A Fugitive from Utopia

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2322

This study of the poetry of Zbigniew Herbert is a major step in exposing the English-speaking reader to one of the most important contemporary European poets. In the United States and England, Herbert’s reputation has been growing since 1968, when Czesaw Miosz, the winner of the 1980 Nobel Prize in...

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This study of the poetry of Zbigniew Herbert is a major step in exposing the English-speaking reader to one of the most important contemporary European poets. In the United States and England, Herbert’s reputation has been growing since 1968, when Czesaw Miosz, the winner of the 1980 Nobel Prize in Literature, and Peter Dale Scott published their translations of Herbert’s poems, Selected Poems. Since then, as Herbert’s oeuvre of both poetry and prose has continued to grow, new translations and critical articles have appeared in English in diverse journals. This book-length study is the work of the Polish poet, critic, and translator Stanisaw Baraczak, Alfred Jurzykowski Professor of Polish Language and Literature at Harvard University. Baraczak describes the present volume as a “slightly abbreviated version” of a study published in Polish in 1984.

English-speaking readers have been able to appreciate Herbert by reading among the numerous translations of his works in print, but a critical study like Baraczak’s performs a special function. Previously, information about Herbert and his work was hard to find, scattered in articles, interviews, or reviews in a bewildering variety of literary publications, languages, and countries. Baraczak’s study, together with the bibliography and notes, gathers this information together for the first time. Students and critics who want to write about Herbert will turn to this book as an indispensable tool. It has two major ingredients: a wealth of information, some of it new, and, most important, an interpretation of Herbert’s six collections of poetry by a first-rate critical mind.

There are different possible ways of writing about Herbert, and the choice of a method or approach is neither obvious nor inevitable. Two examples can be given. Is Herbert’s life and biography important to an understanding of his poetry? Herbert has been moderately reticent in giving information about his life, but he has provided important information in interviews. He is neither a totally private poet nor by any stretch of the imagination a “confessional” poet. It would not be difficult for the critic to explore this background further, to interview Herbert’s friends and acquaintances about his wartime experiences, his family, first jobs, relationships, and opinions. Herbert has a striking and original personality; this kind of anecdotal information would make fascinating reading. Baraczak has not followed this path; background information about Herbert is encapsulated in five pages in the brief introduction to the book.

A second decision about method is the treatment of Herbert’s literary style or craftsmanship. This is harder for the English-speaking reader to appreciate because Herbert is encountered at a distance, through translation. Herbert’s poems, especially in his first three collections, read extremely rapidly and succeed in making an immediate, seemingly spontaneous, highly synthetic impact. Herbert has encouraged the view that he pays little attention to self-conscious style. When an interviewer asked him why he wrote prose poems, he replied that when he devised this form he had no fixed domicile or convenient place to write. Consequently he chose a form to fit his living conditions, something that he could commit to paper in a very brief time. Many critics have followed Herbert’s lead, emphasizing the content of his poems rather than their form. In addition, Herbert’s verse (not his prose poems) has no punctuation. This, together with the awareness that they were reading Herbert’s work in translation, led many English-speaking critics away from the close consideration of Herbert’s craft and verbal artistry.

Some Polish critics, however, have looked closely at the texture of individual poems, and this is what Baraczak does. He gives many close reading, carefully analyzing metaphors, images, ambiguities, and “tensions.” (Baraczak’s critical vocabulary recalls on many occasions that of the New Critics of the 1940’s and 1950’s.) These are among the most rewarding parts of his book. His interpretations of poems are always well-informed and alert, with a sensitivity to subtleties of verbal texture as well as to mythical and historical connotations. Any student or critic who wants to test an interpretation of Herbert’s well-known poems, such as “Apollo and Marsyas,” “Pebble,” “At the Gate of the Valley,” “Preliminary Investigation of an Angel,” or “Inner Voice,” would do well to consult Baraczak’s readings, as well as the footnotes in which he registers his disagreements with other critics. (These often make lively reading.)

