Zbigniew Herbert Herbert, Zbigniew (Contemporary Literary Criticism) - Essay

Herbert, Zbigniew (Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Herbert, Zbigniew 1924–

A Polish poet, Herbert came to the forefront of Polish literature with the relaxation of political suppression in 1961. Herbert's poems have as their subject matter everyday objects and mythical fantasies, and they are imbued with great wit and nonsense. Although his poems seem to be simply mischievous, they are actually careful, studied indictments of the repressiveness of totalitarianism, and the poet uses his outward buoyancy to enhance sanity and survival in a world that is bleakly impersonal.

The most distinctive quality of Herbert's imagination is his power to invest impish fantasy, mischievously tender nonsense, with the highest seriousness. His humorous fantasy is the armor of a superlatively healthy mind staving off political oppression. Fantasy is an instrument of survival: it is the chief weapon in a poetry arsenal which serves as a caretaker of the individual identity, a bulwark against the mental slavery of the totalitarian church and state. Rarely, in Herbert's work, does the tone of solemnity displace that of buoyancy, even in the most scathing political/religious satire; and surprisingly, the veneer of whimsicality in the most bitter poems heightens their power of outrage. Herbert's indignation gathers potency from being held in abeyance, half-hidden behind gentle ironies.

Some of Herbert's poems seem too calculatedly manufactured, but they are intended for use, not for show or ornament. They would compete with our viable objects-in-use to become indispensible components of our living space: a stool, a pebble, a wooden board,

                    my imagination
                    is a piece of board
                    my sole instrument
                    is a wooden stick,

or a wooden bird,

                  it lives now …
                  on a dry stalk
                  on one leg
                  on a hair of wind
                  on what tears itself away from reality
                  does not transform itself
                  into an image.

The very strategy of poetic metaphor-making is held by Herbert to be suspect, a device prone to falsifying of our last resources—inner and outer. It is a distraction from the vigilant search for the "one word" that can accurately name—and thereby protect—those modest few perishables needed to sustain our sanity, and, with better luck, our love. Everything in the mind, everything in the poem, is trimmed, stripped down, geared to preserving in our lives the few simple valuables that are left after so unthinkably much has been taken away. So many irreplacable jewels—the hair, the skin, the fingers, the genitals—have been torn from the flesh of the living before the poet's eyes. The poetry resists the ornamental grace of literary artifacts, the holy sanctity of the altar, the musical lyricism of song; we must look to other poets for artfulness, for holiness, for melody. Herbert gives us instead the habit of long looking for what is true, what is durable, what is still blessedly touchable in our narrowing life-space, and will not give way under the annihilating pressures of totalitarianism.

Herbert's most characteristic heroism is the refusal to settle for any substitute—artistic, political, religious—for the serviceableness of kind acts, kind words, kindliness (unnoticed usually) even in objects. He tells us he would rather be transformed in death to "rock, wood, water, the cracks of a gate … the creaking of a floor" than to be reborn an angel. And he means it, literally. Conventional divinities ("shrilly transparent perfection") take a merciless thrashing in Herbert's poetry. In poem after poem, he obviates any last false hope of squaring the political butchery of the concentration camps with the "paradise" of the after-life. In At the Gate of the Valley, the next world is simply projected as an extension into the beyond, into eternity, of the living deaths of the camps. Priest, angels, gods—all are flunkeys to a ruthless and sadistically anti-human divinity. They are public relations underlings, soft-selling the old dead religion to ghosts from whom every last precious memento will be taken away…. (pp. 52-3)

Laurence Lieberman, in Poetry (© 1969 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), April, 1969.

