The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

At the end of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (c. 1600-1601), Fortinbras, the prince of Norway, arrives in Denmark just in time to witness the aftermath of the tragedy. The bodies of Hamlet, Laertes, Gertrude, and Claudius litter the stage; the sight, as Fortinbras says, may become the battlefield, “but here shows much amiss.” Fortinbras’s role in the play is small. The audience occasionally hears of him but only briefly sees him as he brings his army through Denmark to reclaim territories elsewhere. Hamlet, who glimpses Fortinbras as he traverses Denmark, immediately begins to chastise himself for being unlike Fortinbras, who goes to battle “even for an eggshell.” Hamlet has more cause for action and yet has done nothing.

It is this Fortinbras, this minor star in a stellar cast, that Zbigniew Herbert selects to deliver a final tribute to Hamlet. Given that Fortinbras’s perspective and character are so slightly developed in the play, it is somewhat surprising that Herbert elects this nondescript personage to lament the hero’s death. Why not Horatio, Hamlet’s dearest friend? Perhaps the audience knows Horatio so well that it can imagine what he would say. The relatively empty character of Fortinbras gives Herbert more imaginative freedom. Also, Fortinbras will assume the rather major task of cleaning up after Hamlet. If critics are right about Shakespeare’s tragedies ending with intimations of order, Fortinbras is the person who will order a disordered kingdom. It is this cipher,...

(The entire section is 620 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The version of “Elegy of Fortinbras” described above is a translation of Herbert’s poem by Czesaw Miosz, who, like Herbert, is a Polish poet. Miosz has translated his own Polish poems into English, often in consultation with the poet Robert Hass. In translating Herbert’s poems, Miosz collaborated with Peter Dale Scott, a Canadian who worked in an embassy in Warsaw and appreciated Herbert when his poems were first published in 1956. Herbert lived through both the Nazi occupation and the Stalinist repression, and he had to wait until the thaw to see his poems published.

The elegy is presented as a direct address to Hamlet alone. Everyone has left the stage; only Fortinbras and the dead Hamlet remain. This direct address or apostrophe gives the poem great intimacy. Readers feel as though they are overhearing words meant for Hamlet alone, or that Fortinbras’s soliloquy is really meant for himself. This intimate tone is in very stark contrast to the cool, highly formalized public speech that Fortinbras delivers at the end of Shakespeare’s play.

Fortinbras speaks his elegy in six verse paragraphs. These paragraphs contain no punctuation either between or within them. The weightiness and balance of the language, however, suggest very clearly when and where the reading voice should pause. Song and sense are so powerful in the poem that the notation of punctuation is unnecessary.

The tone and language of the poem are stately,...

(The entire section is 569 words.)