Why the Classics

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Why the Classics

Author Biography
Poem Summary
Topics For Further Study
Historical Context
Compare & Contrast
Critical Overview
What Do I Read Next?
Further Reading


Zbigniew Herbert 1968

"Why the Classics" appeared in Zbigniew Herbert's first English translation of his poetry, Selected Poems, published in 1968. As is often the case with poetry, it is not clear exactly when the poem was written, only when it was finally published. Herbert began writing as a teenager, but he was 44 years old when Selected Poems was published; therefore, this poem might have been written at any point during those years. The primary themes of the poem—honor, responsibility, artistic authority, and experiences of the exile—are topical to the post World War II era but might also echo some of the realities of life in an oppressive communist state. Accordingly, this poem reflects many of the concerns that Herbert felt about society, especially a society in which his own culture had been destroyed by invading armies. Herbert has often used classical references and ideals in his work. His reliance upon classical works reveals Herbert's view that classical literature is an effective way to study and learn from the events of the modern world. Herbert was criticized for the inclusion of so much from classical antiquity in his poems. This poem shows one way that he chose to refute this criticism. Herbert's poem also exposes the keen disappointments of someone who thought that modern leaders have not learned from the examples of history.

In "Why the Classics," the author uses irony and models from classical history to point to the failings of modern military leaders he believes do not take responsibility for their own military failures. Using the fourth century b.c. historian and general, Thucydides, as an example, Herbert uses the first section of the poem to establish the ideal model: a leader who willingly accepts responsibility for failure, even when the responsibility for such failure is not clearly determined to have been the leader's fault. In the second section of the poem, Herbert compares this ideal model with the leaders and generals of more recent wars, who have no sense of accountability for the actions of their armies. Instead of accepting responsibility, leaders blame anyone or anything rather than blame themselves. In the third section, Herbert turns to literature and art that fails to relate the truth of injustice and instead wallows in self-pity and superficiality. Taken as a whole, Herbert's poem makes effective use of ancient history as a way to criticize Herbert's own world. Instead of the restraint and honesty of Thucydides, his modern counterpart is alternately arrogant, petty, and without talent.

Herbert believed in the value of classicism, with its emphasis on aesthetics, clarity, symmetry, and long-established forms. Certainly, it is reasonable to assume that Herbert's early life, marked by invasions, war, and loss of his homeland, all contributed to his reliance on classical antiquity in his poems. Classical thought provides not only a paradigm of excellence but also a model that has proved enduring. "Why the Classics" is typical of Herbert's poetry, which often turns to the past for inspiration and lessons to which a modern world might look for guidance.

Author Biography

Zbigniew Herbert was born on October 29, 1924 in Lwow (or Lvov), a city that was located in Eastern Poland and that later became a part of the Ukraine. Herbert was the son of a banker and professor, and the grandson of an Englishman, thus accounting for Herbert's very English surname. He was not even fifteen years old in 1939 when the Red Army invaded his city, as part of an agreement with Hitler. By 1941, when Nazis invaded the city, Herbert's city had become a concentration camp. Eventually Herbert joined the underground Polish Home Army and became actively involved in an anti-Soviet resistance movement after the Soviets recaptured Lwow in 1944, which was then annexed to the Soviet Union. After most of the Polish Home Army died during the Warsaw massacre of 1944, Herbert moved to Krakow, where he began his studies in law and philosophy at the University of Krakow. Herbert completed a master of arts in economics in 1947 and then began studying at the Copernicus University in Torun where he completed a law degree in 1948. Herbert next enrolled at the University of Warsaw where he earned another master of arts degree in 1950, this one in philosophy.

Herbert was seventeen when he began writing poetry, but it was 1956 before his first book of poetry, A String of Light, was published in Poland. This publication was a result of the liberalization of communist rule that permitted the publication of the first books of Polish poetry since the communists began to rule Poland. In the fifteen years prior to the publication Herbert wrote poetry, but the Nazi occupation, which was quickly followed by Stalinist rule, meant the censorship of all literary publishing.

After the relaxation of communist rule, Herbert began traveling outside of Poland and often visited England and Western Europe. A second volume of poetry, Hermes, a Dog and a Star, was published in 1957, and a third volume, Study of an Object, was published in 1961. Herbert next turned to prose and published a book of essays, Barbarian in the Garden in 1962. The poem "Why The Classics" appeared in Herbert's fourth volume of published poetry, Inscription, which was translated and published in English in 1968 as Selected Poems. Herbert is probably best known for PanCogito, published in 1974 and then translated into English as Mr. Cogito for its 1993 publication. His last book of poetry, Elegy for the Departure and Other Poems, was published in 1999.

Herbert married Katarzyna Dzieduszyska April 30, 1968. He was the recipient of many awards and honors, including the Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences Award in 1964, the Nicholas Lenau Prize in 1965, the Alfred Jurzykowski Prize in 1973, the Petrarch Prize in 1979, the Bruno Schulz Prize in 1988, and the Jerusalem Literature Prize in 1991. For many years, Herbert and his wife lived outside Poland, first in West Berlin (1973–1981) and later in Paris (1984–1990), but Herbert and his wife always returned to Poland, where he was considered to be one of Poland's greatest postwar poets. Herbert died on July 28, 1998 in Warsaw, Poland.

Poem Summary

Lines 1–8

In "Why the Classics," Herbert impresses on the reader the importance of modern military leaders to learn accountability and honor from historical military leaders. Thucydides was a general and historian who initially participated in the lengthy war between Athens and Sparta and who later wrote a history of the Peloponnesian War. In the fourth book on the war, Thucydides relates stories of the battles and sieges in which he fought, and he also tells of his own efforts to survive the plague, a disease that decimated the Athenian population. According to Herbert, in his history, Thucydides includes the speeches that were made before battles, and he also relates the diplomatic side of the war, the spying and intrigue that are rarely included in histories written about great warfare. Herbert mentions these details because they establish the thoroughness of Thucydides's work. Then Herbert moves to the important point that he wishes to make about the great historian. In his history, Thucydides also included the details about his failures, even though the "episode is like a pin / in a forest." According to Herbert, Thucydides's failures, though small when taken in context of his great accomplishments, are important to remember because of their final cost to the great historian and leader.

Lines 9–13

The history that Herbert references in this section is important to know because it is a significant element to understanding why Herbert admires Thucydides. In 424 b.c., Thucydides, who had seven Athenian ships under his control, failed to arrive in time to save his own home city of Amphipolis from an invasion by the Spartan general, Brasidas. This failure resulted in the loss of several nearby towns, whose inhabitants grew afraid that they would also not be rescued. Because of the fall of Amphipolis, Athens was forced to sign an armistice with Sparta that called for a truce of one year. The truce did not last, of course, and eventually the war resumed and Athens was defeated. With time, Brasidas came to be regarded as the founder of Amphipolis. Thucydides took responsibility, although it is unclear whether he was at fault for the fall of Amphipolis. He was exiled as punishment, and when he wrote a history of the Peloponnesian War, he included the details of his own failure to save his city. Herbert briefly summarizes these events in lines 9 through 11. Next, Herbert explains that Thucydides paid the debt he owed to his city "with lifelong exile." Thus when Herbert uses Thucydides, he argues that even though acknowledging a failure will result in extreme punishments, such as banishment, an honorable leader will do so because it is the honorable action to take.

Lines 14–15

In the final two lines of the first section Herbert reveals his own pain as an exile. His own city of Lwow was a victory prize for the Soviets at the end of World War II. As a Pole, he can no longer claim his own birth city, and while his actions did not result in the loss of Lwow to Poland—only the Soviets can claim responsibility for this loss—Herbert does feel pain that he could not save his town. His own culture has been destroyed, wiped clean by an invading army that has no respect for the history of the city or country. Herbert especially feels anguish since his own attempts at resistance were not successful. In 1944 when the Soviets reclaimed Lwow from the Nazis, Herbert became active with the anti-Soviet resistance and joined the underground Polish Home Army. Herbert makes the connection between the classical and the modern in his poem, just as Thucydides was unable to save his city, Herbert was unable to save his own city. Like the Athenian historian, Herbert lived out his life as an exile. As he states in line 15, Herbert knows the price of exile.

Lines 16–22

In the second section of "Why the Classics," Herbert moves to a comparison between Thucydides and those generals and leaders who fight modern wars. Herbert is deliberately vague in this section. Since he never specifies name, nationality, or period, his comments about modern leaders might be applied to all leaders who blunder ahead, causing loss of life and honor, and who fail to acknowledge their mistakes or take responsibility for their losses. In lines 16 and 17, Herbert imagines the generals of "recent wars," who if they suffered a loss such as the loss suffered by Thucydides, would instead "whine on their knees," while they also extol "their heroism and innocence." Today's generals would lament their losses, claim they had done their best, and then accuse others for their failures. Lines 20 through 22 explain Herbert's opinion that the generals of the "most recent wars" (line 16) blame either their subordinates or their colleagues, who are supposedly "envious." They even blame fate, those "unfavourable winds" that the ancient Greeks thought could shape one's destiny.