A problem of still greater importance, encountered by any critic writing about Herbert, is that of the meanings of the poems, for Herbert is above all a poet of meanings. Miosz wrote many years ago, “If the key to contemporary Polish poetry is the collective experience of the last decades, Herbert is perhaps the most skillful in expressing it.” This “collective experience” is not just that of Poland but goes far beyond an individual nation and its fate. In a time when much poetry has become decorative or private—when, as Arthur Danto has forcefully stated in The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art (1986), many art forms since World War II have abdicated any direct engagement with either philosophy or history—Herbert deliberately confronts this subject matter in poem after poem. He is one of the contemporary poets who is most concerned with philosophical and ethical meaning. For example, the two poems “Elegy of Fortinbras” and “Apollo and Marsyas” have an astonishingly broad frame of reference; the conflicts of idealism with practicality, and of victor with victim, are set in motion in terms that are both concretely specific and universal, reverberating throughout history.

Baraczak adopts a critical method that is reasonable but also has disadvantages. He presents Herbert as a poet of “antinomies,” and details these: the West versus the East (the “heritage” of Western civilization versus the “barbarism” of the East), the past versus the present, myth versus experience. On the stylistic plane, these give rise to the lesser antinomies of white versus gray, light versus shadow, and air versus earth. In the domain of values, typical antinomies are the abstract versus the tangible, the perfect versus the imperfect, and the ornamental versus the truth. A thematic approach isolating these diverse strands in Herbert’s poetry is scholarly, responsible, and useful. In discussing each separate theme, Baraczak ranges over Herbert’s entire oeuvre, showing how the theme reappears in poem after poem. The method also has a schematism that probably inheres in any critical method but stands out in the attempt to account for Herbert’s poetry. Baraczak’s approach is analytical, separating the component parts and smaller units of meaning, yet Herbert’s poetry is nothing if not highly synthetic. The poems present large, highly ramified wholes, and manage to be philosophical without using the technical language or jargon of contemporary philosophy. It might be overly demanding to ask the critic to account for this. Any analytical effort must share the limitations of discursive language and to some extent must increase the entropy described in the Second Law of Thermodynamics—as Norbert Wiener paraphrased it, “You cannot unscramble eggs.” A similar process occurs when dealing with synthetic works of art.

Baraczak is probably aware of this disparity between analysis and synthesis. He uses different formulations to account for the coexistence of Herbert’s antinomies: He refers to their “dynamic balance,” to the “ambivalent tension between opposed poles,” “Janus looking in two directions at once,” an “insoluble contradiction,” and antinomies that are “unresolved” or in “suspension.” These concepts appear in different contexts, too. For example, when Baraczak discusses Herbert’s use of historical personages in the poems, he refers to the “distance” between the persona and the poem’s author or speaker. In the context of a poem’s overall meaning, however, as opposed to its narrative technique, this notion of distance becomes more problematic. In one passage, Baraczak observes that Herbert simultaneously distances from and identifies with a persona. This is correct; it also points to a certain clumsiness in the term, which is a common tool of contemporary literary criticism.

A central chapter of Baraczak’s book probes Herbert’s unique use of irony. It makes a useful distinction between “classical” and “romantic” irony; Herbert’s irony, Baraczak notes, is neither, and he introduces a new, fruitful concept of “mutual unmasking” that supersedes the old association of distance and irony. Yet the old problem of whether Herbert is to be called a classical poet remains unresolved. Baraczak criticizes several other critics for calling Herbert a classical poet, yet his own notions or dynamic balance point in this direction. Is it a balance or an imbalance? An equilibrium or a disequilibrium? There is a difference; this difference, that changes from poem to poem, is crucial in Herbert’s poetry.

A difficulty in approaching Herbert analytically and isolating his themes is that the method does not show how they come together—how they cohere and form synthetic wholes. Herbert is above all an agile poet, and this agility takes on truly remarkable proportions. Herbert can shift his point of view, undercut it, mock it, mock those of others, then affirm it again, casting his voice and tonality like a ventriloquist in the space of only half a dozen lines with a dexterity that is the despair of the critic. The irony is often mixed with humor, so if we must associate irony with the concept of distance there are several types of distance at work, sometimes caustic and critical, sometimes rollicking. Yet these shifts, once again, cohere. They accumulate incrementally, building larger wholes of meaning which are expressive and which the reader spontaneously grasps. The critic can analyze out the constituent threads of meaning, as the French say they can be décomposés. To put them back together is, to be sure, a difficult task.

