The Poem

“Why the Classics” is a thirty-four line poem divided into three parts. It is characteristic of Zbigniew Herbert’s free verse and economical use of language. As the final poem in Selected Poems (1968), it is, so to speak, the poet’s signature, a justification of his classicism which attempts to put the present in perspective by invoking historic events, myths, and works of art.

The first part recalls the Greek historian Thucydides (c. 460-400 b.c.e.), who participated as a general in the Peloponnesian War (431-404 b.c.e.), the great conflict between the Athenians and the Spartans. Although Thucydides deals as a military historian with the whole war—including its politics, battles, and diplomacy—the poet is struck by the historian’s account of his failure to relieve Amphipolis, his native city under attack by the Athenian enemy, Brasidos. It is a minor moment in the historian’s narrative that the poet points out in comparing the episode to “a pin/ in a forest.” Yet to Thucydides, his failure is of such importance that he pays for it by exiling himself from Amphipolis. Exiles “of all times” know what this separation cost Thucydides, the poet remarks—without, however, spelling out the meaning of exile.

In the second part, the poet turns to the recent past, noting the refusal of generals to take responsibility for their defeats, preferring, instead, to blame subordinates and to champion their own virtues. It is circumstance, not human character, that is to blame for these failures, these generals claim—citing “envious colleagues/ unfavorable winds.” Thucydides, on the other hand, engages in no special pleading for himself, merely noting the number of his ships and the season in which they quickly sailed. Again, as in the first part, the poet does not explicitly say what he makes of Thucydides’ account.

The third part shifts the apparent subject matter of the poem from war to art, making no overt reference to the content of the first two stanzas. Instead, the poet makes an explicit statement, a value judgment, suggesting that if art is to pity a damaged world (“a broken jar”) or the defeated self (“a small broken soul”), then it will leave a pathetic legacy, comparable to lovers waking up in a squalid hotel and weeping over the shabby conditions of their affair.

Historical Context

Postwar Communism

Herbert was well known for his opposition to communist rule, and since there is no absolute date...

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Forms and Devices

Herbert employs two of his characteristic devices in this poem: understatement and irony. Indeed, these two devices are linked together to achieve the meaning of the poem. Thus Thucydides seems to be described merely as a historian who minimized his own part in a great war. That he is admired by the poet seems apparent in the last two lines of the first part, although exactly how exiles of all times feel is not made clear. Presumably, however, their exile causes them great pain, and presumably Thucydides similarly suffered from this sacrifice. In the second part, the poet again implies admiration for Thucydides because the historian does not excuse his failure; he only describes his military effort, which is in great contrast to the complaining generals of the recent past.

The structure of the poem’s argument in the first two parts sets up the expectation that this contrast between the ancient and more recent past will be resolved in the third, concluding part—and so it is, except that the poet’s subject matter has changed abruptly, necessitating a re-evaluation of what the poem has been about. The understated quality of the poem’s first two parts is a clue to the fact that the poet has actually been using the example of Thucydides to think about art, about what the poet is supposed to make of life.

The irony is complex: The poem is about something more than war and the generals’ attitude toward it. By refusing to rationalize his own...

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Literary Style


In poetry, the term classicism means a reliance on traditional forms to produce poetry in which the...

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Compare and Contrast

1950s: The Warsaw Pact is signed binding the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites, including Poland, together in a...

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Topics for Further Study

Even under communist rule, the Roman Catholic Church continued as an important force in Poland. Research the role that the church played in...

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What Do I Read Next?

Barbarians in the Garden, published in English in 1986, is a collection of Herbert’s essays and serves as a record of his travels...

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Bibliography and Further Reading


Alvarez, A. “Introduction to the Poetry of Zbigniew Herbert,” in Selected Poems, translated by Czeslaw...

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