Lines 23–26

Thucydides, however, did not blame the winds of fate or those other generals who might have offered assistance but who did not, or his men, who perhaps slowed his arrival. Herbert reminds his readers that Thucydides offered only facts and no excuses: "he had seven ships / it was winter / and he sailed quickly." And still he was too late. Herbert offers only the facts, which are not mitigated by excuses or blame. Unlike those generals of recent wars, Thucydides accepts his responsibilities as a leader. Amphipolis was his home, and he could not save it. He resisted the opportunity to rewrite this history and mitigate his blame. Thucydides was a writer of history, and as such, he might certainly have downplayed his own blame but Thucydides did not choose to do so. Herbert admires this honesty, which while so important to an Athenian general who lived nearly 2500 years ago, is absent, Herbert feels, in modern generals.

Lines 27–34

In the third section Herbert expands on his comparison by calling upon the poet, who like those modern generals, also fails to show restraint and who fails to engage in poetic honesty. The third section of Herbert's poem appears to suddenly change topic, but in fact, the topic remains the same, although the example used to examine it has shifted. Herbert moves from generals to poets. According to Herbert, poetic verbosity has replaced talent, and self-pity has become art. The greatness of the poet has been reduced to "a small broken soul / with a great self-pity." Herbert suggests that the poet of today has ceased to focus on strength, and the reader is now subjected to weeping lovers in dirty hotel rooms. These final lines point to an important element of Herbert's poetry—the poet has a responsibility to illuminate injustice and create change. Rather than leaving a great legacy, Herbert states that all modern poets are leaving behind are images of dirty wallpaper and unhappy love affairs. The ancient Greek poets wrote of great battles and wars. Thucydides is perhaps better known as a historian than as a general. His History of the Peloponnesian Wars is a legacy that outlived the loss of his city, his supposed failures in battle, and his exile from his beloved native town. But today's poets will leave no such legacy according to Herbert's poem. Rather than great generals and poets, who in times past sought to inspire, the modern world offers weak generals and poets suffused with superficiality. It is worth noting that Herbert was often criticized for his inclusion of classical ideals in his poems, this poem shows one way that he chose to refute this criticism.


Classical Ideal

The classical ideal has traditionally been a concept by which people use the Ancient Greeks as a model to define what is valued in a society; often this is purity and integrity. An element of this idea is the classic hero, who provides a model of heroism and bravery for modern mankind. Greek myths were very important to Herbert and their influence permeates many of his poems. In "Why the Classics," Herbert uses Greek history to defend his use of Greek myth in so many of his poems. He finds that the ancient Greeks had much to teach us about modesty and about restraint. Rather than brag about exploits that did not happen or blame failures on others, the ancient Greek general Thucydides displayed a quiet acceptance and bravery in his defeat. Herbert uses the model of Thucydides to illustrate the weaknesses of modern generals who use bluster to hide their defeats, rather than look to the classical model for inspiration.


Herbert knows something of exile, having suffered exile for much of his own life. Herbert first experienced exile as a youth when his hometown was repeatedly invaded during war and later annexed to the Soviet Union at the end of Would War II. When the city of Lwow became a concentration camp for the inhabitants, Herbert became an exile within his own city. Even after moving to Krakow and later to Warsaw, Herbert became a de facto (not formally recognized or legally, but in fact a reality) exile while living in his own country; he was disinherited from his own culture and from the expression of his talent. Because of communist oppression, poets could not publish their work, and so Herbert wrote for fifteen years before his first book of poetry could be published. He became an exile from Poland as he moved around Western Europe looking for more literary freedom. Herbert's intimate knowledge of the life of an exile can be found in lines 14 and 15 of "Why the Classics." Herbert identifies with Thucydides, who suffers a lifelong exile from his native city. In his absence from his native city, Herbert understands well that "exiles of all times / know what price that is" when Thucydides makes the honorable choice in accepting responsibility. Herbert, of course, could have returned to his native city, but he would no longer be Polish and his cultural history would no longer exist. And as a citizen of the Ukraine, his freedoms would be even more limited. The inclusion of the words "of all times" link Herbert's experiences to those of Thucydides. For Herbert the choice is every bit as much an ethical choice as the one that Thucydides makes and the use of "price" makes clear that for Herbert the price was as dear as for Thucydides.

Topics For Further Study

  • Even under communist rule, the Roman Catholic Church continued as an important force in Poland. Research the role that the church played in the years between 1944–1989, and describe some of the ways in which the church maintained such an important presence in the country.
  • Solidarity was a national confederation of trade union led by Lech Walesa. Investigate the role that Walesa and Solidarity had on the end of communist rule. In what ways did labor unions challenge communism?
  • Mahatma Gandhi argued that civil disobedience and non-violent protests were an effective way to create social change. In Poland, the Roman Catholic Church used non-violent means to help rid Poland of the communist regime. Find other examples of how non-violent protests have changed government doctrine or even toppled a harsh regime.
  • Under communist rule, women had a great deal of equality, primarily because they were considered valuable labor. The communists also had models for feminine behavior with regard to the raising of children and a woman's role within the family. Investigate how women's lives changed after communism ended in Poland. Was there more equality? Or less?
  • Traditionally, art and theatre have been the primary media for protest in an oppressive government. Herbert was unable to publish his first book of poems until after restrictions were eased in 1956, but, previously, writers had long been considered important national treasures, and many streets were named after Adam Mickiewicz, a nineteenth-century poet in the Romantic tradition. Locate some examples of poetry written by Mickiewicz and Herbert and compare the two poets for similarities and differences. Try to compare two or three poems by each author. In what ways are the events of each poet's life reflected in his work?


Honor for Thucydides and Herbert is closely linked to their lives in exile. Exile is the punishment for honorable behavior. This is true for both men. Thucydides chose to do the honorable thing and take responsibility for the fall of his city. He could have blamed others, blamed the weather, blamed shifting winds or the Greek gods for their lack of help. Herbert describes this in his poem through the use of very matter-of-fact language: "Thucydides says only / that he had seven ships / it was winter / and he sailed quickly." Lines 23–26 offer no excuses, only the notation that Thucydides did the best he could do. It was not enough and the city fell. Honor demands accountability and the Athenian leader proved that he could be trusted. Herbert also demonstrated honor as a poet. Under communist rule, poets could write on accepted topics, often flowery praises of their government. At the very least, poets were expected to keep quiet about oppressive governments. Herbert refused to keep quiet. He often worked at menial jobs because he would not write what the communist government wanted him to write. His opposition to communism meant that his work was excluded from publication and he was denied membership in the Writer's Union.

Doing the honorable thing certainly led to Thucydides's inclusion in Herbert's poem. According to Herbert, Thucydides is a model for honorable behavior that modern generals and leaders would do well to emulate, and Herbert sees this honorable behavior as a model for his own life. For instance, Herbert concludes his poem with two stanzas that link poetry and artistic honesty with this example of ancient Greek honor. Herbert accuses modern poets of wasting their talents on weeping lovers "in a small dirty hotel." These subjects are a "great self-pity." As a result, Herbert asks, "what will remain after us?" These poets will leave no legacy of great works for history to judge as did Thucydides. Clearly Herbert wants more for himself. He immerses his poem in the ancient Greek tradition because this time and Thucydides have maintained their importance throughout history. According to Herbert, honor, whether revealed in a poet or a general, offers a model for modern man, generals, and poets.


In contrasting Thucydides's admission of responsibility to that of modern generals and leaders, Herbert uses irony to strengthen his argument and to point to the deficiencies of modern leaders, who all too often extol virtues they do not possess. In the first section of his poem, Herbert lists the trials that beset Thucydides as a general. In his history of the Peloponnesian War, he describes "battles sieges plagues," all of which he endured as a leader. Moreover, he also endured the "dense net of intrigues of diplomatic endeavours" during his many years of warfare. Herbert says that his one loss, the failure to save his native city of Amphipolis, was only a very small part of this great leader's experience. Hebert calls this loss "like a pin / in a forest." There is great irony in this comparison of a pin to a forest. The use of "pin" makes clear how great Thucydides's victories were when compared to this one loss. His willingness to claim responsibility for the loss of Amphipolis is only another measure of his greatness. Thus, Thucydides's legacy becomes more than his exile from his native city; his honesty and integrity are more significant legacies, and the reader knows this because Thucydides's only mistake was "like a pin / in a forest."

In the second section of the poem, Herbert offers a contrast. In this section his use of ironic language makes clear why Thucydides should be admired and why many modern leaders and generals would do well to look to the past to learn how a general should be expected to behave. Herbert points out that if placed in the same situation, "generals of the most recent wars" would "whine on their knees before posterity" to create a legacy they have not earned. Rather than accept their failings, these leaders "accuse their subordinates," their "envious colleagues," and the "unfavourable winds," all of which derailed their victories.

