Zbigniew Herbert Analysis

Other Literary Forms

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Zbigniew Herbert was primarily a poet, but he was also a prose writer of considerable originality and distinction. A collection of essays titled Barbarzyńca w ogrodzie (Barbarian in the Garden, 1985) appeared in Poland in 1962; these essays are a unique combination of personal, richly poetic, firsthand description with analytical, scholarly research. Herbert also wrote several plays, including radio plays as well as works for the stage; a collection of his dramatic works was published in 1970 under the title Dramaty (plays).

In addition, Herbert published works in a genre of his own invention, his “apocryphas.” These prose pieces are a synthesis of the short story and the essay; they contest traditional accounts or interpretations of major historical events and present the very different (“apocryphal”) interpretations of the author. Although most of Herbert’s apocryphas take their subjects from Western European history, some go farther afield—to Chinese history, for example. A collection of these works, “Narzeczona Attyli” (Attila’s fiancé), has been awaiting publication in Poland for some time.


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Zbigniew Herbert exerted great influence as a poet and as a moral force both in Poland and Western Europe. He was above all the spokesman of the individual conscience. He excited interest as a political poet, but although his poems addressed major political issues, they went far beyond immediate issues and encompassed a broad range of problems that are both philosophical and personal. Herbert resisted categorization and never represented a group or school of any kind. He gave the impression of being entirely alone, answerable only to his conscience—yet he managed at the same time to pitch his voice in such a way that he was one of the most authentically public poets of the age. This was the paradox of Herbert that gives his poetry its particular stamp.

Although Herbert was an antirhetorical poet, it is difficult to separate the content of his writing from his style. His poetic forms and rhythms exerted a powerful influence on other poets. One of the two greatest living Polish poets (the other, Czesław Miłosz, has translated a number of Herbert’s poems into English), his influence has been acknowledged not only by younger Polish poets such as Ryszard Krynicki, Stanislaw Barańczak, and Jacek Bierezin but also by a wide range of poets in America and throughout the West.

His influence was also recognized with several awards throughout his career. In 1958 he won the Polish Radio Competition Prize and in 1964 he received the Millenium Prize from the Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences (United States). For his contribution to European literature, he was awarded the Nicholas Lenau Prize (Austria) in 1965. In 1973 he received both the Alfred Jurzykowski Prize and the Herder Prize. He also won the Petrarch Prize in 1979, the Bruno Schulz Prize in 1988, the Jerusalem Literature Prize in 1991, and a Jurzykowski Foundation Award.

Lessons from the War

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Few assumptions about the world and about civilization—what it is and what it is not—survived the war unscathed. The sense of continuity was broken, and many shared the vantage point of what might be called the “rubbish heap” of the present. Herbert’s poem “Przebudzenie” (“Awakening”), from Wiersze zebrane, is a fine description of this attitude. It begins:

When the horror subsided the floodlights went out
we discovered that we were on a rubbish-heap in very strange poses
. . . . . . . . . . . .
 . . . . . .
We had nowhere to go we stayed on the rubbish-heap
we tidied things up
the bones and sheet iron we deposited in an archive
We listened to the chirping of streetcars to a swallow- like voice of factories
and a new life was unrolling at our feet.

The common experience of wartime destruction and of starting a “new life” united Herbert and the other members of his generation, and gave them their unique temporal perspective. They drew very different conclusions from their experiences, however, and there is no consensus of attitude or ideology among them. Herbert is sometimes linked to Tadeusz Różewicz, another poet who lived through the war, because they were close in age and were both moralists. Their values, however, were in fundamental conflict. Różewicz’s poetry after the war denied all previous values and emphasized purely personal experience, whereas Herbert arrived at entirely different conclusions. He wrote:

Something makes me different from the ‘War Generation.’ It seems to me that I came away from the war without accepting the failure of the earlier morality. It is still attractive to me most of all because I painfully feel the lack of tablets of values in the contemporary world.

Herbert was a more positive poet than many other members of the War Generation, although rarely have positive values been won against greater opposition and with greater struggle.

Use of the Past

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One of the most striking features of Herbert’s poetry was the manner in which he used the past. It was remarkably alive for him; historical figures frequently appeared in his poems with the vividness of our contemporaries. In Western Europe and the United States, poetry that invokes the great traditions of Western culture is often associated with reactionary values. In Poland during the decade after World War II, however, a paradoxical situation arose in which some of the writers who had most completely rejected the prewar culture found that they had little basis for rebelling against the Stalinist present; on the other hand, a poet such as Herbert, who strived to repossess the culture of the past, was able to express revolt in one of its most intense and radical forms.

