The Envoy of Mr. Cogito

by Zbigniew Herbert

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The Poem

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“The Envoy of Mr. Cogito” is a medium-length poem in free verse, divided into fifteen short stanzas. The title contains a pun, for Mr. Cogito is an envoy, a kind of messenger, and the poem is also an envoy (or envoi), summarizing the poet’s message in the closing lines of his collection Pan Cogito. Envoys, however, are usually diplomats, conveying carefully worded messages from their governments; they are the bearers of political, not poetic, statements. Yet the language of both diplomacy and poetry is simultaneously precise and ambiguous, providing room for multiple and even contradictory interpretations. Herbert’s poetry is political—if only by implication—since it addresses itself to the fate of the messenger, the poet, Mr. Cogito, who must refuse to be an executioner, informer, or coward and must, instead, abide by his sense of what is true and good.

There are at least two ways of interpreting who is speaking in the poem. Someone is addressing Mr. Cogito, providing him with a set of instructions, or Mr. Cogito is speaking to himself, directing himself to “go upright” among those who are on their knees or fallen in the dust—the defeated, in other words—and among “those with their backs turned,” the ones who will not acknowledge reality. Although Mr. Cogito must deliver his message, he is told (or he is telling himself) that he will not be a survivor, that his “last prize” is the “golden fleece of nothingness”—an allusion to the Greek myth of Jason and the Argonauts who embark on a heroic journey to recover the golden fleece. If Mr. Cogito is to exhibit heroism, it will be of a moral nature that scorns those who have capitulated, and yet of a modest kind, for he is enjoined (or enjoins himself) not to be proud of his independence but rather to recognize his own ridiculousness and to shun bitterness (“dryness of heart”). He must be alive to nature, to all that he cannot define, such as “the bird with an unknown name.”

If there is a reward for Mr. Cogito’s journey, it will be in his repeating the old “fables and legends” of humanity. He will fail, like the heroes of old—such as the legendary Babylonian hero, Gilgamesh, who battles but succumbs to his fear of death, the noble Hector, who dies gloriously defending his native city of Troy, and Roland, the mythic French hero, who dies outnumbered but unbowed by the attacking Saracens. At his best, Mr. Cogito is told, he will die mocked by his murderers, and yet he should remain “faithful” to the idea of the “good” which, in fact, he will not be able to attain.

The short stanzas of the poem shift between stating what will happen to Mr. Cogito and how he ought to act. The sense of what is right is tempered by a resigned recognition that moral values do not prevail in reality, although they endure in literature, in the poem or in the envoy himself.

Forms and Devices

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One of Zbigniew Herbert’s most effective devices is his use of literary allusion. Although Mr. Cogito’s mission could be regarded as unheroic, since he accomplishes nothing, the recognition of this nothingness is itself heroic—as Herbert suggests in his ironic phrase “the golden fleece of nothingness your last prize.” By looking without illusion on the hopelessness of his situation, Mr. Cogito can, in fact, bear comparison with the heroes of old.

The literary allusions also reflect Herbert’s sense of history, which he treats as a source of universals, moral laws men must obey no matter what the...

(This entire section contains 479 words.)

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consequences may be to themselves. Thus Mr. Cogito must “go where those others went.” Where they went is not made clear, because the specific location and events are not important; rather, it is the going itself, making the journey for truth, that is important.

Irony is a key feature of this poem. Sometimes, within a single line the poem seems to contradict itself: “you were saved not in order to live.” Literally speaking, to be saved is to live, but here a positive statement is turned into a negative one. Yet the line implies a sense of purpose in history, which is strengthened by the next line that tells him, “you must give testimony.”

The poet’s use of metaphor and imagery is also striking. He adapts an allusion to the golden fleece, the wool covering of a sheep, to express futility: Mr. Cogito will find that his quest contains or covers nothing. He is told that he will go to the “dark boundary,” without any specification of where that boundary might be. At his funeral, he will be disposed of with “relief” and commemorated in the “smoothed-over biography” of the “wood-borer,” which suggests a dull, dishonest, account which will drill the life right out of him.

Just as Mr. Cogito must go to the “dark boundary,” the poem later suggests he is guided by his “dark star,” which is the blood pulsing in his own breast, linking him to the humanity of an earlier age and to the defenders of the “kingdom without limit and the city of ashes,” a line which may be taken as a reference to the world of the imagination (“without limit”) and the world of reality (“of ashes”). These images of the darkness within human beings and of the mass destruction of civilization are also, paradoxically, images of renewal, of the sights Mr. Cogito must be “faithful to,” if he is to express the endurance of human suffering.

The grim images are meant to suggest that there can be no facile optimism but only the long view of humankind which builds upon and destroys itself. It is important in the first and last lines that Mr. Cogito “go”—resist the inertia of the defeated and actively express this somber view of human continuity.