The words from line 22 are especially ironic. Thucydides might, indeed, have blamed the winds or the gods, as was the custom in Athenian society. Thus Herbert's choice to include this reference to "unfavourable winds" is especially ironic and on two levels. On the first level, modern generals rely upon satellites, computers, and especially wartime intelligence derived from spies, who are far more sophisticated than those employed by the Greeks during the fourth century b.c.e. Fate, or "unfavourable winds," is of little consequence in modern warfare. On the second level is the more humorous meaning in "unfavourable winds," which implies more than just air or the movement of air; it also implies gaseous air, the more foul-smelling air of betrayal. Herbert felt very strongly that classical literature could be used as a way to understand the events of the modern world. Sometimes the use of ironic language can aid in that understanding by pointing out the ridiculousness of someone's actions—in this case, the actions of modern leaders and generals who are incapable of accepting responsibility for their mistakes.



In poetry, the term classicism means a reliance on traditional forms to produce poetry in which the meaning is clear and in which there is a parallelism of thought. Classicism might also include an adherence to the rules and values of ancient poets and writers. In Herbert's poem, these aesthetic ideals are revealed in several ways. There is a parallelism between the comparisons drawn between Thucydides and recent generals. In addition, Herbert's poetry is very clean, the meaning easy to derive. The most confusing element, in fact, is in the last section that refers to modern poets. Since Herbert is extolling the virtues of the classic ideal within his poem, his use of confusing language when discussing modern poets, whose topics are as meaningless as their poetry, becomes an example of the value of classicism. Finally, Herbert uses ancient Athenian events and personages as a way to establish classical Greek society's value in a modern world.


Imagery refers to the images in a poem. The relationships between images can suggest important meanings in a poem, and with imagery the poet uses language and specific words to create meaning. For instance, Herbert includes images from Thucydides's wartime experiences. These images of "battles sieges plague" serve to create specific ideas about the general. He has been tested in war, and he has survived. When called upon to accept responsibility for loss, he has done so, and he has accepted the punishment received—exile from his native home. The contrasting images that Herbert offers are of the generals of recent wars. Herbert says that these men "whine on their knees," a striking image of cowardice. These men would not take responsibility for their losses; instead they would blame others for their own faults. The use of such words as "accuse," "envious," and "unfavourable" help to create clear images of Herbert's meaning.

Line Breaks

Line breaks are a defining element of poetry. They are one characteristic that is used to create meaning or to direct emphasis on an idea, to create a rhyme or rhythm, or to create a specific appearance on the page. Herbert uses line breaks to create meaning and to emphasize ideas. Abrupt lines, such as line 25—"it was winter"—create an image of hardship, and yet the simplicity of the line also makes clear that Thucydides did not make excuses for his failure to save his city. Herbert also uses the line break to create tension in lines 7 and 8. For instance, "the episode is like a pin" leaves the reader waiting for the conclusion of the metaphor "in a forest," which makes clear that Thucydides's failing is insignificant when considered in the context of his many victories. Placing the conclusion of the metaphor on the next line helps to sustain tension in the poem.

Lyrical Poetry

Lyric poetry describes poems that are strongly associated with emotion, imagination, and a songlike resonance, especially when associated with an individual speaker or speakers. Lyrical poetry emerged during the Archaic Age. These poems were shorter than the previous narrative poetry of Homer or the didactic poetry of Hesiod. Since lyric poetry is so very individual and emotional in its content, it is by its very nature also subjective. Since Herbert admired the early Greeks so much, it is understandable that he would also use a poetic form that originates with the Greeks. Lyrical poetry is also the most common form of poetry, especially since its attributes are also common to many other forms of poetry. Herbert's poem combines many of the attributes of lyrical poetry, with its emphasis on honor and bravery and perseverance and the concerns of the individual as a member of a society.


A motif is the central image that recurs throughout a poem. The motif can be a theme, a particular character or image, or even a metaphor or analogy that is the basis of the poem's narrative. In Herbert's poem, the central motif is that classical literature can be an important means to understand the events of today. Specifically, Herbert argues that an ancient Greek general and historian like Thucydides is an honorable model for modern generals and leaders and even poets, whose work is without honor or lasting legacy.

Poetic Form

The word "poem" is generally assigned to mean a literary composition distinguished by emotion, imagination, and meaning. But the term poem may also fit certain designated formulas, such as a sonnet or a couplet, which are defined by length and or a rhyme scheme. A poem may also include divisions into stanzas, a sort of paragraph-like division of ideas, and may also include a specific number of stressed or unstressed syllables in each line. Herbert's poem does not make use of a set number of syllables per line and does not employ specific defining characteristics, as does a sonnet; however, his poem does meet many of the other elements that define poetry, especially the notion of compactness and concreteness of language. Every word in Herbert's poem suggests an image or idea, and nothing is wasted. Modern poetry has moved from the strict formulas of the early poets, but even the contemporary poet still strives for an impassioned response to his or her poem. And like the earliest poetry, modern poetry is still highly individualistic.

Historical Context

Postwar Communism

Herbert was well known for his opposition to communist rule, and since there is no absolute date for the composition of "Why the Classics," one place to begin a study of the historical events that might have influenced Herbert is with communism in Poland following World War II. Initially, Poles welcomed the Red Army when they entered in 1944 and liberated the country from the Nazis, but the welcome turned bitter when Polish women were raped and their towns were looted by drunken soldiers. When the German massacre of Warsaw occurred during the summer of 1944, the Soviets failed to help, even though their army was just outside the city. The thousands of Polish lives that were lost were of no consequence to the Soviets. The Polish Home Army, the resistance movement that Herbert helped to found, was almost completely obliterated in the massacre in Warsaw. At war's end there was very little of Warsaw remaining. Effort needed to be put into rebuilding the city, which was nearly abandoned, depleting much of the people's spirit for actively resisting communism.

Herbert was living in Krakow in the closing days of World War II, and the population of Krakow was particularly defiant in the face of communist rule. The city had a strong Roman Catholic-based population and had become a center for intellectuals, who did not readily accept Soviet rule. The deportation of Krakow's young men to Soviet work camps further angered the population. Food was scarce, wages were low, and health care was poor. During the years immediately following the end of the war, Herbert witnessed active resistance and open defiance to the communists, but within two years of the occupation, the Poles in Krakow began to accept the inevitability of communist rule. This was something that Herbert could not tolerate, and he continued to protest long after other voices of protest had silenced. Because of the tight control of publishing, Herbert paid for his opposition through the suppression of his writing. When one considers how easily and quickly Poland first succumbed to the Nazis and then later to the Soviets and how the Red Army occupation led to so much violence, it is little wonder that Herbert held modern generals and leaders in such contempt.

Living in Warsaw

By the late 1940s, Herbert had moved to Warsaw, a city that lay in ruins after the Nazi occupation during the war. More than 90 percent of Warsaw was destroyed during the war, and initially, there was a plan to just abandon the city and let it lay in ruins. People lived in the ruins and tried to patch things as best they could. Soon however, and in the immediate postwar years, many Poles left the countryside and moved to Warsaw, and the city was eventually rebuilt upon the ruins of the old city. The result was that areas of the new city were elevated by several feet, since in many cases old buildings were just leveled, and their debris was not carted off to other sites but became a foundation for new buildings. The communists looked to build functional buildings and were not interested in aesthetics. The new buildings were often drab, modern constructions, and streets were renamed to honor communist ideals. The communist government, located in the Soviet Union, cared little for Polish history or culture and there was little effort to restore the beauty of Warsaw. Poland became a satellite nation of the Soviets, with little sensitivity for the Polish people. There was little free enterprise and a corresponding drop in the standard of living. Even though the government tried to control any attempts at free thought and expression of ideas, Warsaw did manage to become a center of culture and education.

This oppression began to lift in 1956 after Stalinism was officially condemned in the Soviet Union and the official Soviet regime that had been governing Poland was replaced by a new Communist leadership who made efforts to separate Poland from the Soviet Union. Many political prisoners were granted amnesty and the restrictions on publication of art and literature were eased. For Herbert, these changes meant that he could finally publish his first collection of poetry. It is worth noting, however, that in 1968 this same government brutally suppressed student demonstrations calling for democracy, the end of censorship, and an end to government sanctioned anti-Semitism. Herbert could not have failed to note Poland's long and difficult journey to freedom, which would take many more years. "Why the Classics," was published in 1968, the year that the government began to use violent oppression to maintain control. Herbert had witnessed similar events many times since 1939 and had significant experience with political and military suppression of the people.

Compare & Contrast

  • 1950s: The Warsaw Pact is signed binding the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites, including Poland, together in a military alliance. The member countries include Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, German Democratic Republic (East Germany), Hungary, Poland, Romania, and the Soviet Union. This alliance allows the Russian Red Army to maintain a presence in each country and is meant to parallel the NATO alliances formed at the conclusion of World War II.

    Today: Although the Warsaw Pact is officially renewed in 1985, it has begun to dissolve. In 1968, Albania is the first country to leave. Over the next twenty-five years, several other countries also choose to leave the alliance, and, in July 1991, the Warsaw Pact is officially dissolved. In 1999, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland join NATO. In 2004, Bulgaria, Romania, and several separate member states of the former Soviet Union also join NATO.

