Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Report from the Besieged City” is in many ways a pessimistic poem, predicting only the inevitable defeat and collapse of the City—a bastion of personal freedom, community, and positive social values—and affirming only the insurmountable solitude of human existence. If Herbert holds out any hope in the face of oppression and injustice, it lies in the “dreams” of the last line of the poem, which alone remain unhumiliated and unbetrayed. In the original Polish of that line, the verb zostay, which is translated here as “have been,” can also have the sense of “remained” or “stayed behind.” Herbert writes not so much about success or heroism or a newfound personal liberation as he does about remainders and leftovers. For him, an essential core of values exists within all human beings—the “City” that even exiles still carry inside themselves—that cannot be exterminated. Paradoxically, in terms of this poem, we come to experience the undefeatable quality of that essence only in humiliation and defeat; those who know nothing of siege and struggle at first hand, those full of “comfort and good advice,” are, for Herbert, out of touch with the values and the dreams of freedom that motivate the poem’s speaker and his fellow citizens.

Herbert’s poetry is, then, ruthlessly ironic. Longing for a world of human liberty and productive community, he recognizes the inevitability of degradation, humiliation, and defeat. His humility has some roots in Christianity; the paradoxes of Pauline thought—which glorifies weakness as strength, submission as victory, and finds in death a new life—are remarkably similar to those in Herbert’s poetry. For Herbert, however, humankind remains largely unredeemed, and liberation, whether theological, philosophical, or political, is merely the property of “dreams.” He finds no new life, but instead buries deep within himself only the faintest glimmer of hope.