[Zbigniew Herbert] is an avant-garde poet whose experiments and precise, restrained rhythms have sent Polish prosody off in a new direction. Trained in law, he is a man with a passion for classical literature and for history, and with all the intellectual tautness associated with a poet like T. S. Eliot. Yet his verse is unremittingly political. In the circumstances, it could never have been otherwise. (p. 142)

Clearly, he is not political in the conventional sense: he does not purvey, in suitably touched-up forms, the predigested truths supplied by any party. He is political by virtue of being permanently and warily in opposition. Yet that, too, is a misleading, over-dramatic way of putting it. His opposition is not dogmatic: during the Nazi occupation he was not, to my knowledge, a Communist, nor during the Stalinist repression was he ever noticeably even Catholic or nationalist. Herbert's opposition is a party of one; he refuses to relinquish his own truth and his own standards in the face of any dogma…. (p. 143)

Most of Herbert's poetry is concerned with reasons for being neither terrified nor convinced, and with his strategies for survival.

Most important of these strategies is irony. Yet Herbert's irony has nothing to do with the dandified, touch-me-not distaste—by Eliot out of Laforgue—which was fashionable among the post-Symbolist poets of the twenties and the American academics of the forties. For that irony was, in essence, a slightly less than noble art of self-defence; it protected those who wielded it from emotions they felt they would be better without—feelings for other people, the temptations of commitment. In contrast, Herbert's irony is neither elegant nor embattled…. Irony of this kind is a two-edged weapon, which turns on the poet as readily as on the world outside. It is based on a sense of his own ineffectual fragility when faced with the steam-roller of political force. It is, in short, the irony of a vulnerable man. In his love poems, like 'Silk of a Soul' or 'Tongue', it inhibits nothing; it simply helps him gently to preserve a sense of proportion, the watchful compassion of a man who, like his 'Pebble', has come to terms with his own limits…. Herbert's irony is in the service of an ideal of balance and repose. It is not a safety device which ensures that the outer world will impinge on the poetic only in discreet, carefully regulated doses; it is, instead, a way of focusing the whole mass of his experience so that 'to the end [his poems] will look at us with a calm and very clear eye'.

This sense in his verse of a strong and steady light, which, without denying the shadows, somehow makes them easier to tolerate, is the core of that 'classicism' always invoked to describe his work. There are also other related qualities: for example, his preoccupation with the Greek and Latin classics, cannily modified so that contemporary experience is constantly held in the long, cooling perspective of myth. Then there are his subdued, chaste rhythms and spare language, which leave no room for romantic excesses…. Herbert's poetry is also classical in the tautly intellectual control that edges it continually towards some Platonic point of rest, some poise of art and understanding. In poem after poem he strains cunningly towards the moment of final silence…. (pp. 144-46)

[The] tension between the ideal and the real is the backbone on which all his work depends. It is what allows him to be at once classical and insistently political. For everything he writes is founded on the realization that poetry, by its nature, is idealistic, hopeful or, as William James put it, 'tender-minded', while the situation in which he must function as a poet is savagely 'tough-minded'—pragmatic, political, destructive, controlling….

To some degree, this tension places him firmly in the tradition of Polish literature, which has developed during the last two centuries despite constant domination by one foreign power or another. But where most Polish poets derive some support from their fierce nationalism, Herbert seems to work without any illusions at all. He is a poet of complete isolation. Soon after the thaw he wrote an ironic ode to his desk drawer; the theme was simply that now he was able to publish all the work he had kept locked away for so long, he no longer had anything to write about. According to the code of Herbert's politics of isolated opposition, even publication is a betrayal of standards, a loss of dissident freedom. (p. 146)

A. Alvarez, "Zbigniew Herbert" (originally published in The Review, 1967), in his Beyond All This Fiddle: Essays 1955–1967 (copyright © by A. Alvarez; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc. and Candida Donadio & Associates, Inc.), Random House, 1969, pp. 142-47.

