Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 409

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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, yet the possibility of change—or, at least, of standing “upright”—is articulated, and the poem itself becomes its own envoy, standing up for itself. It is faithful to its own perceptions, which are not a matter of pride, for the poet can be as foolish as anyone else in his “clown’s face,” and he is certainly not better than others. It is rather a vehicle of expression, repeating “great wordsstubbornly.”

Mr. Cogito, then, is suggestive of humanity which must, in the poet’s view, be ruthlessly honest with itself precisely because so much of the truth has been buried and “smoothed-over” by those in power. Self-critical, ironic, and disciplined—these are the values of Herbert’s historically conscious verse. It is self-reflexive writing, aware that it must reflect and surmount in its own form, in its address to itself, a precarious and perishable world.