(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Still Life with a Bridle: Essays and Apocryphas, Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert’s second collection of essays, bears a close relation to his first, published thirty years before. Barbarzyca w ogrodzie (1962; Barbarian in the Garden, 1985) offers an outsider’s look at Mediterranean art and architecture, but this is an outsider who, as émigré poet Stanislaw Baranczak pointed out in 1985, is also the legitimate heir of the cultural tradition from which he has been unfairly disinherited by an accident of history. A similarly ambiguous sense of alienation characterizes Herbert’s poetry; “Mona Lisa,” for example, ends: “between the blackness of her back/ and the first tree of my life/ lies a sword/ a melted precipice.” In Still Life with a Bridle, the sense of alienation seems less severe, but the focus more intense. The barbarian in the garden and the lone pilgrim of “Mona Lisa” (“Through seven mountain frontiers/ barbed wire of rivers/ and executed forests,/ and hanged bridges/ I kept coming…to you/ Jerusalem in a frame”) appears now as a traveler free to cross borders and to “suddenly and without reason or reflection” change his “original plan,” to forgo the “classical” road north from Rotterdam to Amsterdam, from museum to museum, painting to painting, Hieronymus Bosch’s Prodigal Son to Rembrandt’s Night Watch.” Leaving habit behind, he sets off in quixotic and paradoxical search of the perfectly ordinary. “I wanted to get to know Zeeland, even if superficially,” he writes in “Delta”; “I’d never been there. All I knew was that I would not experience great artistic revelations.” Like his more abstract but equally revelatory poems, Still Life with a Bridle evidences Herbert’s attachment to “the kingdom of things, great principality of objects” that figures so importantly in the seventeenth century Dutch paintings made as if in the image of the Dutch landscape—flat, comprehensible, unresisting—in terms of a mysterious, reflecting depthlessness. Transformed into “an unattainable surface,” Holland, with its system of dikes, becomes in the museum of Herbert’s imagination itself a painting, a carefully framed representation that is nevertheless pure artifice: a man-made object reclaimed from the sea by human ingenuity, human imagination—a nation whose precarious topographical existence parallels Poland’s own political history, the one swept by floods, the others by conquering armies.

The six essays which make up the first and far longer of the book’s two parts are rich in detail yet stylistically austere, filled with facts yet at the same time highly speculative, intellectually playful. In one Herbert ponders “The Price of Art” during the “Golden Age” of Dutch painting, the seventeenth century, when paintings proliferated despite an almost complete absence of patrons. The available evidence—“fragmentary, incomplete…barely translatable into contemporary language”—is inconclusive and therefore all the more suggestive and open to imaginative speculation. Among the conclusions Herbert tentatively draws, two are especially worth mentioning here. One is that looking at art “from the banal and not very striking point of view of the balance sheet…is better and more honest than the pathos and sentimental sighs favored by the authors of vies romancees written for tender heats,” and the other that, despite our ignorance of the painters of this period, this much can be said with confidence: “their role in society and place on earth were not questioned.… The question why art exists did not occur to anyone because a world without paintings was simply inconceivable.” It is not they, who worked to please the public and pay their bills, who were poor, Herbert notes, but “we,” who are reduced to gesturing in the void.

Still Life with a Bridle is, however, hardly nostalgic in its attitude toward the Golden Age. It proceeds from essay to essay, juxtaposing as it goes. Thus “The Price of Art” gives way to “The Bitter Smell of Tulips,” Herbert’s wry version of the “tulipomania” which reached its greatest intensity in the mid-1630’s. When one new variety, Semper Augustus, fetched 5,000 florins, “the equivalent of a house with a large garden,” then clearly, “the dikes of common sense had broken.” This “story of human folly” proves less a historical note than a fantastic parable, a comical cautionary tale about totalitarianism in all its forms—political, theological, and aesthetic. Against the totalitarian attachment to a single idea, a single symbol, a single formula for happiness, Still Life with a Bridle offers the workings of Herbert’s profuse, proliferating imagination.

Herbert is attracted to how odd, how richly suggestive, how extraordinarily enigmatic the merely ordinary can in fact be. Starting with a father’s letter of advice to his son, “Gerard Terborch: The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie” examines the life of the title figure in light of sketchy biographical materials and more especially Terborch’s paintings. Although they seem to Herbert the work less of one man than of two, one a painter, the other a miniaturist who happen to inhabit the same body, the paintings are, Herbert contends, otherwise conventional enough, or nearly so, for one work seems the work of Goya, another that of the nineteenth century naturalists. Are they aberrations or anticipations? Was Terborch a burgher or a precursor? At once clarifying matters and complicating them still more, a...

(The entire section is 2286 words.)