[Herbert] draws his metaphors not from particular Polish poets or from the particular events of Polish history, but either from everyday objects—stools and pebbles—or from a common body of European culture: the Bible, Greek mythology, Thucydides, Tacitus, and Shakespeare. Herbert's originality lies in the way his mind works upon this common body of knowledge. (p. 245)

Herbert is a political poet, but the word political may be misleading for it brings to mind the bad verse of the thirties, verse damaged by causes: some of Auden's, some of Spender's, and many poems by a host of minor Marxist poets. The political poet who deals directly with the events of contemporary history usually plays a losing game. His moral outrage will probably overwhelm his poetry, making it self-righteous, predictable, and shrill…. Although Herbert's poetry is preoccupied with the nightmares of recent history (the lies, pretensions, and horrors of totalitarianism), it is not public speech. Herbert never advocates this or that cause and he never moralistically "cries" about contemporary experience. He approaches his subject obliquely; wandering among the ruins caused by such destructive forces, Herbert looks for objects that remind us of our stubborn desire to survive and remain sane. Subdued and casual, his poems shun both hysteria and apocalyptic intensity. To answer chaos with chaos, Herbert implies, is to succumb to the very forces we should resist.

Herbert's obliqueness and restraint derive in part from his use of biblical and Greek mythology. The lens of myth reduces the glare of contemporary experience, placing it in a perspective that enables him to look at it without losing his sanity and sense of humor. In several of Herbert's poems the language of religion becomes a metaphor for the language of the totalitarian state. Angels are flunkeys of the highest power and Paradise is the Utopia that supposedly exists. (pp. 246-47)

Herbert's use of myth liberates him from the confines of particular historical events. The satire is not directed at one totalitarian regime, but at all such regimes. At the same time the use of myth fleshes out the thin bones of the satire, making it sly and elegant, not obvious and heavy-handed. Furthermore, Herbert's satirical humor is a way of resisting the dehumanizing and impersonal language of the state—the so-called higher truth of its ideology. Keeping a sense of humor means keeping a private language and avoiding the total politicization of the self. After all, "they"—the solemn angels of the state—never laugh.

Of course such humorless angels can be frighteningly effective. They can compel belief or they can compel guilt. A chilling poem, "Preliminary Investigation of an Angel," brings to mind the forced confessions of Stalin's purge trials, when even the most loyal members of the Communist Party were forced to confess their guilt. An angel—one who is a faithful member of the heavenly hierarchy—naturally thinks that he is spiritual and "innocent." The state, however, judged him as material and guilty, and so he slowly metamorphoses before our eyes…. No one can resist the inquisition of the state, not even such a faithful member of its hierarchy. (p. 247)

It is only after the angel has been broken by the state that he becomes real, and his reality undermines the unreal "spiritual" perfection of the totalitarian order. Because of its ruthlessness and suspicion, the system creates its own opposition, creates such a "simple prophecy." Icons of a "faith" different from that of the state, the drops of wax deny the "gluey agreement."

A similar parable is adumbrated in a poem that makes use of Greek myth, "Apollo and Marsyas." Apollo, with his "absolute ear," pipes the song of the state on his flute and therefore cannot lose the contest he has with Marsyas. The latter, who dared to challenge Apollo, is flayed alive, yet

              only seemingly
              is the voice of Marsyas
              and composed of a single vowel
              Aaa …

In reality, the howling of Marsyas provokes a shudder of disgust in Apollo, who is "cleaning his instrument," and the victorious god begins to walk away from the flayed satyr, wondering

   whether out of Marsyas' howling
   there will not some day arise
   a new kind
   of art—let us say—concrete
   at his feet
   falls a petrified nightingale
   he looks back
   and sees
   that the hair of the tree to which Marsyas was fastened
   is white
   completely …

Like the drops of wax, the petrified nightingale and the white "hair" of the tree are a new kind of concrete art that grows out of the inquisition of the state. The latter two are deformations of nature that testify through their grotesque metamorphosis to the terror of the state. (pp. 248-49)

Herbert's obliqueness and restraint …, derive not only from the use he makes of myth, but also from the attention he pays to concrete things. In "At the Gate of the Valley," a poem in which the Last Judgment is seen as a parable of mass extermination, Herbert says:

       those who as it seems
       have obeyed the orders without pain
       go lowering their heads as a sign of consent
       but in their clenched fists they hide
       fragments of letters ribbons clipping of hair
       and photographs
       which they naïvely think
       won't be taken from them …