  • 1950s: Nikita Khrushchev condemns Joseph Stalin, and in response, the old Polish-Soviet regime is deposed and a new less rigid communist regime is installed. This results in the easing of censorship and publishing restrictions.

    Today: By 1968, the new communist regime in Poland proves itself to be equally oppressive as the old government, but, eventually, communism ends in Poland. Today, there are far fewer countries under communist rule than in the years immediately following the end of World War II when communism is seen as a threat that may engulf many more countries. Communism is still a controlling force in China, Cuba, Laos, North Korea, and Vietnam.

  • 1950s: Mother of Kings, a novel about the dangers of communism, is published in Poland by Kazimierz Brandys. The publication of this novel reflects the easing of censorship restrictions under the more relaxed communist rule. It is made into a film in 1982 but is not shown until 1987 when communism is close to an end in Poland.

    Today: It can be difficult to comprehend living in a country where censorship restricts the publication of materials that are considered inflammatory, controversial, or provocative in any way. Officially, state censorship in Poland ends in 1990, and, within two years, nearly 1,000 periodicals are being published, including more than 200 newspapers. However, censorship is not completely gone from Poland. For example, state censorship occurs in March 2003 when the government attempts to stop a journalistic probe of corruption in state run radio broadcasts.

Critical Overview

In the introduction to Herbert's Selected Poems, in which "Why the Classics" was published in 1968, Al Alvarez states that Herbert is an exception to the notion that there is a split between poetry and politics. Alvarez explains that generally the language of modern poetry does not go with the language of modern politics. Poetry, according to Alvarez, is filled with complexities and tension, while politics is rhetoric and clichés. Most often modern political poetry can be effective, but it is not good poetry. However, Alvarez finds that Herbert is "an avant-garde poet whose experiments and precise, restrained rhythms have sent Polish prosody off in a new direction." According to Alvarez, Herbert's use of classicism is a way of coping with an out-of-control world, a "minority politics of sanity and survival," that maintains the political opposition to which he has assigned himself a role. These same attributes were also noted when Herbert was awarded the Jerusalem Prize in May 1991. In an article printed in the Jerusalem Post, a staff reporter noted that the prize jury "cited Herbert's poems as expressing the struggle for freedom and individuality 'in all circumstances and against all odds' through an unusual combination of sophistication and honesty." In receiving this award, Herbert joined several other illustrious recipients, including writers Jorge Luis Borges, Graham Greene, and Simone de Beauvoir.

One way to judge a poet's importance in the world of literature is through the obituaries printed after his death. Herbert's passing was the occasion of several prominent obituaries, one written by poet and literary critic, Adam Czerniawski for The Independent in London. Of Herbert's use of the classics, Czerniawski writes that "Herbert uses the heritage of Western history, culture and religion in a dynamic, dialectical way. He demonstrates that the past can illuminate the present, and that in the process the past can also be reinterpreted." Czerniawski also observes that Herbert, more so than any other notable poet of his country, "is more closely identified with the ideological conflicts of the Cold War." These words of tribute are easily identified in Herbert's poem "Why the Classics," with its model of honor derived from classical antiquity and the poet's concerns with the duty of the poet to create poems that have social and cultural importance. Like Thucydides, Herbert succeeded in creating a lasting legacy through his words. In an obituary written for The Guardian, Neil Bowdler writes that "Herbert was recognized by critics as one of Poland's four great post-war poets." Two of the four poets, Czeslaw Milosz and Wislawa Szymborska, were Nobel laureates and thus Herbert's importance in the canon of Polish poetry cannot be diminished with time.


Sheri E. Metzger

Metzger has a doctorate in English Renaissance literature. She teaches literature and drama at the University of New Mexico, where she is a lecturer in the University Honors Program. In this essay, Metzger discusses Herbert's use of classical history in his poem and the way in which the poet uses Greek history to teach modern lessons for both poets and generals about personal honor, social responsibility, and the importance of truth in poetry.

It would be nearly impossible, and no doubt a pointless exercise, to try and separate Herbert's poem "Why the Classics" from the historical, cultural, and social events of the author's life. Herbert's experiences during several invasions, a major war, and the communist takeover of Poland have permeated much of his poetry, and "Why the Classics" is no exception. Historians estimate that more than 50 million people died during World War II, and the number of post–World War II victims to communist oppression has never been accurately calculated. Such massive numbers are overwhelming, so how then can a poet even make sense of such needless slaughter? Just as important, mankind must wonder how human beings could have permitted and in some cases even encouraged such carnage. Within the brevity of thirty-four lines, Herbert attempts to make ancient history relevant in a post-war world where destruction and death have so recently occurred on such a massive scale. Instead of merely accepting the inevitability of poor leadership and government that he has witnessed, Herbert's poem presents an answer to the question posed by the verse's title about why the classics still have a place after so much destruction and death have encompassed the world. Through the ancient example provided by Thucydides, Herbert suggests an ancient historical model of personal honor, veracity, and nobility that the poet finds lacking in leaders of the modern world.

In a 1987 essay, "Zbigniew Herbert, the Poet as Witness," critic and Herbert translator Bogdana Carpenter states that events during the ten years prior to the end of communism in Poland served to create a sense of social obligation on behalf of Herbert to serve as witness to the truth of what was happening under such a repressive and destructive regime. Carpenter suggests that this obligation became particularly crucial during the period when martial law was imposed in those final years under communist rule, and that any writer would become "not only an artist but also a witness" to these events. According to Carpenter, Herbert used his poetry as a way to provide testimony. In one sense, his work becomes a historical record of injustice and oppression. While Carpenter's comments are certainly an accurate reflection of the influence of communist rule on Herbert's poetry, it is equally clear from the Herbert poem under consideration that the poet felt a strong sense of obligation long before the events of the late 1970s and 1980s occurred. One way to consider the sense of importance that Herbert felt during the postwar years is to consider his use of Thucydides as the model of honor and repute on whom Herbert rests his poem's main premise. Herbert begins "Why the Classics" with two important lines: "in the fourth book of the Peloponnesian War / Thucydides tells among other things." These opening lines establish that Thucydides is also a writer, that he was recording history, and that the events that Herbert focuses upon were only a few "among other things." And thus Thucydides was also a witness who felt compelled to be honest and completely forthright about his own failings. He is a model for all who would give testimony to the truth of what they have witnessed.

Carpenter suggests that the lack of media freedom under which Herbert lived and wrote and the restriction of all communication to official communist doctrine created "a new function [for the poet] to fulfill, a function that is normally reserved for history and the media—to provide information, and to give an undistorted account of a situation or of events." Herbert confirms this new function in "Why the Classics" when he relates in lines 23 through 26 that Thucydides provided an undistorted account of his own battle experiences in the failure to save his native city if Amphipolis. Herbert writes that "Thucydides says only / that he had seven ships / it was winter / and he sailed quickly." There is no embellishment of facts, no effort to put forth excuses, and no official regime reinterpreting contemporary events; there are only the brief historical facts of the unfettered historian who has failed in his mission. Herbert compares Thucydides's brief words and his unwillingness to excuse or embellish the events with modern generals and leaders who "whine on their knees before posterity." The "posterity," of course, is the historical record, which in Poland has frustrated Herbert with its failure to report the truth. Rather than admit to mistakes, Herbert observes that recent generals "accuse their subordinates." They accuse "envious colleagues" who must be contained if deficient generals are to continue in their leadership role. These modern generals even accuse "unfavourable winds" for having thwarted their successes. What these contemporary leaders fail to do is what Thucydides so willingly chose to do—report the truth.

Herbert does not see the ancient world as irrelevant to the present. In a 1980 essay, "Zbigniew Herbert and the Imperfect Poem," John and Bogdana Carpenter offer some insight into Herbert's thoughts about the importance of history and how it might be used to guide modern generals. The Carpenters write that "For Herbert, history is a continuum, a web with an infinite number of seams leading into other seams." One way that this idea is exemplified is in Herbert's use of General Thucydides. It does not matter to Herbert that his model lived nearly 2500 years ago; instead, what matters is the importance of Thucydides's behavior under the pressure of war. Thucydides is honorable in accepting responsibility for his losses in battle, something that Herbert sees as seriously lacking in modern generals. The Carpenters point out that Herbert's use of classical history demonstrates that "the living and the dead form the same mortal, human community." The Carpenters also note that this "'living' presence of the dead" adds "a remarkable degree of generality and breadth" to Herbert's poems. His poems have applicability for all audiences, across all time. For Herbert, the events of the Peloponnesian War and the behavior of Thucydides are part of the continuum of history that can guide modern generals. This merging of time adds a tension to "Why the Classics" that would be missing if Herbert simply delivered his ideas as a lecture-like poem on the failings of modern generals. Instead, Herbert reaches back in time for an indisputable model of honor who can serve as a paradigm of integrity for those who most need a lesson in nobility. At the same time, Thucydides's story offers more than a simple lesson. As the Carpenter team note, "the fact that we are alive does not make us superior to the dead in any way." In fact, Herbert's poem suggests the alive are very much inferior. It is this opposition between the classical ideal and the failings of a modern world that Herbert captures so clearly in his poem.

