The Poem

“Mr. Cogito on the Need for Precision” is one of twelve “Cogito” poems published in Zbigniew Herbert’s Report from the Besieged City and Other Poems. These twelve poems supplement the forty that Herbert collected earlier in Pan Cogito (1974; Mr. Cogito, 1995). The present poem, one of Herbert’s longest, contains 131 lines divided into three parts, which are subdivided into stanzas of from one to eight lines each. Most stanzas contain two to four lines; the shortest, with one line, and the two longest stanzas, of seven and eight lines, appear in the final stanza.

The poem is written in the third person, with Mr. Cogito as a character rather than the narrator of the poem. Herbert uses a stiff, slightly pedantic language to create an aura of pseudo-scientific objectivity. This he deploys ironically to underscore the distance between detached treatment and human subject. The poem begins: “Mr. Cogito/ is alarmed by a problem/ in the domain of applied mathematics/ the difficulties we encounter/ with operations of simple arithmetic.”

At one extreme, there is the child’s sense of addition and subtraction, “pulsat[ing] with a safe warmth”; at the other, there are physicists who have succeeded in weighing atoms and heavenly bodies with extraordinary accuracy. “[O]nly in human affairs/ inexcusable carelessness reigns supreme.” Only here does one find a “lack of precise information.”


(The entire section is 587 words.)

Forms and Devices

Herbert was a member of a generation of Polish writers who came of age during and immediately after World War II. Their wartime experiences made them feel it necessary to devise new poetic forms and syntaxes appropriate to life as they had just experienced it. For Herbert this meant stripping away virtually all punctuation. He also avoids what he calls, in another poem, “tricks of the imagination”: all merely ornamental language including rhythm and rhyme, even metaphors. Herbert prefers the device of synecdoche—the naming of the part to stand for the whole.

Herbert’s vocabulary is generally simple; his tone matter-of-fact, almost prosaic; his lines and stanzas brief, starkly seen against the otherwise blank page. Nevertheless, his poetry is carefully connected to the larger historical, philosophical, and cultural contexts. This he achieves through allusions, either directly presented (Troy, Agincourt, Leipzig, Kutno), or indirectly (the red, white, and brown terrors). His Cogito poems are generally less allusive than his other poems.

For all its cool detachment and prosaic accessibility, Herbert’s poetry is surprisingly, and subtly, varied. The formality of the opening stanzas of “Mr. Cogito on the Need for Precision” gives way to colloquialism, which becomes especially evident at the end of the second part. The register changes again in part three, which opens with a cartoonish image, then changes into lines of great moral...

(The entire section is 454 words.)