The objects that these people clutch make them individuals and not the statistics of a holocaust. Although threatened by a final solution, the victims refuse to give up their possessions. The disaster may be enormous but the responses to it are personal; the final solution happens to particular individuals at particular places and times. (p. 249)

Herbert's particularity is … an attempt to clear the atmosphere of verbal smoke and fog—the smoke of literary hysteria and the fog of totalitarian lies. The poet wants to learn how to use words carefully again, and therefore he focusses on objects. The pebble, he says,

         is a perfect creature
         equal to itself
         mindful of its limits
         filled exactly
         with a pebbly meaning …
              —Pebbles cannot be tamed
              to the end they will look at us
              with a calm and very clear eye.
                                           (p. 250)

The pebble and the stool also work as analogies, implying both a basic human stubbornness ("Pebbles cannot be tamed") and an attitude toward life and art that might be called classical…. Clarity and emotional restraint: these are classical virtues. Herbert's classicism, however, does not mean that he has removed himself from the present and that he looks at it in a sadly disillusioned manner from the ivory tower of the past. His classicism is a prescription for survival and sanity in the present—a method for swimming in the destructive element and not going under.

Herbert's clearest statement of his classicism is found in the poem "Why the Classics." Here he contrasts Thucydides, who honorably accepted the responsibility for his unsuccessful expedition to Amphipolis, with "generals of the most recent wars."… Unlike Thucydides, generals of the most recent wars evade the responsibility for their actions. Wallowing in self-pity, they break down and call everything a mess, say that everyone (and therefore no one) is responsible for the failure. They cannot make distinctions. (p. 251)

Self-pity for Herbert resides in our inner voice. In a poem called "Inner Voice" he says:

              he is of no use to me
              I could forget about him
              I have no hope
              a little regret
              when he lies there
              covered with pity
              breathes heavily
              opens his mouth
              and tries to lift up
              his inert head.

The inner voice, full of "syllables/stripped of all meaning," tempts us to lie down and cry. Herbert tries to ignore this siren song, but he does so with "a little regret." Crying is the easiest thing to do…. The classics show us how to resist such a temptation. Listening to Marsyas' howl, Herbert does not respond with a whine. Instead he disciplines himself by looking at objects—calm things of "great immobility" that "reprove us constantly for our instability." Such objects survive disaster; the classics help us to do the same thing.

As a classicist Herbert does not heed his incoherent inner voice; and as a classicist he makes very few claims for poetry. In "A Knocker," his art is "nothing special," and his imagination is a

               piece of board
               my sole instrument
               is a wooden stick …
               I thump on the board
               and it prompts me
               with the moralist's dry poem

The symbol for his imaginative powers is not, as it was for the romantics, a fountain; it is a wooden stick. And myth for Herbert is not, as it was for Blake, a sign of the gods within the mind, an example of the inexhaustible fertility of the human imagination. Myth for Herbert is an order that we can turn to in order to get away from the anarchy of the self. It provides us with a way of placing contemporary experience in a larger perspective. Finally, unlike the romantics, Herbert writes the "moralist's dry poem"; he is neither a prophet nor an unacknowledged legislator.

Another aspect of Herbert's classical frame of mind is his skepticism about language itself. Throughout his poetry there rumbles an ostinato of linguistic despair. The poet can only thump his board, aware that words themselves are inadequate to convey the horrors of contemporary experience. (pp. 252-53)

But of course we must say something, and such a chaotic situation requires the voice of a Fortinbras, not a Hamlet. Hamlet's language is full of tragic intensity, but it is an intensity that arises from his despair and self-pity. Fortinbras, the man who arrives after the disaster and tries to make some sense of the ruins, is Herbert's hero, even though his task is a prosaic one, and what he does will never be worth a tragedy. In "Elegy of Fortinbras" the soldier says of the prince:

               The rest is not silence but belongs to me
      you chose the easier part an elegant thrust
      but what is heroic death compared with eternal watching
      with a cold apple in one's hand on a narrow chair
      with a view of the ant-hill and the clock's dial
      Adieu prince I have tasks a sewer project
      and a decree on prostitutes and beggars …
      I go to my affairs This night is born
      a star named Hamlet We shall never meet
      what I shall leave will not be worth a tragedy …

Fortinbras speaks with a good deal of regret, for he knows that Hamlet's "heroic death" is the "easier part," and as such it is tempting. By dying Hamlet avoided the mediocre tasks of survival; by dying Hamlet did not have to compromise himself. As Fortinbras says of him: "you believed in crystal notions not in human clay." By dying Hamlet kept his crystal notions intact.

