Mr. Cogito Looks at His Face in the Mirror Analysis

Zbigniew Herbert

The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The title of this brief six-stanza, twenty-eight-line poem in free verse recalls the seventeenth century Dutch paintings that Zbigniew Herbert greatly admires and strikes a note at once contemplative and pictorial. Narrated in the first person, it takes an unusual approach to a commonplace occurrence: a person looking at himself in the mirror. Instead of remarking how much he has changed over the years, Cogito questions who “wrote” his face. The question suggests that Cogito conceives of himself less in individual terms than in collective or historical terms—which is to say, less as a unique person and more as a cultural product, even a text (the one written rather than the one writing).

Contemplating himself synecdochically in the mirror, Cogito comes to see his face as a mirror reflecting the ways that history, including heredity, has shaped or misshaped him. He begins with the chicken pox, which wrote “its o’ with calligraphic pen” upon his skin, and moves on to the ancestors from whom he inherited the protruding ears and close-set eyes that worked to their advantage in the age of mastodons and marauders but that now make Cogito look comical. In the third stanza, this line of thought swerves in a more troubling direction as Cogito contemplates his low forehead filled with “very few thoughts,” the result of centuries of subservience to aristocratic rule during which “the prince” did the thinking for Cogito’s ancestors.


(The entire section is 423 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The question Herbert and other Polish poets of his generation face is how to find a language and a syntax that can adequately reflect recent experience. Herbert’s answer is to strip his poetry of virtually all punctuation (“Mr. Cogito Looks at His Face in the Mirror” contains only one dash and one pair of inverted commas) and all signs of poetic convention and ornamentation. Herbert does not begin new lines with uppercase letters; he eschews rhythm, rhyme, and regular stanzaic structure; and he prefers the synecdoches and metonymies of realist writing to the metaphors upon which poetry, particularly Romantic poetry, usually depends. As Herbert writes in “Mr. Cogito on the Imagination,”

Mr. Cogito never trustedtricks of the imaginationthe piano at the top of the Alpsplayed false concerts for himhe loved the flat horizona straight linethe gravity of the earth.

Cogito prefers “to remain faithful to uncertain clarity” and to use the imagination as an “instrument of compassion.” The prosaic quality of Herbert’s poetry is deceptive (as are the clean lines stripped of punctuation, which require more, not less, effort and involvement on the reader’s part), as is proven by comparison with...

(The entire section is 414 words.)