It is a mistake, however, to call Herbert a “classicist,” as he was sometimes labeled. For him, the past was not a static source of value; he is not an antiquarian, as his poem “Classic” made clear. For Herbert, the past represented living experience rather than lifeless forms. He did not adhere to the past at the expense of the present; instead, the past is the ally of the present. The distinction is a useful one and even crucial, for Herbert’s use of the past was the opposite of that of a genuine classicist such as the contemporary Polish poet Jaroslaw Rymkiewicz. Herbert felt the dead are alive, made of flesh and blood. If there was a division between the past and the present, it was often spatial rather than temporal. In Herbert’s famous poem “Elegy of Fortinbras,” he assumed the persona of Fortinbras, who addresses Hamlet as his immediate contemporary; the poem ends by translating death into terms of spatial distance: “It is not for us to greet each other or bid farewell we live on archipelagos/ and that water these words what can they do what can they do prince.” The ever-present tension and dialogue between past and present did not restrict Herbert’s poetry; in fact, the reverse is true: He confronted the world in all its breadth, and his experience is placed in a seamless historical continuum.


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Herbert was influenced both by the Catastrophists, such as Czesław Miłosz, who stressed philosophical and historical themes in their poetry, and by the avant-garde poets of the 1920’s and the 1930’s, such as Jozéf Czechowicz, who eschewed punctuation. Several other poets of Herbert’s generation who lived through the war also turned to the avant-garde in their search for poetic forms that were capable of rendering their experience. Many of Herbert’s early poems shared the phenomenological preoccupations of the avant-garde; at the most fundamental level, poets were asking: How can one describe the world? How can one describe one’s experience? Herbert’s poems “I Would Like to Describe,” Attempt at a Description,” “Voice,” “Episode in a Library,” “Wooden Bird,” “Nothing Special,” and the later “Mr. Cogito Thinks About the Voice of Nature and the Human Voice” all approached this concern from different angles.

Unique Punctuation

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Herbert’s phenomenological preoccupations are particularly apparent in his handling of punctuation. Conventional punctuation was not automatically accepted by serious poets in Poland after the war, and Herbert was by no means alone in questioning its use. Prewar avant-garde poetry still enjoyed a high esteem among poets, and punctuation also had a political coloring: Lack of conventional punctuation became associated with revolt and with individualism. Herbert’s first collection of poems, Struna światła (chord of light), which represented work done during the first postwar decade, eschewed conventional punctuation, particularly the use of periods. In a prose poem written somewhat later, titled “Period,” he placed punctuation in a very broad historical and social context; the poem ends: “In fact the period, which we attempt to tame at any price, is a bone protruding from the sand, a snapping shut, a sign of a catastrophe. It is a punctuation of the elements. People should employ it modestly and with proper consideration, as is customary when one replaces fate.” In other words, for Herbert, the “period” marked a hiatus in the texture of the world and of reality. Its thoughtless use is presumptuous and even destructive, violating the living tissue and the continuities of the real world.

In England and America, the traditional use of punctuation was—with notable exceptions—maintained after the war; accepted practice had not been put into doubt by new experience. In Central and Eastern Europe, however, especially in those countries which had experienced the worst destruction during the war and which had suffered under Nazi occupation, conventional punctuation was sharply questioned, along with other inherited poetic practices. Indeed, punctuation became one of the major topoi, or themes, of postwar Eastern European literature—a theme that has yet to receive sufficient critical attention.

Use of Prose

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Parallel to Herbert’s radical reduction of punctuation (he frequently employed dashes, as well as occasional parentheses and question marks) was his development of the prose poem; much of the prose poetry written in Poland since 1957 was influenced by Herbert’s explorations in the genre. While his first collection of poems was restricted to largely punctuation-free verse, his second, Hermes, pies i gwiazda (Hermes, dog and star), had a separate section of prose poems, comprising sixty of the book’s ninety-five poems. Originally, Herbert intended these prose poems to constitute a separate volume, and he called them bajeczki (little fairy tales). His project was thwarted by an editor, however, and they were included in his second volume of poems. In subsequent volumes, Herbert intentionally interspersed prose poems among his punctuation-free verse poems, and this became his regular practice.