Like death, exile is also the "easier part," for it keeps us away from the contaminations of mediocrity. The proconsul of "The Return of the Proconsul" does not want to choose the easier part; he does not want to accept the death-in-life of exile. He wants to return to the emperor's court although he knows that there he must compromise himself. At the beginning of the poem, he confidently announces his decision to return and "see if it's possible to live there."… The proconsul's dilemma is agonizing: he cannot accept the "death" of exile nor can he bring himself to return to the emperor's court, where he would—at the least—become a mere flunkey. His decision to return, repeated several times in the poem, is only an ignis fatuus of his mind. He desperately wants to be convinced, yet he remains unconvinced: he continually postpones his return. Although at the end of the poem he says that "I've decided to return to the emperor's court/yes I hope that things will work out somehow," we believe that he will never return. His pathetic delusion, however, compels our admiration, for he cannot accept exile—the easier part. He never stops hoping that things will work out better somehow and then he will be able to return. Herbert's poem must not be read as a comment on real exiles, but as a parable about the man who always faces towards life, although he has more than enough reasons for turning towards death.

Will things work out better somehow? Such is the proconsul's hope, not the poet's. In the prose poem "When the World Stands Still," Herbert does say that "after a while the world moves on. The ocean swallows and regurgitates, valleys send off steam and … there is also heard the resounding clash of air against air." Yet, as in "The Longobards" the possibility always exists that a new barbarian force will overrun the cultivated valley:

      An immense coldness from the Longobards
      Their shadow sears the grass when they flock into the valley
      Shouting their protracted nothing nothing nothing.

Hearing those apocalyptic and inhuman shouts, we can either choose the easier part or try to survive. Herbert, with his resolute and unsolemn stoicism, prescribes in a prose poem some "Practical Recommendations in the Event of a Catastrophe": "Place yourself as far as possible from the centre … before the whirling motion as it gets stronger from minute to minute begins to pour in towards the middle … Keep your head down. Have your two hands constantly free. Take good care of the muscles of your legs."

Like Fortinbras, Herbert does not choose the easier part; he does not yield to the mere process of disintegration. Instead, like Fortinbras, he tries to bring order to a situation that seems beyond ordering. "Such a sight as this," as Fortinbras says in Hamlet, requires a disciplined and measured voice, one mindful of its limits and filled exactly with a pebbly meaning. (pp. 254-56)

Stephen Miller, "The Poetry of Zbigniew Herbert," in The Rarer Action: Essays in Honor of Francis Fergusson, edited by Alan Cheuse and Richard Koffler (copyright © 1970 by Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey; Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, N.J.), Rutgers, 1970, pp. 244-57.

One of the major themes in Pan Cogito is the identity of the self; this can be seen as a deepening of the quest of [Herbert's] earlier volume, Studium przedmiotu (Study of the Object; 1961). The opening poems of Pan Cogito ask the questions "Who am I? Where do I end and others begin?" and they introduce the idea of the complexity of the self. Why do we have features which we have consciously rejected, which we do not recognize as our own? Mr. Cogito says of his image in the mirror, "But it is not me!" In these poems the personality is seen as radically unharmonious and dependent on elements over which we have little control, such as familial and racial heredity and history. The complexity of the self is given a deeper and more personal content in the beautiful poem "Remembering My Father," where the father has a double appearance: first as a judging, severe and all-powerful Jehovah of the Old Testament; later as a very fragile and suffering Christlike figure. In "Sister" the very principium individuationis of the personality is threatened, since a change of identity seems as "simple as changing a place at the table."