Herbert does offer a solution for modern man's failings, and the answers lie with each individual within the memories of ancient stories and history of those who have lived before. There is no evidence that Herbert ever met Joseph Campbell (1904–1987) or that the poet was influenced in any way by Campbell's writings on heroes and myth, and yet Herbert's use of Greek classicism shares some commonalities with Campbell's ideas about the role of classical stories and myth in modern lives. Campbell, who is well known as a writer on mythology and comparative religions, lived during much of the same period as Herbert. Campbell is often considered to be an authority on the history and importance of myth and, in particular, on the role of ancient stories and myths in modern life. Like Herbert, Campbell thought that modern men could look into the past to find answers to the present, and like Herbert, Campbell believed in the temporal convergence of past and present.

In "First Storytellers," part of an extended interview with journalist Bill Moyers, Campbell links the ancient stories and myths to modern life. Because so many of the early stories are about death, war, growing old, and finding mankind's place in a social order, myths help men respond to the uncertainties of life and to the realities of life. Campbell says that the past is a part of living, that "the nerves in our body carry the memories that shaped the organization of our nervous system to certain environmental circumstances and to the demands of the organism." The past cannot be separated from the present. In other words, mankind can find the answers to modern problems by searching the past, which is encoded within each person. Herbert's merging of past and present is especially notable in lines 14 and 15, in which the poet writes, "exiles of all times / know what price that is." The choice of two words, "all times," links past and present, and the use of "know" makes clear that this is knowledge that is within, not knowledge that is taught. This knowing is the convergence of all times, from the wars of classical Greece and even earlier to the modern time of contemporary wars and oppression.

What Do I Read Next?

  • Barbarians in the Garden, published in English in 1986, is a collection of Herbert's essays and serves as a record of his travels through much of Europe. Many of the essays focus on art and architecture.
  • Herbert's Report from the Besieged City, published in English in 1986, uses poetry to illuminate life in a city under invasion. Other poems offer reflections on composers like Beethoven and Schubert.
  • Postwar Polish Poetry (1984), edited by Czeslaw Milosz, is an anthology that contains Milosz's translations of poetry by twenty-one major Polish poets.
  • Polish Poetry of the Last Two Decades of Communist Rule (1992), edited by Wislawa Szymborska and Clare Cavanagh, is an anthology of more than twenty-nine poets whose works were written in the 1970s and 1980s, as Poland was emerging from communism.
  • Five Centuries of Polish Poetry, 1450–1970 (1979), edited by Jerzy Pietrkiewicz, is an anthology that traces Polish literary history over the past 500 years.
  • Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska's Poems New and Collected (1998) is a collection of the poet's older poems as well as sixty-four newly translated poems.
  • A Book of Luminous Things (1998), by Czeslaw Milosz, is a collection of clear, easy to read and understand poetry that should appeal to lay-level readers.

This merging of past and present works in Herbert's "Why the Classics" in the weaving of time between past and present. The first thirteen lines of the poem focus on Thucydides and the past. Then the next two lines, with the words "of all times," serve as a bridge to the present. With the following seven lines, Herbert takes his reader into the present before returning to the past for another four lines. Then in the final eight lines of the poem, the reader is once again transported into the present. The reader is constantly moving in time and is forced to recognize that past and present have become one entity. Bogdana Carpenter, who has devoted significant time to the study of Herbert and his poetry, argued in a 1983 essay, "The Barbarian and the Garden: Zbigniew Herbert's Reevaluations," that Herbert's attitude toward the past is not passive. He uses the past to recreate the present, and yet, Herbert never makes the poem more important than history. Art is never more important than integrity. Just as Thucydides suffered exile for the truth, Herbert was willing to suffer for the truth.

In the final eight lines of the poem, Herbert links the responsibility of ancient and modern generals to the obligations of the artist. Herbert finds no great legacy in "lovers' weeping / in a small dirty hotel / when wall-paper dawns." This is not the truth; it is the "self-pity" that infuses many modern poets. There is no glory in suffering and there is nothing to be learned. As Carpenter notes, there is "only a sober determination not to avert the eyes" for the poet. Herbert cared about injustice and about human rights. His own work went unpublished because he could not ignore the injustices that he witnessed through invasions and war. Herbert, declares Carpenter, is a poet who functions as witness, who feels "his duty is to give testimony," to speak for those who have suffered and to be as honest as Thucydides, who also suffered for truth. For Herbert, according to Carpenter, "poetry must be subordinate to truth, and truth is faithful to reality." Herbert's poetry does not let history hide under excuses or fate. For him, Thucydides's experiences in the past are infused into the experiences of those writers who live in the present and who find their duty in bearing witness to the truth.

In her 1983 essay, Carpenter states that Herbert takes an active approach to art and the past. Rather than simply appreciating the past, Herbert demands "an effort of re-creation" that makes the past the present. Rather than be isolated from history, as Poland was under communist control, Herbert remains open to the past, which is always a part of the present. In "Why the Classics," Herbert succeeds in bringing an ancient historical figure to life. Thucydides is more real than the modern generals of the poem, who remain only vague caricatures of what they should be. Had these generals only looked inward to find the past, they might have avoided the failures of the present. By the end of the poem, the reader sympathizes with this long-ago historian who suffered so much for his honesty. Herbert succeeds in making the past the present, and the reader is the better informed for his having done so.

Source: Sheri E. Metzger, Critical Essay on "Why the Classics," in Poetry for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.

Stanislaw Barańczak

In the following essay excerpt, Barańczak examines various critical responses to and classifications of Herbert's poetry and concludes that Herbert's poetry is "a 'tragic vision' recounted in the Classic style."

It is oddly paradoxical that the poetry of Zbigniew Herbert which inspired a number of brilliant comments from the leading Polish critics has also fallen victim to so many stereotypes and oversimplifications. The latter, a product of Poland's literary criticism ad usum delphini—offered by popular periodicals, school textbooks, literary compendia, and radio or television programs—circulate widely and sometimes border on either a complete misunderstanding or a deliberate misappropriation. Let us first gather a few typical examples of such run-of-the-mill opinions on Herbert's work:

Herbert [is] a poet of classical equilibrium, skeptical, stoical philosophy, ironic distance.

Herbert the humanist and intellectual feels close to every epoch. He communes with the word of antiquity like a man who perceives and experiences the uninterrupted continuity of human history.

Herbert's poetry refers to cultural tradition in a broad sense. It makes ready use of allusions to antiquity and the European classics, in order to discern in the images and situations recorded by the Mediterranean tradition the questions and the answers that can interest contemporary man.

The universality of Herbert's reflections is [. . .] deliberately restricted—its limits are those of European culture. Man in his poetry is an abstraction, because the formulation of his fate is abstracted out of the reality of direct experiences [. . .].

The admirers of [Herbert's] poetry are advocates of all the various poetics, trends, and poetic schools—and that is indeed a rare phenomenon. Only a poetry which is sanctified by the greatness of the past and tradition can create such a unanimity of favorable opinion; perhaps this, among other things, was the reason that Herbert's poetry has been assigned to the currents of Neo-Classicism or Classicism [. . .].

Herbert's poetry [. . .] is one that wishes to provide consoling knowledge for the people who—in the words of Stanislaw Grochowiak—have been "painfully burnt by the tongues of history." It is a poetry that seeks to save human values with the "cunning of reason."

As promised, these were examples of typical opinions propagated by textbooks, reviews in popular magazines, critical profiles written for the mass readership, etc. If we reduced these statements to their common denominator, we would see that they perceive the individual and distinct character of Herbert's poetry as a set of three interconnected features. Against the background of modern Polish literature his poetry is viewed as:

—the most "Mediterranean," turned towards "Europe" (in the specifically Polish sense which identifies "European" with "Western");

—the most deeply rooted in the past, stressing the unbroken continuity of human history, seeking answers to modern dilemmas in the past epochs, and thus building a certain conservative utopia of the past;

—the most characteristic of the "poetry of culture" or poesia docta, the most Classicist, not perceiving reality directly but through an aesthetic filter.

Herbert poet of the West, poet of the past, poet of culture: such would be the three main components in the popular view of him. What is important here is that this particular view can be presented both in a favorable and aggressively critical light. In the case of the latter, the above-mentioned features become negative and are defined as cosmopolitism, conservatism, and psuedo-classical stylization.

It is striking that each of these three labels separately played a crucial role in three literary skirmishes of the 1960s and 1970s, in which Herbert's name served as a convenient symbol—a symbol of what the critics fought against in the first two cases and a symbol of what they propagated in the third. In each of those three campaigns, the critics made an absolute out of an isolated aspect of Herbert's poetry while preferring not to notice that it also embraces a perfectly contrary aspect as well; this made the critic's task—whether polemics or praise—much easier. Let us discuss those three critical formulations one after the other, although not in chronological order, and pay attention to both what the critics found in Herbert and what they deliberately, or subconsciously, removed from their fields of vision.

