Zbigniew Herbert, one of the most important Polish poets of the twentieth century, was the son of Bolesiaw and Maria Kaniak Herbert. He grew up in occupied Poland during World War II. A proper education during this period was almost impossible, but Herbert managed to attend a clandestine high school as well as to receive rudimentary military training from the Polish Resistance. Later he fought against the Nazis as a guerrilla. After the war he pursued a wide range of humanistic studies, which became a prominent element of his poetry. He received a degree in law and also read philosophy, literature, and the history of art. He did not publish a book of poetry, however, until he was thirty years old; he preferred silence or publication in obscure journals to writing the orthodox literature demanded by the Russian government. To support himself, he worked as a clerk, a manual laborer, and a journalist. In 1956, during a political thaw, Herbert published his first book of poems.
Struna wiata (chord of light) is not a typical first book of poetry by a young and unknown writer. Herbert’s themes, style, and approach are already fully formed in this book, and the poems are marked by irony, detachment, clarity, and wit about the social and political situation in which he lived. Herbert mocks repressive systems rather than attacking them. He uses religious and other metaphors to show that all ideals, especially the ideal of a totalitarian state, are absurd. In “At the Gate of the Valley,” the angels, in separating the saved and the damned, are implicitly compared to guards in a concentration camp. His next book, Hermes, pies i gwiazda (Hermes, dog, and star), also showed Herbert’s wit and irony but here the poet used classical myth more frequently. He does not merely cite classical references and allusions but revises them and connects them directly to larger concerns, including the situation of postwar Poland. In “Apollo and Marsyas” the calm, ordered Apollo is disturbed by the howls of the chained and tortured Marsyas. Herbert’s longstanding interest in mythology is summarized in the essays collected in King of the Ants.
Studium przedmiotu (study of the object) touches on a central Herbert concern: aesthetics. He makes his readers see and feel objects they had ignored; he insists on their form and their independent existence: “stones cannot be tamed/ to the end they will look at us/ with a calm very clear eye. . . .” He connects humankind and history to objects and rejects a narrow contemplative art for its own sake. There is, instead, a tension between the contemplation of an object and its origin and use. Napis (inscription) was published in 1969 and Mr. Cogito in 1974. Mr. Cogito was an interesting departure for Herbert. The poems contain monologues by a speaker called Mr. Cogito, clearly a philosophical pun and allusion to Rene Descartes’s “cogito ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am). The book attacks any transcendence or claim for the ideal; rather it proclaims tolerance.
Herbert’s plays deal with many of the subjects of his poems: totalitarianism, philosophy, history, aesthetics. They also make the audience take another look at common figures and situations. For example, in The Philosophers’ Den, Socrates is not the noble idealist of tradition but a cantankerous character struggling with Dionysius and mocking the Plato who would recreate the master in his works. Herbert’s art and travel book, Barbarian in the Garden , portrays the poet as a “barbarian” from the East engaging and responding to various artworks from Greece, Rome, and the Renaissance....
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The object is never sufficient in itself, however, but it triggers questions to Herbert about its historical context. A Gothic cathedral not only is a beautiful edifice but also evokes questions about its historical origins, its creators, and its intended audience.
One unusual aspect of Herbert’s poetry was his use of prose poems. He was a master of the formal devices of poetry, but some subjects seem to demand the outer form of prose for Herbert. He may have been influenced by French prose poems, although his works tend to be more direct and deal with political and social concerns; they can be playful and humorous, too. Herbert’s range of interests and references was very wide. Philosophical questions, ancient myths, aesthetic objects, and ordinary objects exist within a world that cannot remain independent of other worlds that touch or impinge upon them. Herbert was, for all of his wit and irony, a historical poet who was deeply interested in the origins and use of every element he touched. There are always tensions in Herbert’s poetry, between the role of the artist and the actual man, between the dreams of the ideal and reality, between ancient times and the modern world. Herbert was a post-World War II Eastern European poet, but he avoided most of the styles, tones, and subjects expected of poets in such circumstances. He rarely made overt political or social statements or demands. He did not see the poet as a prophet but as a creator of poetic moments. He preferred the surprising approach, the new look at an old subject. If he wrote about William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the main figure was Fortinbras. That does not mean he was indifferent to human suffering; in an essay on the Knights Templars, he became an “advocate” of their case against the power that destroyed them. He maintained the tension and balance between the claims of art and those of protest.