Zbigniew Herbert 1924-1998
Twentieth-century Polish poet, dramatist, and essayist.
The following entry provides criticism on Zbigniew Herbert's works from 1976 through 1999.
One of the most influential European poets of the second half of the twentieth century, Zbigniew Herbert's life and work were shaped by World War II and life under Poland's communist regime. Considered a political poet unconstrained by ideology, Herbert's poetry emphasized sensory, everyday experience and questioned the notion of transcendence and ideologies that justified oppression. As Bogdana Carpenter writes in World Literature Today, “from his extremely destructive experiences Herbert manages to draw constructive conclusions, and he builds a bridge between realms that seem to be irreconcilable: the past and the present, suffering and poetry.” Herbert's work has been widely translated. In addition to the G. Herder Award, Herbert received the Lenau, Petrarch, Welsh Arts Council, Jerusalem and the T. S. Eliot Prizes. “In a just world,” wrote Stephen Dobyns of the New York Times, “Mr. Herbert would have received the Nobel Prize long ago.”
Zbigniew Herbert was born on November 29, 1924, in Lwów, Poland, where his father was a bank director and economics professor. When Herbert was only fourteen years old the tumult of World War II swept Poland into a series of power changes between the Soviet Union, under Stalin, and Hitler's Germany, a disillusioning, political juggling that lasted through the end of the war in the poet's twenieth year. In 1939, the Soviet army seized Lwów in accordance with the Stalin-Hitler Pact. The Germans then invaded in 1941, and the Soviets recaptured Lwów in 1944. During the war, Herbert attended an underground high school and university. He also organized an anti-Soviet resistance group dubbed “White Eagle” and was a member of the underground Home Army. After moving to Kraków to study painting and economics in 1944, he studied philosophy at Warsaw University. He earned a master's degree in economics from Kraków's Academy of Commerce in 1947 and a law degree from the Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń in 1949, where he instructed by the anti-Marxist, ethicist Henryk Elzenberg. Between 1946 and 1950 Herbert published some critical essays, but as Stalin tightened his grip on Poland, the poet went underground, withdrawing from the politically charged Writers' Union in 1951. Although Herbert began writing poetry when he was seventeen, he did not publish his first book of verse, Struna światła (Chord of Light), until 1956 because the political climate in Poland under the Nazi occupation and Stalinist suppression of the arts kept him from publishing. His second volume of poetry, Hermes, pies i gwiazda (Hermes, a Dog and a Star) was published in 1957. In 1958 Herbert traveled in England, France, Greece, and Italy and published a third book of poetry, Studium przedmiotu (Study of the Object) in 1961 and a volume of essays on Western art, Barbarzyńca w ogrodzie (Barbarian in the Garden) in 1962. Herbert spent the years 1965 to 1980 abroad; he married Katarzyna Dzieduszyska in 1968. Herbert returned to Poland in January 1981, a few months after the emergence of Solidarity. Raport z oblężonego miasta (Report from the Besieged City and Other Poems) was published in 1983 by an émigré publishing house in Paris. Many of its poems describe Poland's martial law. Between 1984 and 1990 Herbert lived in Paris, where he suffered from depression and a serious illness. After returning to Poland, Herbert published two more volumes of poetry, Rovigo (1993) and Epilog burzy (Epilogue to the Storm; 1998). He died from complications of emphysema on July 28, 1998.
Herbert's first collection of poems, Chord of Light, contains poems written over a span of fifteen years. Intimately affected by the brutal impact of the war, the poet considers in this volume the vulnerability of art, the failure of ideology, and the inadequacy of language to articulate experience. Poems such as “Dwie krople” (“Two Drops”), which describes lovers in a bomb shelter (“To the end they were brave / To the end they were faithful”), and “Do Marka Aurelego” (“To Marcus Aurelius”) attest to a powerful ethical system that values courage, loyalty, and faithfulness; the duty to remember and to give testimony; and the primacy of sensuous experience over ideology and abstract philosophical systems. Herbert's second volume, Hermes, a Dog and a Star, puts World War II in a universal context; its victims join all other victims of history. In a poem that displays this type of universality, called “Five Men,” he wrote: “thus one can use in poetry / names of Greek shepherds / one can attempt to catch the color of morning sky / write of love / and also / once again / in dead earnest / offer to the betrayed world / a rose.” His third collection, The Study of the Object tackles the ideal of and consequences of the quest for perfection. Napis (Inscription; 1969) contains poems such as “Dlaczego klasycy” (“Why the Classics”) that use the past to describe and critique the present. Pan Cogito (Mr. Cogito; 1974) reflects his experience in the United States in its references to popular culture and an ahistorical representation of history. Despite the serious subject matter, the poems are playful and ironic. Herbert uses the Mr. Cogito persona to critique abstraction and transcendence and to celebrate human imperfection. The volume Elegia na odejście (Elegy for the Departure and Other Poems; 1990) turns to philosophical and ethical questions such as the problem of evil, the nature of heroism, the persistence of memory, and the need for compassion. Rovigo (1993), named for a city in Poland, contains polemical poems directed to individuals. The theme of the last volume of Herbert's poems that was published during his lifetime is summarized in the title, Epilog burzy (Epilogue to the Storm; 1998) which refers to a well-known painting by Giorgione and to the turbulence of his own life.
As a poet of the historical, philosophical, political, and individual, Herbert's unadorned, witty, and ironic poetry has earned him an international reputation. The poet Robert Hass calls him “one of the most influential European poets of the last half-century, … an ironist and a minimalist who writes as if it were the task of the poet, in a world full of loud lies, to say what is irreducibly true in a level voice.” Stephen Stepanchev describes Herbert as “a witness to his time,” and Stephen Miller calls him a political poet whose “subdued and casual” poems “shun both hysteria and apocalyptic intensity.” A. Alvarez contends that Herbert “is political by virtue of being permanently and warily in opposition. … 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.” Critics have also praised Herbert's use of humor and satire. “The most distinctive quality of Herbert's imagination,” Laurence Lieberman writes, “is his power to invest impish fantasy, mischievously tender nonsense, with the highest seriousness. … Fantasy is an instrument of survival: it is the chief weapon in a poetry arsenal which serves as a caretaker for the individual identity, a bulwark against the mental slavery of the totalitarian church and state.” Stephen Miller sees Herbert's humor as “a way of resisting the dehumanizing and impersonal language of the state. … Keeping a sense of humor means keeping a private language and avoiding the total politicization of the self.” Herbert's poetic persona, Mr. Cogito, has taken hold in the public imagination. Adam Michnik has called “Przeslanie Pana Cogito” (“The Envoy of Mr. Cogito”) “a prayer of people who are free,” and the last line of that poem—“Be Faithful Go”—became a manifesto for the generation of poets, writers, and intellectuals who later became active in the Solidarity movement. Bogdana Carpenter writes, “Although the evolution of Herbert's poetry was closely tied to the changes in Poland's political situation, its greatness lies in the universality of its message.” Lauded, Nobel Prize winning poet Seamus Heaney wrote that Herbert's poetry “shoulders the whole scope of human dignity and responsibility.”