“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.)