Biography (Critical Survey of Poetry)
Zbigniew Herbert grew up in the Polish city of Lvov; in 1939, when he was fifteen years old, this part of Poland was invaded by the Soviet Union. Herbert began to write poetry during World War II, and the war permanently shaped his outlook. The face of postwar Poland was permanently changed, socially, physically, and politically: Herbert’s native city became part of the Soviet Union.
In 1944, Herbert studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow—he was always interested in painting, sculpture, and architecture—and a year later he entered the Academy of Commerce, also in Krakow. In 1947, he received a master’s degree in economics and moved to Toruń, where he studied law at the Nicolas Copernicus University. He received the degree of master of laws in 1950. Herbert stayed on in Toruń to study philosophy and was influenced by the philosopher Henryk Eizenberg. In 1950 he lived briefly in Gdańsk and worked there for the Merchant’s Review before moving to Warsaw, where for the next six years he held a variety of jobs: in the management office of the peat industry, in the department for retired pensioners of the Teachers’ Cooperative, in a bank, in a store, and in the legal department of the Composers’ Association.
Herbert’s poems began to appear in periodicals in 1950, but no collection was published in book form; during the increasing social and cultural repression of the Stalinist years, several of the magazines...
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Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
Zbigniew Herbert, one of the most important Polish poets of the twentieth century, was the son of Bolesiaw and Maria Kaniak Herbert. He grew up in occupied Poland during World War II. A proper education during this period was almost impossible, but Herbert managed to attend a clandestine high school as well as to receive rudimentary military training from the Polish Resistance. Later he fought against the Nazis as a guerrilla. After the war he pursued a wide range of humanistic studies, which became a prominent element of his poetry. He received a degree in law and also read philosophy, literature, and the history of art. He did not publish a book of poetry, however, until he was thirty years old; he preferred silence or publication in obscure journals to writing the orthodox literature demanded by the Russian government. To support himself, he worked as a clerk, a manual laborer, and a journalist. In 1956, during a political thaw, Herbert published his first book of poems.
Struna wiata (chord of light) is not a typical first book of poetry by a young and unknown writer. Herbert’s themes, style, and approach are already fully formed in this book, and the poems are marked by irony, detachment, clarity, and wit about the social and political situation in which he lived. Herbert mocks repressive systems rather than attacking them. He uses religious and other metaphors to show that all ideals, especially the ideal of a totalitarian state, are absurd. In “At the Gate of the Valley,” the angels, in separating the saved and the damned, are implicitly compared to guards in a concentration camp. His next book, Hermes, pies i gwiazda (Hermes, dog, and star), also showed Herbert’s wit and irony but here the poet used classical myth more frequently. He does not merely cite classical references and allusions but revises them and connects them directly to larger concerns, including the situation of postwar Poland. In “Apollo and Marsyas” the calm, ordered Apollo is disturbed by the howls of the chained and tortured Marsyas. Herbert’s longstanding interest in mythology is summarized in the essays collected in King of the...
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