output included drama. In the 1950s and '60s he wrote the stage play Jaskinia filozofów / The Philosophers' Cave and the radio dramas Rekonstrukcja poety / Reconstructing the Poet, Drugi pokój / The other Room, Lalek, Listy naszych Czytelników / Letters from our Readers. They revealed his talent for keen observation of conformisms and heroisms, on an everyday scale - and a timeless one. Ancient themes were filtered through modern-day irony, and the dreary realism of the scenes from our times was discreetly tinged with tragedy after the ancient fashion. The poetic nature of these plays and radio dramas is contained in an ascetic form, in extremely functional metaphors and, finally, in such sketching of the characters that turns them into par excellence lyrical heroes, however without taking away their almost novel-like, blunt characterization.

There is great value in the essays and short prose pieces from the volumes Barbarzyńca w ogrodzie / Barbarian in the Garden (1962), Martwa natura z wędzidłem / Still Life with a Bridle (1993), and books published posthumously: Labirynt nad morzem / The Labyrinth on the Sea (2000) and Król mrówek / The King of the Ants (2001). These books, which search for the roots of our European identity, contain reflections from travels to Greece, Italy, France, the Netherlands. Contemplation of nature and art is mixed with the sceptical look of someone affected by recent history. The sense of these essays is perfectly expressed in the title Barbarian in the Garden - it is we, people from this part of Europe, or perhaps simply all Europeans, or perhaps even all of humanity - who are barbarians in the garden of great cultural tradition.

Zbigniew Herbert's essays show him to be an outstanding historian of ideas and art historian. All the sketches are the effect of his extraordinary talent for describing landscapes, objects of material culture, architecture, sculptures, paintings - in this, his skill can only compare to Rilke's. Any cultural and philosophical generalizations are founded on matter-of-fact, austere, and poetically ascetic descriptions.

2001 saw the publication of a huge volume of collected occasional texts by Herbert, entitled Węzeł Gordyjski / The Gordian Knot. It includes critical literary reviews and sketches, reviews and sketches on painting as well as articles on social issues. This book recalled yet another face of the poet. One is left stunned by the huge work he put into his occasional texts. This is a meticulous sketching of reviews and notes over many years, a sketching that sometimes becomes inspirational.

The articles on social and political issues collected in Węzeł Gordyjski / The Gordian Knot are a separate problem. They are sometimes uncompromising in tone, appealing to moral self-confidence, "yes" or "no" decisions, without any nuances to confuse one's choices. We are still too close to the people and events to which Herbert's philippics refer to be able to offer any opinions on his opinions. However, we are distant enough by now from the directness of these satires to be able to feel grateful for the evident gift of his moral emotion, his righteous indignation and righteous admiration - what was controlled in the words of his poems is set free here, allowing us to value all the more the guarded trembling of conscience so dear to admirers of Pan Cogito / Mr. Cogito.


After this overview of the periods and genres in Herbert's output, it is time for some reflections on his poetry as a whole.

When one looks at Herbert's poetry (and in a way his plays and essays are also poetic!), a few features become prominent.

At its source, Herbert's poetry is an act of rapture, joy at the existence of primeval, pure and beautiful elements - water, earth, mornings, nights, as expressed in the poem Wyspa / The Island:

  Jest nagła wyspa Rzeźba morza kołyska
groby między eterem i solą
dymy jej ścieżek oplatają skały
i podniesienie głosów nad szum i milczenie
Tu pory roku strony świata mają dom
I cień jest dobry dobra noc i dobre słońce
There's a sudden island Sea sculpture cradle
graves between ether and salt
the mists of its paths wind around the rock
and over the noise and silence voices rising
Here seasons wind directions have a home
and shade is good night is good sun is good
Translated by
Czesław Miłosz and Peter Dale Scott

The intertwining of the elements creates the beings of nature and culture - the latter often degenerate, lose their national identity, but this is seen as being normal. Even the death of something going against nature - civilization - is natural, and therefore just. The downfalls of total tyrannies are also just and natural. This is a manifestation of the poet's stoicism: taking part in God's harmony of ethical opposites, one achieves virtue and peace.

However, for cosmic peace to become human happiness, pure, disinterested beauty wants to be a teacher of ethics, demands beautiful goodness. In Herbert's poetry, though, one notices shame and regret: admiring landscapes, we forget about social suffering, we betray pain. This is a bitter-ironic awareness. Luckily in Herbert's work we find irony directed against irony, the fond irony of love opposing the cruel irony of fundamental accusations. And though this irony of love most often seems helpless, it is victoriously helpless nonetheless... In the poem Nike która się waha / Nike Who Hesitates the goddess hesitates when she has to decide whether to arouse heroism in a young man who is destined to die prematurely in battle:

  Nike ma ogromną ochotę
pocałować go w czoło

ale boi się
że on który nie zaznał
słodyczy pieszczot
poznawszy ją
mógłby uciekać jak inni
w czasie tej bitwy
Nike would terribly like
to go up
and kiss him on the forehead

but she is afraid
that he who has never known
the sweetness of caresses
having tasted it
might run off like the others
during the battle
Translated by
Czesław Miłosz and Peter Dale Scott

Though the young man will die without consolation, the goddess's loving impulse will remain preserved...

