Mr. Cogito Tells of the Temptation of Spinoza Analysis

Zbigniew Herbert

The Poem

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.)

Forms and Devices

Like virtually all the Cogito poems and many of Herbert’s other poems, the simple language and form of “Mr. Cogito Tells of the Temptation of Spinoza” is both inviting and deceptive, a deliberate attempt on the part of Herbert and other Polish poets of his generation to devise a poetry appropriate to their experiences during and immediately after World War II. In Herbert’s case, this effort involves stripping away punctuation (the only punctuation in “Mr. Cogito Tells of the Temptation of Spinoza” is a single set of parentheses and a number of dashes to introduce most of the stanzas in which God speaks directly to Spinoza). The dearth of punctuation marks, the absence of uppercase letters at the beginning of lines, and the extreme brevity of lines and stanzas make the words look especially bare, almost vulnerable on the page. Herbert also strips away much of the ornamental language that makes poetry poetic for many readers: not only the rhythm and rhyme jettisoned by earlier practitioners of free verse but also metaphors other than those deployed ironically in order to deflate pretensions (for example, “seized by a desire to reach God,” “pierced a curtain,” and “his mind enlarged”). Instead of the metaphors so closely associated with the Romantic poets, Herbert prefers synecdoches (parts for wholes, wholes for parts) drawn chiefly from everyday experience.

Herbert also avoids the lyrical impulse and, with it, the intensely and at...

(The entire section is 437 words.)