Zbigniew Herbert Themes

Enduring Themes

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Herbert’s first volumes contain most of the themes that interested him throughout his career; certainly, his enforced silence during the Stalinist decade in Poland, from 1946 to 1956, contributed to the ultimate strength of these poems. Others of his generation, such as Różewicz and Szymborska, adapted to the Stalinist demands and were permitted to publish; as a result, their books that appeared during this period are inferior to their later work. Herbert wrote for a long time without a public audience, but his poems assumed a firm core of consistency and strength as he developed his themes. First among them was the imperative to resist, to listen to the individual conscience; he was willing to suffer for his ideals. The moral demand to direct one’s gaze at reality itself is present in Herbert’s first volume, as is his gift for infusing the past with life. Some of these early poems are about the difficulty of writing after the war, about the loss of ideals; at a profound level, they reflected Herbert’s formal training in philosophy—not because the poems are explicitly “philosophical” but because they are informed by an intense, overriding concern for truth and clarity. Herbert consistently directed his attention outward, at the world as it exists. It was this stance that also makes it possible to consider Herbert as a “public” poet. The lines in these early poems are relatively short; they often seem to follow the rapidity of thought, and they already display the great agility that is typical of Herbert’s style.

Hermes, pies i gwiazda

Herbert’s second volume, Hermes, pies i gwiazda, is marked by the sudden infusion of prose poems in the second section. Irony becomes more prominent, and the poet’s tone is increasingly mordant. The individual lines of poems are sometimes longer in this volume, although there is the same agility and rapid spontaneity of association that marked the first volume.

Studium przedmiotu

Herbert’s third volume, Studium przedmiotu, carried his dialogue with objects to its furthest point. The volume is also among his most critical, taking aim at contemporary social and political reality. As he did this, however, Herbert evidently felt the need to assume a greater distance—critical distance—from the reality he sought to describe, and thus he adopted a variety of personas in this volume, giving his critique greater depth and historical reverberation.


Herbert’s fourth book, Napis (inscription), shows a greater concern for textures, and the lines have become somewhat longer. This volume has been called Herbert’s “expressionist” volume; in it, he gave full rein to his delight in dramatic metaphor. He developed further many of his previous themes, but the reader senses that there is a shift in the target of Herbert’s sense of revolt. Focusing less on immediate social and political realities, the poet was increasingly concerned with the universal and the archetypal, extending back into the past and into the subconscious.

Mr. Cogito

In Herbert’s fifth collection of original poems, Mr. Cogito, the dominant theme is the identity of the self, explored through the title figure. Sometimes the persona of Mr. Cogito is entirely playful; at other times, he allows the poet to confront painful personal matters without obtrusive emotion. The volume contains a number of poems of striking philosophical depth, among them “Georg Heym—the Almost Metaphysical Adventure” and “Mr. Cogito Tells About the Temptation of Spinoza.” Many poems in...

(The entire section is 1479 words.)