Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 492

“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.

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“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-, or eye-witness of “Report from the Besieged City” who accepts the part he has been assigned, “the inferior role of chronicler” (or in Cogito’s case, the role of accountant, one not so much assigned as chosen). “Keeping a tight rein on my emotions, I write about the facts,” Herbert’s chronicler reports before ending his litany of betrayals with the words, “and only our dreams have not been humiliated.”

To the extent that the title figure of “Mr. Cogito on the Need for Precision” and the eleven other Cogito poems in the collection resemble “Report’s” eyewitness, he differs from the central figure of Herbert’s earlier Pan Cogito. Less comically Chaplinesque, this later Cogito seems closer to Herbert himself in his commitment to this life and how one’s life should be lived and measured. In a related poem in the same collection, “Mr. Cogito Thinks About Blood,” Herbert sardonically notes that science’s discovery of how little blood the human body actually contains does not mean that that blood—and the human life it synechdocically represents—is now seen as precious and is therefore shed any less abundantly than before. In “Mr. Cogito on the Need for Precision,” the reader finds a similarly horrific sense of humor and sense of helplessness along with the determination, Cogito’s no less than Herbert’s, to bear witness to that most absurdly humane of principles “in the struggle with inhuman power,” namely, accountability: the fact that “we must not be wrong even by a single one.”

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