In his third collection, Studium przedmiotu (study of the object), the ratio of prose to verse poems is eighteen to twenty-eight; in his fourth collection, Napis, fourteen to twenty-six; and in his fifth, Mr. Cogito, five to thirty-five. The choice to use one form or the other was always highly deliberate with Herbert, depending on his attitude toward the subject of the poem, his distance from it, and his tone, as well as the rhythms he used. The more reflective poems, especially those that assume considerable distance from the subject and those that use strong irony, were frequently written in prose. The various modulations of these two basic forms were always carefully worked out. This is only one of the ways, but an important one, in which the form of Herbert’s poetry is related to its content, and the resulting range of forms is astonishingly broad.

Inanimate Objects

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Herbert’s many poems about inanimate objects should be seen in the context of his attempt to explore the relationship between experience and reality. Herbert wrote fine poems (and again, his practice has been imitated by many younger Polish poets) about a pebble, a stool, a watch, armchairs, a clothes wringer; indeed, the title of one of Herbert’s collections of poems means “study of the objects.” Some readers have wondered why a poet such as Herbert, who was so consistently concerned with life and human experience, should write about lifeless objects. The poems were part of Herbert’s attempt to separate what is subjective from what is objective and to see clearly. In the poem “I Would Like to Describe,” Herbert wrote: “ . . . so is blurred/ in me/ what white-haired gentlemen/ separated once and for all/ and said/ this is the subject/ and this is the object.” Herbert was always interested in inanimate objects, but not because they are inhuman. On the contrary, he tended to find human traits in objects (rather than vice versa) and to discover a community of interest between humans and objects. In a conversation in 1969, Herbert said that he was fascinated by objects because

they are so completely different from us, and enigmatic. They come from a totally different world from ours. We are never sure that we understand them; sometimes we think so, other times we don’t, depending on how much of ourselves we project on them. What I like about them is their ability to resist us, to be silent. We can never really conquer them or tame them, and that is good.

Thus, while Herbert humanized objects, he also respected their fundamental opacity. At the same time, there was no abyss between man and inanimate objects—on the contrary, there is a sense of identity with them, based on the realization of human fallibility and imperfection. Herbert was engaged in breaking down the barrier between the human and the inanimate and in extending the limits of the human.


(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Baranczak, Stanislaw. A Fugitive from Utopia: The Poetry of Zbigniew Herbert. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1987. A useful introduction, one of the first book-length studies published in English.

Carpenter, Bogdana. “The Barbarian in the Garden: Zbigniew Herbert’s Reevaluations.” World Literature Today 57, no. 3 (Summer, 1983): 388-393. Excellent coverage in English by Herbert’s translator.

Carpenter, Bogdana, and John Carpenter. “The Recent Poetry of Zbigniew Herbert.” World Literature Today 51, no. 2 (Spring, 1977): 210-214. Two students of Herbert review his poems of the mid-1970’s.

Carpenter, Bogdana, and John Carpenter. “Zbigniew Herbert: The Poet as Conscience.” Slavic and East European Journal 24, no. 1 (1980): 37-51. Covers themes and issues in Herbert’s works.

Czerniawski, Adam, ed. The Mature Laurel: Essays on Modern Polish Poetry. Bridgend, Mid Glamorgan: Seren Books, 1991. Contains several good essays on Herbert, some devoted to analysis of individual poems. Others discuss his work in relationship to that of such leading contemporaries as Wislawa Szymborska and Tadeusz Rózewicz.

Heaney, Seamus. “Atlas of Civilization.” In The Government of the Tongue. New York: Noonday Press, 1990. Heaney sees a direct connection between Herbert and Socrates, Plato, and the notion of the examined life.

Kraszewski, Charles. Essays on the Dramatic Works of the Polish Poet Zbigniew Herbert. Lewiston, N.Y.: E. Mellen Press, 2002. Five essays on Herbert as playwright, comparing his drama with his poetry.

Levine, Madeline. Contemporary Polish Poetry, 1925-1975. Boston: Twayne, 1981. An introduction to and overview of Polish literature of the mid-twentieth century. Includes index and bibliography.

Nizynska, Joanna. “Marsyas’s Howl: The Myth of Marsyas in Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Zbigniew Herbert’s ‘Apollo and Marsyas.’” Comparative Literature 53, no. 2 (2001): 151-170. Compares the Roman and Polish uses of the myth, emphasizing Herbert’s “translation” of the story.

Shallcross, Bozena. Through the Poet’s Eye: The Travels of Zagajewski, Herbert, and Bridsky. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 2002. Analyzes Herbert’s The Barbarian in the Garden, focusing on the poet as traveler and observer.

Wood, Sharon. “The Reflections of Mr. Palomar and Mr. Cogito: Italo Calvino and Zbigniew Herbert.” Modern Language Notes 109, no. 1 (1994): 128-142. Compares the two writers’ creations of alter egos.