The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Report from the Besieged City” is a dramatized meditation on aggression, ethics, and civil autonomy. Zbigniew Herbert employs long lines of free verse, in contrast to the rather clipped rhythms of many of his other poems. The poem consists of forty-nine lines, divided irregularly into verse paragraphs that vary from single lines to groups of ten and eleven. The piece is voiced for an imagined persona who is much like Herbert himself, but also a compiled transhistorical witness to the invasions that have taken place in Poland and elsewhere over the last thousand years.

The title makes one think either of a news report from a war zone or of a logbook or military journal. The “Besieged City” does not refer to any particular place—although Herbert makes reference to past events in Warsaw and Gdansk—but stands instead generally for all cities and hometowns that have ever suffered through tyranny or invasion; the city here is a locus, a recurrent figure or image, through which Herbert explores the issues of civil responsibility, community, and social action.

The poem begins with the speaker or persona, a citizen of the Besieged City, recounting how he, unable to participate actively in the defense of his homeland, is given the “inferior role” of recording the events of the struggle. Herbert contrasts the writer or poet to what he sees as a fundamentally better social role, that of the soldier or activist.

Despite his doubts about the significance of his words, the speaker of the poem makes a brief attempt at a journal, marking “the rhythm of interminable weeks” in a list of seven dateless...

(The entire section is 669 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Herbert’s style is distinctive. Characteristically, he uses little or no punctuation in his poetry. Sentences and rhetorical or grammatical units are demarcated only by line breaks. Often, Herbert compresses two or more sentences into a single unit, yielding a sense of urgency and rhythmic fluidity: “yet the defense continues it will continue to the end.” The content of a line is never obscured by such effects, and its meaning may even be enhanced; oppositions and elaborations flow together, creating a shifting web of poetical checks and balances, as the mind of the poem’s speaker plays back and forth over the events of “the siege” and his “commentary.”

The formal basis of Herbert’s poetry is opposition. “Report from the Besieged City,” along with other poems from the same volume, is composed of several layers of balanced or embedded contraries. Herbert sometimes uses the rhetorical scheme of antithesis to achieve this balance, placing antonyms in a grammatically parallel relationship, as in “cemeteries grow larger the number of defenders is smaller” or “if the City falls but a single man escapes.” The poem’s speaker sometimes contradicts himself; he would “avoid any commentary,” he asserts, and yet he “would like to inform the world” of his despair and outrage. Countertensions and oppositions permeate the texture of this poetry.

This rhetorical balancing act is matched by a wider, conceptual field of...

(The entire section is 470 words.)