Zbigniew Herbert is described by Czesaw Miosz as “the most representative” of the “young poets of the second postwar decade.” As a result of his special historical situation, Herbert’s subjects tend to be historical and philosophical rather than polemical. He tends to take a long view of history and to place the present in the context of earlier centuries. As Miosz states, “The tragedies of our century pervade his crystalline, intellectual, and ironic poetry, but they are counterbalanced by his reflections on historical situations from other ages.” Thus, Herbert addresses the problem of military rule in the context of Hamlet in his “Elegy to Fortinbras,” and the terrors of the Nazis in his treatment of the Templars or the Albigensians.
Another theme that is common to his poetry and prose is the conflict between aesthetic contemplation of an object or work of art and the suffering in the world. Barbarian in the Garden contains wonderful descriptions of forms and aesthetic effects of paintings and cathedrals, but it also contains an impassioned denunciation of the tragedy of the Templars. Some chapters are permeated by this dual perspective. Herbert does not attempt to resolve this dichotomy permanently but to maintain a tension between the two poles.