The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

(The entire section is 504 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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 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...

(The entire section is 479 words.)