Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

As the poet and critic A. Alvarez has pointed out, “The tension between the ideal and the real is the backbone on which all [of Herbert’s] work depends.” This “incurable duality,” as Harvard professor Stanisaw Barañîczak calls it, is especially pronounced in the recurrent figure or persona of Cogito, the title figure of the collection Pan Cogito (Mr. Cogito) who reappears in twelve of the poems in Raport z obleonego miasta i inne wiersze (1983; Report from the Besieged City and Other Poems, 1985). Cogito is a tragicomic figure, as comically absurd as Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp, as attenuated as an Alberto Giacometti sculpture, and as existentially bereft and bewildered as any of Samuel Beckett’s tramps and disembodied voices. His name indicates his and modern Western philosophy’s origins in René Descartes’s famous dictum Cogito, ergo sum. However, the synecdochic nature of the name of this strangely representative character also suggests his predicament. He is consciousness cut off from bodily existence, thought cut off from meaningful action, existence in the form of alienated awareness, unless one believes, as Barañîczak more optimistically does, that what Cogito represents is the healthy reversal of Descartes, not “I think therefore I am” but “I am therefore I think.”

At worst, Cogito evidences a capacity for an unwise and typically Cartesian dualism of mind separated from...

(The entire section is 542 words.)