Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Zbigniew Herbert, one of the finest poets of the twentieth century, was born in Poland and writes in Polish; yet he has also taught in and written about Western Europe and America. In Barbarian in the Garden, he comments on the meaning and significance of a wide range of European cultural artifacts and history. Though it is not a work of poetry, the perception that Herbert brings to the places and works of art he contemplates is truly poetic. That perception is very personal, and he often challenges academic views as sterile, removed from life. He may pose as a “barbarian” in the “garden” of European art, but his involvement with art and history is passionate, precise, and enlightening at all times.

Barbarian in the Garden is an unusual combination of travel writing, history, and art history. Each section is devoted to a town or an area in which Herbert walks, looks, and eats as the usual tourist does, but he soon begins commenting and speculating on the significant historical events that formed the place he is visiting. After sorting out the history, he proceeds in each chapter to the core of his search: a work of art, a ruin, a cathedral, or an artist. His immediate and sympathetic response to works of art and the history and society behind them is what makes the book continually fascinating and enlightening.

There is a rough historical design to the book: Herbert proceeds from the prehistoric cave drawings at Lascaux through classical Greek works and artifacts of the Middle Ages, closing with the late Renaissance. Herbert seems to respond most fully to the vision within the work rather than its artistic polish, and with that perspective he frequently overturns the academic or received notion and ranking of a work. For example, he considers Duccio di Buoninsegna a greater artist than Michelangelo. In addition, Herbert favors the East and the ancient rather than the West with its demand for innovation and evolution in art. He often prefers the Byzantine artistic style to the more “realistic” Renaissance one.