Zbigniew Herbert Essay - Herbert, Zbigniew (Poetry Criticism)

Herbert, Zbigniew (Poetry Criticism)


Zbigniew Herbert 1924-1998

Twentieth-century Polish poet, dramatist, and essayist.

The following entry provides criticism on Zbigniew Herbert's works from 1976 through 1999.

One of the most influential European poets of the second half of the twentieth century, Zbigniew Herbert's life and work were shaped by World War II and life under Poland's communist regime. Considered a political poet unconstrained by ideology, Herbert's poetry emphasized sensory, everyday experience and questioned the notion of transcendence and ideologies that justified oppression. As Bogdana Carpenter writes in World Literature Today, “from his extremely destructive experiences Herbert manages to draw constructive conclusions, and he builds a bridge between realms that seem to be irreconcilable: the past and the present, suffering and poetry.” Herbert's work has been widely translated. In addition to the G. Herder Award, Herbert received the Lenau, Petrarch, Welsh Arts Council, Jerusalem and the T. S. Eliot Prizes. “In a just world,” wrote Stephen Dobyns of the New York Times, “Mr. Herbert would have received the Nobel Prize long ago.”

Biographical Information

Zbigniew Herbert was born on November 29, 1924, in Lwów, Poland, where his father was a bank director and economics professor. When Herbert was only fourteen years old the tumult of World War II swept Poland into a series of power changes between the Soviet Union, under Stalin, and Hitler's Germany, a disillusioning, political juggling that lasted through the end of the war in the poet's twenieth year. In 1939, the Soviet army seized Lwów in accordance with the Stalin-Hitler Pact. The Germans then invaded in 1941, and the Soviets recaptured Lwów in 1944. During the war, Herbert attended an underground high school and university. He also organized an anti-Soviet resistance group dubbed “White Eagle” and was a member of the underground Home Army. After moving to Kraków to study painting and economics in 1944, he studied philosophy at Warsaw University. He earned a master's degree in economics from Kraków's Academy of Commerce in 1947 and a law degree from the Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń in 1949, where he instructed by the anti-Marxist, ethicist Henryk Elzenberg. Between 1946 and 1950 Herbert published some critical essays, but as Stalin tightened his grip on Poland, the poet went underground, withdrawing from the politically charged Writers' Union in 1951. Although Herbert began writing poetry when he was seventeen, he did not publish his first book of verse, Struna światła (Chord of Light), until 1956 because the political climate in Poland under the Nazi occupation and Stalinist suppression of the arts kept him from publishing. His second volume of poetry, Hermes, pies i gwiazda (Hermes, a Dog and a Star) was published in 1957. In 1958 Herbert traveled in England, France, Greece, and Italy and published a third book of poetry, Studium przedmiotu (Study of the Object) in 1961 and a volume of essays on Western art, Barbarzyńca w ogrodzie (Barbarian in the Garden) in 1962. Herbert spent the years 1965 to 1980 abroad; he married Katarzyna Dzieduszyska in 1968. Herbert returned to Poland in January 1981, a few months after the emergence of Solidarity. Raport z oblężonego miasta (Report from the Besieged City and Other Poems) was published in 1983 by an émigré publishing house in Paris. Many of its poems describe Poland's martial law. Between 1984 and 1990 Herbert lived in Paris, where he suffered from depression and a serious illness. After returning to Poland, Herbert published two more volumes of poetry, Rovigo (1993) and Epilog burzy (Epilogue to the Storm; 1998). He died from complications of emphysema on July 28, 1998.

Major Works

Herbert's first collection of poems, Chord of Light, contains poems written over a span of fifteen years. Intimately affected by the brutal impact of the war, the poet considers in this volume the vulnerability of art, the failure of ideology, and the inadequacy of language to articulate experience. Poems such as “Dwie krople” (“Two Drops”), which describes lovers in a bomb shelter (“To the end they were brave / To the end they were faithful”), and “Do Marka Aurelego” (“To Marcus Aurelius”) attest to a powerful ethical system that values courage, loyalty, and faithfulness; the duty to remember and to give testimony; and the primacy of sensuous experience over ideology and abstract philosophical systems. Herbert's second volume, Hermes, a Dog and a Star, puts World War II in a universal context; its victims join all other victims of history. In a poem that displays this type of universality, called “Five Men,” he wrote: “thus one can use in poetry / names of Greek shepherds / one can attempt to catch the color of morning sky / write of love / and also / once again / in dead earnest / offer to the betrayed world / a rose.” His third collection, The Study of the Object tackles the ideal of and consequences of the quest for perfection. Napis (Inscription; 1969) contains poems such as “Dlaczego klasycy” (“Why the Classics”) that use the past to describe and critique the present. Pan Cogito (Mr. Cogito; 1974) reflects his experience in the United States in its references to popular culture and an ahistorical representation of history. Despite the serious subject matter, the poems are playful and ironic. Herbert uses the Mr. Cogito persona to critique abstraction and transcendence and to celebrate human imperfection. The volume Elegia na odejście (Elegy for the Departure and Other Poems; 1990) turns to philosophical and ethical questions such as the problem of evil, the nature of heroism, the persistence of memory, and the need for compassion. Rovigo (1993), named for a city in Poland, contains polemical poems directed to individuals. The theme of the last volume of Herbert's poems that was published during his lifetime is summarized in the title, Epilog burzy (Epilogue to the Storm; 1998) which refers to a well-known painting by Giorgione and to the turbulence of his own life.