In 1979 Artur Sandauer, a well-known critic of the older generation, published in the weekly Polityka a lengthy attempt at a synthesis of the evolution of postwar poetry, an article entitled "Ewolucja polskiej poezji 1945–1968." The article immediately caused an impressive series of rebuttals; leading critics chiefly protested the article's astounding oversimplifications, which, by the way, were not a first in Sandauer's career as a critic. In fact, his vision of the final phase of Polish poetry's development in the postwar period (covering the years 1963–1968), for example, amounted to no more than placing the whole exceedingly complicated network of poetic trends of that time between two extremes that were more political than artistic in nature. By way of analogy to social movements in 19th-century Russia, Sandauer dubbed these two extremes the camp of the "nationalists" ["narodowcy"] and the camp of the "Westernophiles" ["zachodniofile"]. It goes without saying that the critic was also compelled, for the sake of symmetry, to find in Polish poetry a pair of opposed examples that supposedly represented these two extreme tendencies. Thus, he chose the poetry of Ernest Bryll as a symbol of "nationalistic" leanings, and the poetry of Zbigniew Herbert as a symbol of "pro-Western" ones. Herbert's work had been the subject of Sandauer's criticism once before; a few years earlier he had published another lengthy polemical essay, in which he attempted to demonstrate Herbert's indebtedness to other Polish poets as well as his fascination with the West. This time, Sandauer placed Herbert's poetry quite unequivocally in a context that was socio-political rather than literary:

At the beginning of the 1960's [. . .] the conflict becomes more aggravated. [. . .] Now two new forces face each other: that of the nationalistic pragmatists and that of the pro-Western moralists. [. . .] The only two poets whom one can consider worthy of the name and who are, at the same time, representatives of the two groups combatting each other, are Ernest Bryll and Zbigniew Herbert. [. . .] They differ in all respects: generation and family background, attitude, ideology. [. . .] Herbert comes from the intelligentsia of Galicia, hankers for the West [ciagoty zachodnie], has an education in art history and a veneer [nalot] of classical culture. Bryll, on the contrary, belongs to that plebeian current which at the end of the 1950's won a room at the top—and at the helm.

As a rule, Sandauer's syntheses have never been deterred by the actuality of the literary facts; in order to satisfy his passion for symmetrical divisions, the critic—otherwise a resourceful interpreter of literary work—has more than once bent the facts to his a priori schemes or even falsified them quite unceremoniously. In this case, by using arguments from the repertoire of vulgar literary sociology, he fitted Herbert into a scheme that emasculates his work, reduces it to the tool of some mysterious "forces" and "groups," renders it politically one-dimensional and flat, and reduces all complexity of the theme of "Europe" in his poetry into "pro-Western hankerings" or a thoughtless fascination with the West. In Sandauer's earliest essay, that same biographical and sociological approach was based on far-fetched interpretations of certain poems by Herbert, e.g., "The Return of the Preconsul," which Sandauer saw as a reflection of the poet's dream about leaving Poland for the West or of his hesitation whether to return from the West to Poland. Undoubtedly, the advantage of this line of interpretation lies in its wholesome simplicity—and it would be almost unfair to remind the critic of the fact that Herbert's ironic poetry very seldom employs a voice that could be identified with the author's own.

No matter how striking their extreme tendentiousness, Sandauer's oversimplifications were only an exaggeration of the other hackneyed opinions on the "Europeanness" of Herbert's poetry—opinions which had been repeated for many years even by otherwise insightful critics. Jacek -Lukasiewicz, for instance, wrote in 1964: "He is not a barbarian who found his way into a garden. He is a European intellectual who visits his native locales." The first of above-quoted sentences was, of course, an allusion to the problematics of A Barbarian in the Garden [1962], Herbert's collection of essays; in reading that book, most reviewers paid more attention to the author's marked familiarity with Mediterranean culture than to his use of the point of view of an East-European newcomer. "Is this a barbarian?" asked Jaros-law Iwaszkiewicz doubtfully in the title of his review. "Zbigniew Herbert's hand"—chimed in Zbigniew Bieńkowski—"[. . .] is not—contrary to the title which is the only lie in the book—the hand of a barbarian. This is hand heavy with cultural experience, one that has leafed through many a book. Before this barbarian stormed into the garden, he had not only memorized all its flowers, but also the various types of soil on which they grew and the skies beneath which they bloomed."

In fact, however, what seems to be an unequivocally pro-Western option in Herbert's work comes immediately into question when we try to read his poetry in an unbiased and impartial way, that is, when we also take into consideration, and properly interpret, those of his poems which convey contrary meanings. It seems that Sandauer preferred either to make light of such poems or ignore them completely, since it is impossible not to notice them. In Herbert's early poem "The Response", for example, we are dealing with a dramatic rift between the speaker's craving for the wide world and his sense of necessity of being "here;" The conflict is resolved by a paradox; "every dream about palm-trees" in the opinion of the speaker "confirms the choice to stay here;" his sense of belonging to the cosmopolitan "homeland" of supranational culture is confronted with his loyalty to his "homeland" in the literal sense. Similarly, in one of his most direct and—at least in its final part—most non-ironic poems, "Mediations on the National Problem", Herbert initially offers a cool analysis of the irrationality of the notion of national ties, only finally to come to an unexpected conclusion, one seemingly based on the principle credo quia absurdum:

I used to rebel against it
but I think this blood-stained knot
should be last
to be torn
by someone tearing himself free

Finally, in one of his recent poems, "Mr. Cogito—The Return" the lyrical hero's decision to return to his homeland (this time his identification with the author would not be a misunderstanding—in fact, Herbert himself came back to Poland at the beginning of 1981 after a long stay in the West) has the weight of a moral imperative:

why is he going back then
ask his friends
from the better world

he could stay here for good
settle down somehow
[.... .... .]

perhaps Mr. Cogito goes back
in order to answer

the insinuations of fear
impossible happiness
the unexpected blow
the lethal question

On the other hand, if someone wished to take Sandauer's diagnosis seriously, he could also counter it with the fact that those of Herbert's poems that issued from his direct contact with the West often contain highly critical views on the present state of Western civilization (cf. "Mr. Cogito and Pop," "Mr. Cogito on Magic," and others). In brief, the poet's likes and dislikes by no means coincide with the division between "Westernophilia" and nationalism. Incidentally, one can also ask whether this division has anything to do at all with the reality of contemporary Poland; Sandauer apparently does not realize that the prevailing political mentality in today's Poland sees no contradiction whatsoever between striving for national self-determination and a sense of belonging to Western civilization. That, however, is a broader question. As far as Herbert is concerned, it is rather the state of being suspended between the extremes of West and East, "Europe" and Poland, Mediterranean and North, and a sense of attachment to both these opposed worlds simultaneously, that makes his poetry work by driving it with the energy of its inner tensions.

If Herbert as a poet has anything to complain of, it is rather the overabundance of praise he has received from Polish critics; ironically, it is that universal acceptance of his work which makes it particularly susceptible to oversimplified interpretation. That notwithstanding, we must note that Sandauer was by no means the only critic who programmatically assaulted Herbert's poetic proposals. A few years earlier, that poetry had been questioned from an entirely different quarter—by representatives of what was then the young generation who had just entered Poland's literary arena.

This was the so-called "generation of '68," poets who for the most part were born in postwar Poland and had been prompted to write by their experience of student political protest in March 1968. Interestingly, Herbert has been placed in a variety of positions in that generation's informal hierarchy of ideological and artistic values. He has been a cult object for certain young poets who were fascinated by the ethical message of his poems, and, at the same time, he has been criticized by certain others who tended to condemn the "indirectness" of his poetry, its frequent recourse to allusion, understatement, and historical or mythological disguise. Thus, while such poets as Jacek Bierezin or Ryszard Krynicki considered Herbert as their master, other poets who—like Adam Zagajewski or Julian Kornhauser—advocated "straight talk" ["mówienie wprost"] had many faults to find with him. Here I am thinking primarily of a chapter on Herbert in a much-discussed critical book by Kornhauser and Zagajewski, The World Not Represented. The chapter's author, Kornhauser, wasted no time on compliments:

Herbert's reality is a petrified world of temples, paintings, books, and myths and it is entirely secondary whether the temples are demolished here or resound with sacrificial hymns. [. . .] Herbert's culture is a register of stable "cultural objects," closely bound together by the specific language of tradition; in [his] poetry it is that language which is subject to deformation or destruction. That one-sided process of deformation is nothing but a deliberate reduction of the distance between the present—an age in which civilization is in chaos and devoid of any morals (which also means social norms)—and the past, which remains in [the poet's] mind as an image of harmony and historically "more important" conflicts. When overstepping that distance, Herbert summons the demon of Irony, which, in his case, is not conducive to building culture but is rather instrumental in demonstrating its temporary weakness, or even suggests that the culture of the present does not or can not exist.

