Zbigniew Herbert grew up in the Polish city of Lvov; in 1939, when he was fifteen years old, this part of Poland was invaded by the Soviet Union. Herbert began to write poetry during World War II, and the war permanently shaped his outlook. The face of postwar Poland was permanently changed, socially, physically, and politically: Herbert’s native city became part of the Soviet Union.
In 1944, Herbert studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow—he was always interested in painting, sculpture, and architecture—and a year later he entered the Academy of Commerce, also in Krakow. In 1947, he received a master’s degree in economics and moved to Toruń, where he studied law at the Nicolas Copernicus University. He received the degree of master of laws in 1950. Herbert stayed on in Toruń to study philosophy and was influenced by the philosopher Henryk Eizenberg. In 1950 he lived briefly in Gdańsk and worked there for the Merchant’s Review before moving to Warsaw, where for the next six years he held a variety of jobs: in the management office of the peat industry, in the department for retired pensioners of the Teachers’ Cooperative, in a bank, in a store, and in the legal department of the Composers’ Association.
Herbert’s poems began to appear in periodicals in 1950, but no collection was published in book form; during the increasing social and cultural repression of the Stalinist years, several of the magazines publishing Herbert’s work were closed by the government. It was only after the “thaw” of 1956 that his first two collections of poems were published, almost simultaneously. The event of publication after enforced silence is poignantly described in Herbert’s poem “Drawer.”
In the late 1950’s, Herbert made his first trip to Western Europe. His collection of essays, Barbarzyńca w ogrodzie, reveals the impact of this experience. Herbert spent the years from 1965 to 1971 abroad, based in West Berlin but traveling to many countries, among them Greece, Italy, France, and the United States. He spent the 1970-1971 academic year teaching at California State University, Los Angeles. After returning to Poland to live in 1971, Herbert moved to West Berlin again in 1974, staying there intermittently until 1980, when he returned to Warsaw. He again left Poland in 1986 in protest of Communist policies but returned to Warsaw once communism was ended around 1990. Around this time his health began to deteriorate and when, in 1996, the Nobel Prize was awarded to Wislawa Szymborska (only seventeen years after another Pole and adopted Californian, Czesław Miłosz), the joy of this deserved distinction was mixed with a touch of regret for Herbert. For many, Herbert’s achievements equaled those of his two honored compatriots, and there were those who considered him superior to both. He died in Warsaw on July 28, 1998.
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...
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