Baraczak’s final chapter, “Imponderabilia,” considers the larger meanings of Herbert’s poetry, as well as the implications of his irony and his ethics. The analysis of the key poem “The Envoy of Mr. Cognito” is excellent, and Baraczak rightly observes that if there is any equilibrium in the poem, it is “a peculiar equilibrium indeed.” In another important poem, “Mad Woman,” irony is linked to schizophrenia. If Herbert is a stoic poet, he knows little of the Stoics’ ataraxia. Herbert’s relationship to nature, to natural forces and instinct, is problematic throughout his work and his ethics often come close to an imperative to resist human nature. As Baraczak points out, they are essentially tragic and have no external or institutional sanction. Nor is there a convergence between the notion of moral salvation and of physical survival—more frequently, there is downright opposition.

A major question in the book is whether Herbert himself chooses between the various antinomies he presents or whether he remains ambivalent, presenting a variety of answers with his different personas, sometimes opting for one solution and sometimes for another. Does the poem “Apollo and Marsyas” present one view about art and the poem “Fragment” another dialectically opposed to it, Herbert himself siding with neither, as Baraczak suggests? Herbert—we know from both his poems and interviews—detests dialectics. He is not a poet of what John Keats called “negative capability.” A good argument could be made that Herbert is never really ambivalent when he presents his antinomies; he consistently opts for a solution. It must be granted that these solutions are never simplistic, but Herbert is always giving “a nudge to the balance.”

Similarly, a good argument could be made that Herbert does not write “about” the themes and topics described in Baraczak’s antinomies at all. Baraczak’s emphasis on Herbert’s technique is excellent, but Herbert’s historical and mythological paraphernalia can also be taken as types of “metaphor,” as topoi that always point to another deeper and more essential point of reference, usually ethical, sometimes practical, political, or critical.

Finally, it should be noted that there are some topics that A Fugitive from Utopia deliberately avoids. There is little discussion of literary influences on Herbert. To do this in an exact manner would be difficult. It is clear that Miosz was an important influence, as was Józef Czechowicz (“one of the argonauts”), Constantine Cavafy, and T. S. Eliot. Baraczak does not enter the domain of Herbert’s reading. In addition, there is little discussion of Herbert’s evolution as a poet. A few turning points are briefly mentioned: Baraczak notes that after the 1961 collection of poems, Studium przedmiotu (study of the object), Herbert turned increasingly to the use of personas and the dramatic monologue. Yet the chronological sequence of the poems is generally downgraded; Herbert’s techniques and attitudes are treated as if they were all of a piece. Perhaps this was a wise methodological decision on Baraczak’s part. For more than a decade during the period of Joseph Stalin, Herbert was writing “for the drawer.” Then he published his output almost simultaneously in two volumes in 1956 and 1957, when it seemed as if this new poet suddenly sprang, like Athena, from Zeus’s brow. It makes little sense to speak of Herbert’s poetic “debut,” and it is very difficult to match an individual poem with a year of composition, establishing an accurate chronology. Perhaps as a consequence Baraczak provides no discussion of why Herbert’s verse has no punctuation (a practice which continues to disturb many American and British critics), and way he writes prose poems or bajeczki with full, traditional punctuation.

It becomes increasingly clear that Zbigniew Herbert is one of the most significant poets of the century. It is satisfying to have, at last, a book that clearly describes the nature of his poetry, and that gathers together in a scholarly manner the various critical references and major insights into the poems which have accumulated over the past four decades. What Baraczak attempts to do, he does very well. This study will prove to be indispensable to those who want to read seriously and write about Herbert in the future.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10

The Christian Science Monitor. January 27, 1988, p. 17.

The Guardian. October 9, 1987, p. 21.

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