The poems dealing with the problem of identity are among the most autobiographical and personal in all of Herbert's poetry. In his earlier poems he paid little attention to the self; his concern was usually addressed to others, and the self's harmony was assumed. Much of the stringency of the earlier poems' moral stance depended on this concern for others; Herbert was rarely self-conscious or self-indulgent, and his references to himself were usually ironic. At first glance in reading Pan Cogito it might appear that the strong, clear moral alternatives of the earlier poems are compromised by this new complexity. This is not the case; the moral stance is deepened, not diluted.

If Herbert discovers in himself traces of others and feels menaced by biological and historical determinism, he has at the same time an acute awareness of his separation from other human beings. In his earlier books Herbert frequently used the pronoun "we" with a feeling of great solidarity and compassion for others, while in his recent work he tends to use the first-person singular pronoun. This is surprising—the ability to identify with other people and to put himself in their skins is one of Herbert's most striking traits. However, in "The Alienations of Mr. Cogito" Herbert sees others as stones confined by the limits of their own skin…. (p. 210)

The choice of the stone to express a sense of separateness is not surprising…. Herbert has always been interested in inanimate objects, but not because they are inhuman. On the contrary, he tends to find human traits in objects (rather than vice versa) and to discover a community of interest between humans and objects…. In Pan Cogito there are at least two striking poems about objects, "Sense of Identity" and "To Take Objects Out." Far from praising the stability of objects, in these poems Herbert stresses an opposite quality which he finds in them, changeability…. For Herbert, objects never represented an escape from the human; he continues to be intrigued by them and to study them, finding unexpected new qualities and aspects of reality. He humanizes them and at the same time respects their fundamental opacity. There is no longer an abyss between man and inanimate objects; on the contrary, there is a new sense of identity with them based on the realization of human fallibility. Herbert is engaged in breaking down the barrier between the human and the inanimate and in extending the limits of the human, what might be called a long-term project of reclamation of the inanimate.

In Pan Cogito there is a poignant acceptance of imperfection and defeat. The stern moralist … has become more tolerant of weakness both in himself and in others. Poems like "Mr. Cogito Reads the Newspaper," "Mr. Cogito and Pure Thought," "The Everydayness of the Soul" and "Mr. Cogito Laments the Pettiness of Dreams" show human ideals, dreams and feelings as limited, largely practical, often petty and incapable of great flights. In Herbert's earlier poetry the blame for much of the mediocrity of modern life was placed on historical forces and politics rather than on the individual. Now the individual appears in all his weakness. However, this is neither tragic nor exasperating; in these poems there is an acceptance of imperfection and defeat which contains little bitterness. At most there is irony, but it is relatively gentle and totally unlike the mordant irony of an earlier political poem such as "Report from Paradise."

This acceptance of imperfection and defeat is important because it provides a matrix for one of the most important philosophical themes of the book: the attack upon transcendence. In earlier poems like "Anything Rather Than the Angel" and "The Paradise of the Theologians" Herbert attacked bloodless abstraction and favored "the creaking of the floor" over "shrilly transparent perfection." This attitude is carried a step further in what are some of the finest poems in Herbert's latest volume, "Mr. Cogito Tells about the Temptation of Spinoza" and "Georg Heym—the Almost Metaphysical Adventure." Another poem written after Pan Cogito, "Beethoven," continues the same argument. Herbert now attacks transcendence head on, in its philosophical form in the ideas of Spinoza, and in its poetic form in the ideas of Heym. The attack is carried out with great skill and intensity of feeling. It could be said that non-transcendence—or imperfection—itself becomes a "transcendent" goal in the place of transcendence. But this is avoided in a number of ways: by playfulness, irony, humor, lack of traditional form and punctuation and by the absence of the high rhetoric of literary tradition. And finally, the use of the device of Mr. Cogito—who is often a mock persona—underlines the impurity of the poems. (p. 211)