Critical Reception

As a poet of the historical, philosophical, political, and individual, Herbert's unadorned, witty, and ironic poetry has earned him an international reputation. The poet Robert Hass calls him “one of the most influential European poets of the last half-century, … an ironist and a minimalist who writes as if it were the task of the poet, in a world full of loud lies, to say what is irreducibly true in a level voice.” Stephen Stepanchev describes Herbert as “a witness to his time,” and Stephen Miller calls him a political poet whose “subdued and casual” poems “shun both hysteria and apocalyptic intensity.” A. Alvarez contends that Herbert “is political by virtue of being permanently and warily in opposition. … Herbert's opposition is a party of one; he refuses to relinquish his own truth and his own standards in the face of any dogma.” Critics have also praised Herbert's use of humor and satire. “The most distinctive quality of Herbert's imagination,” Laurence Lieberman writes, “is his power to invest impish fantasy, mischievously tender nonsense, with the highest seriousness. … Fantasy is an instrument of survival: it is the chief weapon in a poetry arsenal which serves as a caretaker for the individual identity, a bulwark against the mental slavery of the totalitarian church and state.” Stephen Miller sees Herbert's humor as “a way of resisting the dehumanizing and impersonal language of the state. … Keeping a sense of humor means keeping a private language and avoiding the total politicization of the self.” Herbert's poetic persona, Mr. Cogito, has taken hold in the public imagination. Adam Michnik has called “Przeslanie Pana Cogito” (“The Envoy of Mr. Cogito”) “a prayer of people who are free,” and the last line of that poem—“Be Faithful Go”—became a manifesto for the generation of poets, writers, and intellectuals who later became active in the Solidarity movement. Bogdana Carpenter writes, “Although the evolution of Herbert's poetry was closely tied to the changes in Poland's political situation, its greatness lies in the universality of its message.” Lauded, Nobel Prize winning poet Seamus Heaney wrote that Herbert's poetry “shoulders the whole scope of human dignity and responsibility.”

Principal Works

Struna światła [A Chord of Light] 1956

Hermes, pies i gwiazda [Hermes, a Dog and a Star] 1957

Studium przedmiotu [The Study of the Object] 1961

Selected Poems [translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Peter Dale Scott] 1968

Napis [Inscription] 1969

Wiersze zebrane [Collected Verse] 1971

Pan Cogito [Mr. Cogito] 1974

Selected Poems [translated by John Carpenter and Bogdana Carpenter] 1977

Raport z oblężonego miasta [Report from the Besieged City and Other Poems] 1983

Wybór wierszy [Selected Poems] 1983

Elegia na odejście [Elegy for the Departure] 1990

Rovigo 1993

Epilog burzy [Epilogue to the Storm] 1998

Poezje [Poems] 1998

The Philosophers' Den (play) 1956

Barbarzyńca w ogrodzie [Barbarian in the Garden] (essays) 1962

Lalek, rekonstrukcja poety, (play) 1973

Martwa natura z weogondzidlem [Still Life with a Bridle: Essays and Apocryphas] (essays) 1993


Reuel Wilson (review date October 1976)

SOURCE: Wilson, Reuel. “Three Contemporary Slavic Poets: A View From Other Side.” The New Quarterly Cave: An International Review of Arts & Ideas 1, no. 4 (October 1976): 46-58.

[In the following excerpted review of Herbert's Selected Poems, as translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Peter Dale Scott, Wilson notes that Herbert uses poetry to order and reinterpret experience and classical myth to defy conventional attitudes.]

Herbert (1924-) and Holub (1923-) have much in common as poets and it is an interesting coincidence that they were born in adjacent countries (Poland and Czechoslovakia respectively) within a year of each other. Both have non-literary...

