The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

At sixty-five lines, “Mr. Cogito Tells of the Temptation of Spinoza” is one of the longest of the forty poems of Pan Cogito (Mr. Cogito). The sense of fullness and completion that such length implies is, however, offset by Zbigniew Herbert’s division of the sixty-five lines into twenty-seven stanzas, some just a single line long (and none more than six). All the lines are short, and several are just one word long (“think,” “calm,” “Great”). At once whole and fragmentary, “Mr. Cogito Tells of the Temptation of Spinoza,” with its disconcertingly long and decidedly unpoetic title, seems less a poem in any conventional sense than a vignette with dialogue, a kind of philosophical comedy only loosely tied (and then only by title) to the dramatic monologue form.

The poem’s ostensible subject is the seventeenth century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza. Known as “the God-intoxicated man,” Spinoza was a fiercely independent person who supported himself by grinding lenses and who frequently moved from one lodging to another in Amsterdam. His dedication to freedom of thought and speech led him to turn down a faculty position at the University of Heidelberg and to refuse a pension from French king Louis XIV because it required him to dedicate a work to the king.

The formal, stilted, and at times clichéd quality of the first three stanzas (nearly one-fifth of the poem) does not so much set the overall tone of...

(The entire section is 582 words.)