Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Mr. Cogito on the Need for Precision” is one of the many poems in Report from the Besieged City bearing witness to the injustice and inhumanity of life in Poland under the martial law imposed by General Wojciech Jaruzelski in 1981, the year Herbert chose to return to his native land. The government crackdowns, reprisals, arrests, interrogations, torture, and killings that led Herbert to write the poem do not limit it, the fate of so many topical literary works. Even as it gives voice to Herbert’s dismay and anger, it reveals his desire to use his poetry “to bestow a broader dimension on the specific, individual, experienced situation” to “show its deeper, general perspective.” This broader dimension extends beyond Poland’s borders to include the political situation in many other countries during the same period, in Eastern Europe, as well as in Latin America and South Africa. In this sense the poem anticipates the necessity for the many “truth commissions” established in Poland and elsewhere only a few years later.

“Mr. Cogito on the Need for Precision” functions, as does the collection’s title poem, as a report from a besieged city where not only is there “a lack of precise information” but where “sensible explanations” are offered and apparently accepted by all but the Cogitos of the world, and where “inexcusable carelessness reigns supreme.” The poem’s Cogito is like the first-person narrator, the I-,...

(The entire section is 492 words.)