There is much historical erudition in his poetry …; yet the past is rarely used in opposition to the present. Instead, it is a natural extension and continuation of the present. The historical personae are remarkably similar to the living people we know. They are rarely "Aesopian" allegorical devices, nor are they symptoms of an unwillingness to face the present directly, a charge occasionally leveled against Herbert. For Herbert, history is ourselves, and historical figures act in essentially the same space as we do, with the same psychology and ethics. Past and present are contemporaneous. The historical dimension of Herbert's poetry seems to arise with complete spontaneity. This gives many of his poems considerable universality and is probably the key to his ability to be such a remarkably public poet. (pp. 211-12)

Herbert's long residence abroad, both in West Berlin and the United States, partly explains his use of the pronoun "I" instead of "we" and his frequent self-observation. Far from the political situation in Poland and the painful memories of World War II, Herbert was for the first time alone with himself. In addition, the presence of art, which was so important in his earlier collections of poems and in the collection of essays Barbarzyńca w ogrodzie (Barbarian in the Garden), fades into the background. Now the poet is no longer a "barbarian" from the Slavic world making a pilgrimage to the "garden" countries of Western Europe, primarily France, Italy and Greece. In the more industrialized countries Herbert apparently found that art had less relevance to daily life; he was living in a different world where many of his earlier concerns were ignored or considered to be abstractions.

It should be said that Herbert's reaction was not only one of opposition. If the United States was unsure of its identity as a country, Herbert also became less sure of his own as an individual; he questioned his earlier historical orientation, and the clear opposition of the barbarian to the garden, of totalitarian backwardness to civilization, is no longer as assured and striking as in his previous volumes of poems. It now has to be worked out in philosophical terms, and this is what Herbert does in the middle section of Pan Cogito. He defends Aristotle, logic, form, Homer and Horace—what perhaps might be called the mainstream of Western civilization—against the Orient, magic, chaos, artificial paradise and artificial hell, what he calls "the art of aggressive epilepsy." In the poems of dialogue with the United States, Herbert's Cartesianism and rationalism are most prominent. The sense of a "garden," however, of a place most favored by civilization, is lost.

Finally, we must ask why Herbert created the figure of Mr. Cogito and what his identity really is. Several critics have begun their discussion of Pan Cogito by considering this problem, assuming that it is the key to the book and that once it is solved, a judgment can be made about the volume as a whole. For this assumption to be true, however, Mr. Cogito would have to be an allegorical persona representing a fixed value or point of view, analogous to Valéry's Monsieur Teste, Pound's Mauberley or Eliot's Sweeney. However, this certainly is not the case. The mood and humor with which Herbert uses the figure of Mr. Cogito varies greatly—even more so, for example, than John Berryman's treatment of his "Henry." Herbert employs many tones and speaking voices in his poems, and so does the fictitious Mr. Cogito. They range from the serious, biblical language of "The Envoy of Mr. Cogito" to the humorous, light "Mr. Cogito on Virtue" with its references to Elizabeth Taylor and pop music. Often Mr. Cogito's presence is stated only in the title of a poem but nowhere else, or only in an epigraph, as in "Houses of the Outskirts" and "Caligula." These poems could clearly dispense with their epigraphs or the reference to Mr. Cogito in the title without any esthetic damage. Often Mr. Cogito's "presence" is pure bluff or playfulness on Herbert's part; he is a mock persona or pseudo-persona and is not to be taken seriously. This playfulness is not new: although Herbert is a severe moralist, he is frequently whimsical and humorous. Often Mr. Cogito is little more than a device permitting Herbert to refer to himself with a third-person pronoun. At other times Herbert's famous irony is at the heart of the existence of Mr. Cogito—tongue in cheek, he is clearly not to be believed in, he is only a parody. Frequently it is clear that Herbert is making no effort to modulate or disguise his voice; he is both spontaneous and personal. And in the past many of Herbert's mouthpieces have been ironic: figures such as the Proconsul and Fortinbras spoke in the contemporary idiom of the twentieth century with an evident and disabused knowledge of its holocausts. In this list of personae (a long one) Mr. Cogito is probably the most ironic.