Leaving aside a certain stylistic incoherence in this argument, let us do our best to place Kornhauser's assault in proper prospective. That attack was a component of a book, in which both co-authors touched upon a fundamental issue—the fact that instead of offering literature a chance to explore a new theme, Communist Poland still remained then, in the early 1970s, "a world not represented" in contemporary literature, a subject which literature passed over in silence not only because of possible troubles with the censorship but also due to its incorrect belief that this particular reality does not deserve to be elevated to the level of culture. The authors—both born and educated after 1945, but both also marked by the traumatic experience of the March 1968 protest—challenged Polish literature to take postwar reality seriously and to discuss it in a "straightforward" manner. The other side of that challenge was the author's condemnation of every sort of literature that either fled cowardly from the Polish hic et nunc or spoke of it indirectly, concealing its critical attitude under the cover of historical disguise, allegory, or allusion.

As such, Kornhauser and Zagajewski's critical manifesto has been one of the most significant programmatic statements of the "generation of '68," and there was good cause for the heated discussion it provoked. It was, however, the assault on Herbert that constituted the least convincing chapter in The World Not Represented; as with Sandauer, this was the result of "setting up" the opponent, ignoring the literary facts or bending them so that they could fit the a priori conception of the critic. At the end of his essay Kornhauser did make an exception for a few "excellent" poems by Herbert, such as "The Return of the Proconsul," "Meditations on the National Problem," "Elegy of Fortin-bras," "Three Studies on the Subject of Realism," and others; he could have also mentioned, however, a considerable number of poems, in which Herbert could hardly be accused of escaping into the past—on the contrary, he touches quite directly upon the contemporary reality and its dilemmas in those poems. I am thinking of such poems as "Vita," "The Ornament-Makers," "How We Were Introduced," "To the Hungarians," "Drawer," "Our Fear," "Naked Town," "First the Dog," "Prologue," "Awakening.". . . This list could easily be extended without even mentioning the more recent sequence of Mr. Cogito poems which could not have been known in its entirety to Kornhauser at the moment of his writing. Moreover, the critic could have taken notice of something even more to the point—the fact that all references to the past paradoxically help Herbert emphasize both the distance between it and the 20th-century present, and the supra-historical analogies which sometimes make distant epochs similar to our times. After all, it was Herbert who—apart from the numerous well-known examples in his own poetry—wrote the famous essay which treated the history of the downfall of the Templar Order as if the issue was the Moscow show-trials of the 1930s. The past is neither an unequivocal "image of harmony" for the poet, nor is it in any possible way "more important" than the present. The past in Herbert's poetry is a stable point of reference, but it never appeals as an idealized, conservative utopia.

Apart from its specific role as a part of a new generation's manifesto, Kornhauser's essay unintentionally echoed some of the previous charges brought against Herbert's poetry by critics with a completely different ideological pedigree. I have in mind here the fact that in the 1960s—and also later, throughout the 1970s—some of the Polish critics representing the official literary establishment often attempted to counter the moralistic message in Herbert's poetry with the simplistic accusation that it "fled the present." While reviewing the volume Study of the Object—in which the title poem is a study of a chair as the subject of an artistic depiction—Andrzej Lam issued an unintentionally comical opinion: "It is necessary [. . .] to turn from penetrating what contemporary man sits on to what he lives by." According to the same critic, "[t]he historiosophical perspective, which [Herbert] employs, originated with the prewar generation of Catastrophist poets, and to warm this perspective up [sic] is an anachronism [. . .]. One is permitted public distress only after all the possibilities for enthusiasm have been exhausted [. . .]." This means of delimiting the poet's freedom, rivalled in subtlety only perhaps by military regulations, also provided the basis for Lam's reflections on the volume Mr. Cogito. Here, despite an his praise, the critic condemned "a certain anachronistic and old-fashioned quality in Mr. Cogito, his inability to contact the vital forces of the contemporary world. For he is a requiem for an age in decline [. . .]." Lam's admonitions were echoed by a third-rate critic, Stefan Melkowski, who, in a lengthy argument, full of righteous indignation, accused Herbert of the "aristocratic heroism of unsoiled hands" and of a "refusal to participate" in the world of contemporary conflicts. The common denominator in all invective of this kind was the assumption that Herbert's moralistic attitude was anachronistic, obsolete in the modern world. Even though the abovementioned critics represent ideological positions diametrically opposed to Kornhauser's in both cases Herbert appears, first and foremost, as a poet of the past.

As against the two misunderstandings or critical oversimplifications just discussed, the third one—chronologically the earliest and also the most persistent—resulted not from any questioning of the value of Herbert's poetry, but, on the contrary, from an effort to assure it the high rank it deserved in Polish poetry. What is at issue here is the tendency to interpret Herbert's work as "poetry of culture" and, closely connected to that, to associate it with the Neo-Classicist school in modern Polish lyricism. Although similar opinions had been voiced much earlier, this line of interpretation culminated in the mid-1960s, when its most significant formulations appeared in print. It was precisely in 1964 when literary magazines and journals published articles on Herbert by Jaros-law Marek Rymkiewicz and Ryszard Przybylski, and the scholarly quarterly Pamie˛tnik Literacki carried an extensive study by Przybylski entitled "Polish Classical Poetry after 1956."

Rymkiewicz's concise essay, later included in the collection of his critical manifestoes What is Classicism?, seems perhaps the most characteristic in its oversimplifications. The author, who as a poet was by then a leading representative of Neo-Classicism in the Polish poetry of the 1960s, starts with an assumption that "every poem, every important poem is only a reiteration, only a repetition, only a commentary to texts recorded in the past. A poem which is not a repetition of a pattern will be quickly and efficiently destroyed by time." Accordingly, Herbert is also defined by Rymkiewicz as a "poet of repetition [poeta repetuja˛cy]: he reiterates archetypal images of the past, because he reiterates past poetic experience."

The misunderstanding is quite obvious here. In order to subordinate Herbert to his concept of "pattern reiteration" (borrowed, incidentally, both from Jung and T. S. Eliot), Rymkiewicz is compelled to overlook certain facts. He fails to notice that even though Herbert often refers to cultural patterns and norms of past epochs, he does so, as a rule, from the perspective of a modern empiricist; he does not so much confront past and present culture, as past culture and present experience. Rymkiewicz does, in fact, make a distinction later on between "pattern reiteration" and "stylization," saying: "The Poet who repeats the experience of the past reiterates it in order to find his own place in the continuum of civilization, that is, his place in the present"; while basically correct, this clarification does not, however, sufficiently stress the difference between "poetic" and real experience (e.g., sensual or historic experience), whose mutual confrontation—a confrontation that is, moreover, based on contrasts and antinomies, and includes both dissonance and consonance—is one of the most conspicuous characteristics of Herbert's poetry. In fact, Rymkiewicz's essay reveals all the shortcomings in the theory of modern classicism he attempted to construct. His subsequent essay on Herbert, a comprehensive and erudite analysis of the poem "Study of the Object," although seemingly consistent and suggestive, is not fully convincing either; his reading the poem as a kind of "normative poetics"—stemming from the same old notion of Herbert as a classicist—renders Rymkiewicz insensitive to the elements of irony and self-irony which underlie the poem.

Przybylski's articles—in particular, his essay "Marsyas' Howl" which, despite many controversial details, still belongs to the basic canon of the most penetrating works on Herbert—introduced more elaborate distinctions and shadings. In general, the difference between Przybylski's opinions and those of the author of this article perhaps only amount to a different placing of emphasis, different usage of certain terms, and different views on the nature of a specific historical and literary context. The crucial element in Przybylski's conception of "classical poetry after 1956," and one underestimated by Rymkiewicz, was the notion, borrowed from Leo Spitzer, of the "demusicalization of the world" that marks our epoch. In other words, if, despite everything, Rymkiewicz still considers the cultural history of Europe a continuity, Przybylski sees it as falling into two incompatible parts. Herbert is aware of this fundamental rift in the history of culture and, according to Przybylski, rejects all utopias based on the notion of harmony—"the Stoic concept of inward harmony of mind," "the Franciscan utopia" (or, in a broader sense, the whole "Christian theodicy"), and, last of all, the utopia of the "absolute factor of history" (that is, in non-Aesopian language, Hegelian and Marxist historical determinism). In his now classic analysis of the poem "Apollo and Marsyas" Przybylski demonstrated how Herbert's art recasts the idea of the "demusicalization of the world" into poetic form. The poem rejects "Winckelmann's and Parnassists' conception of classicism"; nevertheless, the classicist character of the poem as a whole derives from its reliance on cultural allusions and even more so from its emotional and stylistic restraint. While not identifying himself with Apollo, the poet—says Przybylski—does not identify himself with Marsyas either; even though he rejects Apollonian, Parnassist harmony, he does not echo "Marsyas' howl" but stands, as it were, aside and confines himself to recording his own impressions "with moderation and calm."