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Bogdana Carpenter (essay date spring 1984)

SOURCE: Carpenter, Bogdana. “The Prose Poetry of Zbigniew Herbert: Forging a New Genre.” The Slavic and East European Journal 28, no. 1 (spring 1984): 76-88.

[In the following essay, Carpenter, a translator of Herbert's works, suggests that Herbert's prose poems emphasize his “critical dialogue with tradition” and enable him to use “new voices and personae, new forms, and a new, sharper tone on an increasingly broad scale.”]

The prose poetry of the contemporary Polish poet, Zbigniew Herbert, is a distinct although integral part of his poetic output. It represents an attempt to enlarge the limits of poetry. But Herbert's prose poems do not abolish the...

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Bogdana Carpenter (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: Carpenter, Bogdana. “Zbigniew Herbert, the Poet as Witness.” The Polish Review 32, no. 1 (1987): 5-14.

[In the following essay, Carpenter argues that Report from the Besieged City (1983) provides a compelling example of poetry as testimony, with a unique ability to relate more recent events to a broad historical framework.]

The unusual intensity of political life in Poland during the last eight or ten years has had an impact on literature and created a new sense of social obligation among writers and intellectuals. I use the word “obligation” rather than the romantic but worn-out term “mission,” or the more contemporary terms “commitment”...

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Stanislaw Baranczak (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: Baranczak, Stanislaw. “Imponderabilia.” In Fugitive from Utopia: The Poetry of Zbigniew Herbert, pp. 111-35. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1987.

[In the following chapter from a book-length study on Herbert, Baranczak analyzes the function of irony in developing an ethical system in Herbert's poetry.]

I have stressed repeatedly that to achieve a full and deep understanding of the overwhelming majority of Herbert's poems one must penetrate the workings of irony in them. This is not enough, however. In the case of this particular poet, any inquiry into the problem of irony has little effect unless it includes consideration of two...

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J. M. Coetzee (essay date fall 1990-winter 1991)

SOURCE: Coetzee, J. M. “Zbigniew Herbert and the Figure of the Censor.” Salmagundi: A Quarterly of the Humanities and Social Sciences 88-89 (fall 1990-winter 1991): 158-75.

[In the following essay, Coetzee examines the ways in which writing under Polish state censorship informed Zbigniew Herbert's poetry. The author of this essay, a South African novelist, is the author of Barbarians at the Gate.]

Under pressure at the 1934 Soviet Writers' Congress to embrace socialist realism, Isaac Babel announced that he would prefer to practice “the genre of silence.” In the Soviet Union, in what may rightly be called the heroic phase of their resistance to ideological...

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George Gömöri (essay date March-June 1993)

SOURCE: Gömöri, George. “The Faces of Mr. Cogito.” Canadian Slavonic Papers: An Interdisciplinary Journal Devoted to Central and Eastern Europe 35, nos. 1-2 (March-June 1993): 1-12.

[In the following essay, Gömöri traces the development of Herbert's poetic persona, Mr. Cogito, over the span of Herbert's career.]

Zbigniew Herbert had already published four books of poetry when towards the end of the 1960s he began to experiment with the “lyrical persona” named Mr. Cogito. While in his earlier poetry he often employed both “direct” and “dramatic” monologues (the latter becoming a characteristic “Herbertian” form of expression manifested in poems...

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Nicole Krauss (essay date January-February 1999)

SOURCE: Krauss, Nicole. “Herbert's Microscope.” PNR: Poetry Nation Review 25, no. 3 (January-February 1999): 13-16.

[In the following essay, Krauss reads several of Herbert's poems against his prose study of the Dutch masters, Still Life with a Bridle, as a study on clarity, precision and accuracy of representation across disciplines.]

A poet's sphere of activity is not the time in which he lives but reality, which is a much broader notion.

- Zbigniew Herbert

Zbigniew Herbert was a poet who felt most comfortable among tautologies, equations where nothing is lost or gained on...

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Further Reading


Baranczak, Stanislaw. “Zbigniew Herbert's ‘Unmasking’ Metaphor.” Cross Currents: A Yearbook of Central European Culture 4 (1985): 145-56.

Explores Herbert's use of metaphor.

———. Fugitive from Utopia: The Poetry of Zbigniew Herbert. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987.

Scholarly work that provides an in-depth, culturally-informed analysis of the use Herbert makes of metaphor and irony.

———. “Zbigniew Herbert and the Critics.” The Polish Review 30, no. 2 (1985): 127-48.

Provides an overview of critical reception to...

(The entire section is 833 words.)