The relationship between the author of the book and Mr. Cogito is never decisively or satisfactorily settled. The ambiguity of the Mr. Cogito poems, the constant shifting between third- and first-person verbs, is already peresent in the name "Mister," indicating a third-person form of address, while cogito is the first-person singular form of the verb cogitare. Both from the stylistic and from the grammatical point of view, Mr. Cogito is a combination of the self and others. This ambiguity reflects the major philosophical theme of the volume: man's identity and the problem of his relationship to others. (pp. 212-13)

If the reader should ask why Herbert needs to use a device or figure such as Mr. Cogito at all, the answer is the need to "objectify"…. Even when Herbert is most personal, he is always talking about the outside world and about its reality. The personal tone is a vehicle for approaching the world as directly as possible; on the other hand, to call attention to his own ego, to his separateness, would confine the poem and diminish that broad reality he observes so intently, so unflinchingly.

Mr. Cogito is clearly a little man, and some have called him petty. His concerns are frequently ordinary and practical; he enjoys reading sensational newspaper articles, he tries transcendental meditation and fails, his stream of consciousness brings up detritus like a tin can, he needs advice, and so on. However, this ordinariness is largely involuntary—Mr. Cogito has average impulses. This is different from being only average, and he does not stop there. Mr. Cogito is a device allowing Herbert to admit this ordinariness we all share, to establish it and, once this is done, to build upon it. Herbert wants to underline ordinariness and imperfection because he wants to deal with practical, not transcendent, morality. The poems of Pan Cogito consistently apply ethics not only to action but to the possible, viable action of everyday life, taking human failings into account. The poems are tolerant and humane in their approach, and they are less categorical than the earlier poems, embracing a greater range of contradictions. They are both more personal and more general, which gives striking modernity and depth to the volume.

Herbert does not call for extraordinary exploits of resistance, which is in keeping with his attack upon transcendence. The earlier poems were usually terse and sudden, going straight to their target without digressions; the poems in Pan Cogito are less swift and terse, yet they are about heroism no less than the earlier poems. Herbert addresses the problem of how the ordinary man in the modern world, without any superhuman powers, can achieve the heroism of a Hector, a Roland or a Gilgamesh. The "Envoy of Mr. Cogito," which concludes the volume, considers the problem of how an average individual can find a stance, an acceptable attitude, which is not shameful when compared with those of heroes of the past. Herbert claims this is possible, and to demonstrate, he uses a person who is anchored in practicality, who is above no one and who is of the measure of anyone and everyone. If Mr. Cogito were extraordinary, Herbert's claim would be less convincing. Surely those who have complained about Mr. Cogito's pettiness and grayness have missed the point, because if he were more remarkable he would be less universal. Herbert is casting his nets widely, and in poem after poem Mr. Cogito does achieve heroism in his ironic, low-keyed manner. The poems have a great, deliberate burden of everydayness, of ordinary, intractable reality, to carry.

The ultimate irony of these poems is that, in the final analysis, Herbert seems to say that we must act against human nature. Suffering does not release us from certain duties—of acting according to our conscience and against human nature. One must accept, but here the awareness—the cogitans, intellectual awareness—is important. One must be aware of one's own human nature and limitations; one must not do violence to them. One must accept, consent and then overcome them. (pp. 213-14)

Herbert argues for the acceptance of suffering without big words and dramatic gestures, for a deflation of attitudes. It is needless to say that such acceptance is far more "heroic" and difficult than would be the case if it were accompanied by rhetoric, by ethical inflation and melodrama. In Pan Cogito the moralist is also a humanist, but the humanist is also a moralist; in the book Herbert struggles to create a fusion of the two. (p. 214)

Bogdana Carpenter and John Carpenter, "The Recent Poetry of Zbigniew Herbert," in World Literature Today (copyright 1977 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 51, No. 2, Spring, 1977, pp. 210-14.