Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Mr. Cogito is a figure Herbert uses in many of his poems. While not exactly an autobiographical character, Mr. Cogito is clearly emblematic of the poet’s calling. The poet speaks to the world, carries his message, but he does not expect to change reality, to be victorious, to be heeded by his readers. The very name Herbert has chosen for his alter ego implies cogitation, thinking, imagination—all the qualities that distinguish civilization. Mr. Cogito is the poet who must go forward—must go at any cost to his own life—because this is what humankind has always done in spite of the long record of defeats.

By cogitating, so to speak, the poet maintains a humanly imagined world. He is also speaking to himself, carrying on a dialogue, urging himself on—as Mr. Cogito is urged (or urges himself) on in the poem—because “you have little time,” the span of a single life is short. The poet also carries on a dialogue with himself within and between his poems. As the last poem in the collection Pan Cogito, “The Envoy of Mr. Cogito” states the poet’s imperative to his own book of poems: It must go on to whatever “dark boundary” awaits it, for the poet can only imagine how he will be received, although he has a good idea of what his reception will be by his reading of history. He knows the dire fate of other Cogitos.

In the largest sense, the theme of the poem is human expression itself. It does not seem to change things,...

(The entire section is 409 words.)