Zbigniew Herbert's works include poetry, plays, essays, and feature articles. The most important, and the one which is best known all over the world, is his poetry, which from his very debut had a distinctive, recognisable 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 individualism: the most important thing that shaped the poet’s style was the voice of the community of the righteous, stemming from the conviction that righteousness was the dominant ethical quality of the human race, though on the other hand Zbigniew Herbert had no illusions about the evil present in human nature. Herbert’s poetry came from the point of view of a sensitive and honest person living through difficult times, sublimating his sense of rapture, beauty, and goodness, and 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 Herbert’s poetry. The first period lasted from his mature book debut, delayed due to the rule of socialist realism, Chord of Light (1956), through successive volumes: Hermes, a Dog, and a Star (1957) and Study of the Object (1961), to Inscription (1969). In this period, Herbert’s poetry, starting with the influence of the poetics of Czesław Miłosz and Tadeusz 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 one of the most influential poetic periodicals in America was even 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, and 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 Why The Classics:
Herbert’s poetry has an original way of setting in motion that familiar mechanism present in all art – the sublimation of suffering.
The most painful thing is the experience of World War II, with the tragedy of its violent deaths. Herbert does not highlight the mass character of the war’s destruction – he focuses separately on the absurdity of every violent end to a life (Five Men). Like other writers of his generation, he points to the futility of high-brow culture and the 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 by 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 act as a cultural archaeologist allows him to use comparisons with ancient times to objectivise 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 the particularly sophisticated modern-day 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 (Return of the Proconsul, Elegy of Fortinbras). Herbert became a maestro of the ‘poetry of roles’, the ‘poetry of masks’. However, even this means of objectivisation cannot be fully effective, for not only the created character but also its creator feel 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 at treating evil. Irony is all very well, though, but in the end the feeling of despair always triumphs bitterly, for instance in the poem To Marcus Aurelius:
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 defenceless tears
This stoic and sceptical stance is similar to Tadeusz Różewicz’s asceticism. The difference is that 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 (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 (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 for innocence for the world of mature people and societies as well. It needs emphasising that in this period of his work Herbert became – next to Julia Hartwig – a master of the prose poem, although he later abandoned the genre.
The second period is defined by the volume Mr. Cogito (1974), and 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 characterised by an increased ethical tension between the social suffering which humiliates people and the ways of controlling it which are supposed to uplift them. The spiritual worthlessness of the era exacerbates the suffering (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, 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:
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
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 The Envoy of Mr. Cogito.
During this period Herbert’s most important poetic achievement was the invention of the 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, while 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 the 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 a 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.
His poems from this time reflect the state of mind of people subjected to Soviet occupation and Stalinism and resisting that oppression (17 September, The Power of Taste). In poems on these themes, a feeling of contempt for the ‘functionaries’ of oppressive, totalitarian systems are mixed with an apotheosis of ethical simplicity, with praise for elementary values such as honest views and moral courage. A major work in this context, and one that is often quoted is The Power of Taste:
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
The third period saw the publication of volumes in an elegiac tone: Elegy for the Departure (1990) and 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 symbolises the downfall of everything those props served – to mention the art of writing, as described in Elegy for the Departure of Pen, Ink and Lamp:
O silver nib
outlet of the critical mind
messenger of soothing knowledge
illustrious Mr. Ink
of distinguished ancestry
like the sky at evening
who remembers you today
you left quietly
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 Chord of Light to Rovigo. He put together a selection of poetry, 89 Poems (1998) – an anthology of what he considered the most valuable of his works. He published a farewell volume of new poems, Epilogue of the Storm (1998). In this way, having drawn attention to the fullness of meanings which characterises his output, he prevented the danger of the hasty short-term interpretations to which critics were often prone.
The volume 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 unlimited pain and his physical and moral sufferings. For example, in The Last Attack:
[...] an avalanche of artillery fire
it’s that bastard Parkinson who is taking so long
he caught up with us at last […]
This is all the more poignant in that it contrasts with the extraordinary farewell poems from the Breviary cycle, which are hymns, prayers, testimony to an eschatological calmness. The following excerpt from one of the poems in Breviary is perhaps the most beautiful:
should come full circle
close like a well-built sonata
but now I see clearly
just before the coda the broken chords
badly set colours 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:
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
It would be hard to find a more poignant summary of the great poet’s life…
In his youth, Herbert’s work also included drama. In the 1950s and 60s he wrote the play The Philosophers’ Cave and the radio dramas Reconstructing the Poet, The Other Room, Lalek, and 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 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 they are turned into lyrical heroes par excellence, however, without taking away their blunt, almost novel-like characterisation.
Essays & short prose
There is great value in the essays and short prose pieces from the volumes Barbarian in the Garden (1962), Still Life with a Bridle (1993), and books published posthumously: The Labyrinth on the Sea (2000) and 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, and 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 of 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. 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 be compared to Rilke’s. Any cultural and philosophical generalisations are founded on matter-of-fact, austere, and poetically ascetic descriptions.
The year 2001 saw the publication of a huge volume of collected occasional texts by Herbert, entitled 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 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 Mr. Cogito.
Herbert: always lyrical
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 The Island:
[...] 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
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 – civilisation – is natural, and therefore just. The downfall of total tyrannies is 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, cosmic peace becoming human happiness and pure, disinterested beauty being a teacher of ethics demands a 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 nonetheless helpless victoriously… In the poem 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 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
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 Deliberations on the Problem of the Nation he says that reason and emotional historical experience have shaped the 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:
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 (Mr. Cogito and Pop) criticises the ‘aesthetics of noise’ – because the screaming, ‘falling outside any form’, ‘prays for a violent death and such it shall be awarded’. But, this is a judgement 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 Travel Herbert wrote that poetry was ‘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 front lines 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 above 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 National Theatre in the form of a commentary on a selection of poems by poets he considered to be his masters: Jan Kochanowski, Franciszek Karpiński, Juliusz Słowacki, Cyprian Norwid, Tadeusz Gajcy, and Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński. The commentaries said as much as the poets’ works selected for recitation. Herbert presented them so tenderly, with 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: ‘I survived, but not so I would live’. He incorporated its sense into the final work to be presented, Słowacki’s My Testament. Herbert spoke to us as a member of the ‘Great Chorus’, and he is a pure and powerful voice in that chorus.
Sources: Originally written in Polish by Piotr Matywiecki, December 2007; Why The Classics, To Marcus Aurelius, The Island, Nike Who Hesitates, translated by Czesław Miłosz and Peter Dale Scott; The Envoy of Mr. Cogito, The Power of Taste, Elegy for the Departure of Pen, Ink and Lamp, translated by John Carpenter and Bogdana Carpenter; The Last Attack, Breviary (The Collected Poems: 1956-1998, Ecco Press, 2007), translated by Alissa Valles; Deliberations on the Problem of the Nation, translated for the purpose of this article.