The more painful the issues the poet touches, the more tender the irony. In the sensitive Rozważania o problemie narodu / Deliberations on the Problem of the Nation he says that reason and emotional historical experience have shaped common philosophy of history in such a way that it cannot exist without the concept of nation and without national feeling. Therefore - and that's the cruel irony - critical reason and bloody experience hand over the problem of the nation to the demons of nationalism and chauvinism. Here is a balance of arguments: historical pragmatism and social feelings justify the patriotism of the individual; historical criticism and the experience of slaughter put people off national concepts and experiences. It would seem that the wise man/poet should helplessly and heroically be content with stating the existence of such a balance. Tender pathos, the providential irony of love, have him gently tip the scales and say that the national

  okrwawiony węzeł
powinien być ostatnim jaki
wyzwalający się
bloodied knot
should be the last that
he who breaks free

Herbert's poetry gives manifold testimony of 20th-century life brutally breaking away from moderation. People live stormy lives, destroying the order and wisdom of matter, time and space, which have been given to them and defined from birth until death. Then the ruined universe collapses over their heads in world wars. Poets, too, rebel and choke - violent sentences flood their throats. Aware of this danger, Herbert (Pan Cogito a pop / Mr. Cogito and Pop) criticizes the "aesthetics of noise" - because the screaming, "wymykając się formie" / "falling outside any form", "modli się o śmierć gwałtowną i ta zostanie mu przyznana" / "prays for a violent death and such it shall be awarded". But, this is a judgment of despair and not of the pride of an artist standing above the violence of history and the disharmonious aesthetics of the world.

The artistry of Herbert, the master of Polish poetry, is extraordinary. He wrote free verse, but traditional versification held no mysteries for him either. His language has clarity: there is a musical order of the elements in the transparency of the vowels, the clear syntax carries rational thought, sensual images are so transparent that love, the emotion of beauty, penetrates them without refraction. When disharmony appears, or images of disintegration (and Herbert can do portraits of nihilism!), they never destroy the predefined quality of language, the principles of the poetic craft. Chaos has to be expressed using means of aesthetic order.

In his manifesto poem Podróż / Travel Herbert wrote that poetry was "[jest] paktem wymuszonym po walce wielkim pojednaniem" / "a pact imposed after fighting by a great reconciliation". If this is about the soul's struggle with the world, then the pact is paid for with the bitterness of conscience. And if we are talking about fighting on the warfronts of history, then pacts often wasted the heroism of the fight in the lives of Herbert's friends from his generation. Honest pacts were broken off by political criminals. Many poems and journalistic texts from his final years are violent complaints against this unrighteous state of affairs.

We feel, however, that the poet is talking about reconciliation which has value regardless of pacts or war! There would be no hope for such reconciliation  a b o v e  the spiritual, moral, historical battlefield if it weren't for participation in real battles... The poet's question about our place in the world refers to the metaphysical and historical reality.

Zbigniew Herbert's poetry is clear, with a metaphysical "universal transparency": it offers access to the mind and heart from many sides. The person of this poetry is silent and speaks out in the transparency. He develops comprehensively - and bravely exposes himself to attack from many sides. He is at home in Providence - and always ready to travel.

On 25 May 1998, shortly before his death, Zbigniew Herbert bid his readers farewell. His message was read from the stage of the Teatr Narodowy (National Theatre) in the form of a commentary on a selection of poems by poets he considered to be his masters: Kochanowski, Karpiński, Słowacki, Norwid, Gajcy, and Baczyński. The commentaries said as much as the poets' works selected for recitation. Herbert presented them so tenderly, with such a trembling mixture of apt expressions and deep elliptical statements! In this public reading, he was able - sensing that death was approaching fast - to include his own most famous phrase: "ocalałem nie po to, aby żyć" / "I survived, but not so I would live". He incorporated its sense into the final work to be presented, Słowacki's Testament mój / My Testament. Herbert spoke to us as a member of the Great Chorus. He is a pure and powerful voice in that Chorus.

Author: Piotr Matywiecki, December 2007.

Translations with no source given are made for the purpose of this article.'s picture
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Zbigniew Herbert


Zbigniew Herbert


Zbigniew Herbert


Okładka (nid 1659945)

Every Wednesday, between July 6 and 27, from 5.00 pm until 7.00 pm, in select locations of Sopot, local actors will read fragments of books by Paweł Huelle, Czesław Miłosz, Marek Krajewski, Mariusz Czubaj and Zbigniew Herbert. Read more about: Open Culture Spa - Literacki Sopot

Zbigniew Herbert
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