“Why the Classics” is a thirty-four line poem divided into three parts. It is characteristic of Zbigniew Herbert’s free verse and economical use of language. As the final poem in Selected Poems (1968), it is, so to speak, the poet’s signature, a justification of his classicism which attempts to put the present in perspective by invoking historic events, myths, and works of art.
The first part recalls the Greek historian Thucydides (c. 460-400 b.c.e.), who participated as a general in the Peloponnesian War (431-404 b.c.e.), the great conflict between the Athenians and the Spartans. Although Thucydides deals as a military historian with the whole war—including its politics, battles, and diplomacy—the poet is struck by the historian’s account of his failure to relieve Amphipolis, his native city under attack by the Athenian enemy, Brasidos. It is a minor moment in the historian’s narrative that the poet points out in comparing the episode to “a pin/ in a forest.” Yet to Thucydides, his failure is of such importance that he pays for it by exiling himself from Amphipolis. Exiles “of all times” know what this separation cost Thucydides, the poet remarks—without, however, spelling out the meaning of exile.
In the second part, the poet turns to the recent past, noting the refusal of generals to take responsibility for their defeats, preferring, instead, to blame subordinates and to champion their own virtues. It is circumstance, not human character, that is to blame for these failures, these generals claim—citing “envious colleagues/ unfavorable winds.” Thucydides, on the other hand, engages in no special pleading for himself, merely noting the number of his ships and the season in which they quickly sailed. Again, as in the first part, the poet does not explicitly say what he makes of Thucydides’ account.
The third part shifts the apparent subject matter of the poem from war to art, making no overt reference to the content of the first two stanzas. Instead, the poet makes an explicit statement, a value judgment, suggesting that if art is to pity a damaged world (“a broken jar”) or the defeated self (“a small broken soul”), then it will leave a pathetic legacy, comparable to lovers waking up in a squalid hotel and weeping over the shabby conditions of their affair.