All that might be true; however, the question naturally arises whether this is enough to declare Herbert a representative of classicism, and particularly, whether this is enough to declare him a representative of any school of Classicist poets. One might say that two irreconcilable assumptions are fighting each other within the critic's conception—on the one hand, his sober certainty that classicism is actually impossible in our times, on the other his dreamy conviction that even if classicism does not now exist, it should be invented. Hence the extraordinary extent to which Przybylski is able to stretch the meaning of "classicism." It encompasses both "Neo-Parnassists," who "reiterate [. . .] the ancient, mostly Stoic, ideas of harmony of nature and soul, without realizing their hopeless anachronism" (Leopold Staff is supposedly an example of that attitude in Polish poetry), and "Classics" in a proper sense, who understand that they "live in an age that considers the idea of [the world's] harmony as a relic of the past, and its disintegration—as part of the natural process of demythologizing cultural consciousness." Consequently, Przybylski is able to see fundamental analogies between Herbert and such poets as Rymkiewicz or Jerzy S. Sito (later on, he adds Julia Hartwig and Artur Mie˛aldzyrzecki to that company of "proper classics").

Now, with the passage of some time, it is clear how far-fetched was Przybylski's list of the disciples of the "classical school." Even if we omit Sito (who in his subsequent development did not fulfill the critic's expectations), it is enough to compare such utterly different poets as Herbert and Rymkiewicz to discover that Przybylski's notion of "classicism" is simply too ample to contain any specific meaning. The critic himself made no secret of that when declaring in the introductory section of his programmatic article that the "spectrum of attitudes" of "classical poets" is exceptionally wide. In his opinion, if we are to assume that classicism is a "poetics whose basic task is to justify and describe the world of harmony with standards of 20th-century historical consciousness," we must agree that the range of attitudes here extends "from an intense belief in the possibility of such undertaking and a melancholic yearning for a paradise lost to a desperate acknowledgement of total defeat." In other words, classicism could include virtually everything: in that sense, not only Herbert but Tadeusz Róz˙ ewicz could also be viewed as a true—albeit a "desperate"—classicist. Even more importantly, the critic failed to notice that there is a more essential difference between Herbert on the one hand and Rymkiewicz or Sito on the other. As one polemicist pointed out, in the latter two "harmony is actually a value for which they long, even though it is being destroyed by the experience of history," but for Herbert, on the contrary, "perfection, harmony, and all tidy, comprehensive visions of the world are evil, cruel, and dangerous to man [. . .], whereas chaos and chance favor life because man can find a more or less safe place to hide in them."

Even though the concept Przybylski proposed for understanding contemporary classicism did—despite the excessive amplitude of the term itself—provide some important issues to discuss, the critic should have been aware that the notion of classicism was already functioning as a meaningless label in the case of Herbert's poetry and might well continue to do so. In fact, despite all the reservations and clarifications made by the author of "Marsyas' Howl," his designation of Herbert as a disciple of the classical school soon degenerated into a dangerous stereotype. Critics endowed with a less refined ear began to treat this poetry precisely as if it were an example of the "Neo-Parnassist" sort of classicism. The chief, though certainly unwitting, culprit in this respect was not even Przybylski, but an excellent poetry critic Jerzy Kwiatkowski. In one of the essays included in his influential book Keys to Imagination he risked a rather rash view that "simplicity," "measure, harmony, and equilibrium," and the "poetics of the balanced scales" were the most distinctive features of Herbert's poetry. While Kwiatkowski's essay only used these observations as a point of departure for many insightful analyses, there were many other critics who never got past that point. A minor critic, Jakub Zdzis-law Lichański, for instance, attempted to characterize Herbert's poetics by lavishly praising his "stylistic simplicity," allegedly modelled on Horace [!], and by admiring the fact that "for this artist, tradition is not dead, but, on the contrary, it is still a living process." Discoveries of that kind led the critic to the equally penetrating conclusion that Herbert's lyricism is a poetry of harmony which results from his "attempts [. . .] to make us look at the world through the prism of reason, so that we could learn how to view it with love." And so what was the point of all Przybylski's subtle argument? Despite all his statements on Herbert's opposition to the Stoic idea of harmony, Lichański—in another essay of his—still interprets the poem "To Marcus Aurelius" as a "Stoic acceptance of life and man," and explains the poet's outlook at "Harmonia mundana [. . .]: man's concordance with nature, with another man, with Everything." It is striking that the same kind of meaningless jabber is repeated in reverse by another reviewer, who blames Herbert for his "Olympian attitude" and "proneness to harmony and geometry," all allegedly a result of the fact that "Herbert with increasing frequency draws his poetic material from his travel impressions and books." In both cases we are faced with the same sort of argument: the definition of Herbert as a "classicist" and "poet of culture," who supposedly betrays no interest in life's empirical side, leads to the conclusion that his is a poetry which—depending on the critic's stance—either looks at the world with all-embracing "love," or is superciliously indifferent to human suffering.

However, it is enough to repeat the simple operation of confronting the critics' ideas with Herbert's texts to see quite clearly that the poet is fundamentally opposed to classicism as an erudite and abstract "poetry of culture" or as grounds for a harmonious and conflictless vision of the world. Let us confine ourselves to quoting two well-known poems by Herbert in which the very word "classic"—although used differently in each of them—plays a central role. The following is a prose poem entitled "Classic":

A wooden ear, enormous, plugged with cotton and the tediousness of Cicero. What a great stylist, everyone says. Today no one writes such long sentences. And what erudition. He even knows how to read inscriptions on stone. Only never will he guess that the marble veins in the Baths of Diocletian are the blood vessels of slaves which have burst in the quarries.

It would be difficult to find a more unequivocal assault on classicism as "antiquarianism," the pseudo-classical Neo-Parnassism which tears out culture from the undersoil of human suffering and views the past as nothing more than an image of paradise lost. In the other poem, however, "Why the Classics", the same title word is devoid of any ironic tinge and is treated with restrained respect. For here the word means something else; the figure of Thucydides is a different kind of "classic." Herbert approves of the ancient historian's succinct, calm, and objective way of recounting his personal failure during the Peloponnesian War; he contrasts that with "generals of the most recent wars" who in an analogical situation "whine on their knees before posterity / praise their heroism and innocence // they accuse their subordinates / envious colleagues / unfavorable winds." In the final section of the poem which seemingly lacks any thematic connection with the prior ones, Herbert suddenly shifts the meaning to the sphere of aesthetics:

if art for its subject
will have a broken jar
a small broken soul
with a great self-pity

what will remain after us
will be like lovers' weeping
in a small dirty hotel
when wall-paper dawns

If classicism, or rather, if the "classics" are an example to emulate, it is only for their restraint, their dislike of emotional sloppiness or self-pity, and their rejection of hysterical turmoil; Herbert's sympathy for Marsyas' suffering and his solidarity with him do not mean, as Przybylski rightly indicates, howling along with him. This type of artistic method is not only faithful to its great predecessors, but it is also less liable to suffer a failure; for the modern poet, it is the only "way of coping coolly with facts which could easily slide out of control." On the other hand, however, it, is not a classicism of indifference or even of a Stoic equilibrium of mind, a classicism that seeks prettified utopias or wishes to lose itself in the illusory ideal of harmony—it is not marble but slaves' blood that is the final point of reference in this poetry. If we are to agree with Murray Krieger that modern literature extends between poles of "tragic vision" and "classic vision," "the confrontation of extremity" and "the retreat from extremity," we can make at least one statement on Herbert—that he avoids extremity on the aesthetic level, yet by no means avoids it—on the contrary, he even challenges it—on the ethical level of his work. His poetry is a "tragic vision" recounted in the Classic style.

Source: Stanislaw Barańczak, "Zbigniew Herbert and the Critics," in the Polish Review, Vol. 30, No. 2, 1985, pp. 127–48.

Contemporary Authors Online

In the following essay, the author discusses Herbert's career.

"One of Poland's most honored and influential poets," as Robert Hudzik describes him in Library Journal, Zbigniew Herbert enjoys an international reputation. His poetry, marked by a direct language and a strong moral concern, is shaped by his experiences under both the Nazi and Soviet dictatorships. 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 began writing poetry when he was seventeen years old, but did not publish until 1956, "after fifteen years of writing for the drawer." Certainly one factor in the late publication of his work was the political climate in Poland during the forties and fifties: the suppression of all publishing during the Nazi occupation and the severe literary censorship of the repressive Stalinist regime. (Herbert has referred to Joseph Stalin ironically as "the Great Linguist" for his corruption of the language.) And as Czeslaw Milosz points out: "Before 1956 the price for being published was to renounce one's own taste and he [Herbert] did not wish to pay it." Herbert, however, is not bitter about the fifteen-year wait; on the contrary, he considers it "a period of fasting" which gave him time to work on his attitudes without external pressures.

Described by Stephen Stepanchev as "a witness to his time," Herbert can be considered a political poet. But as Stephen Miller advises in The Rarer Action: Essays in Honor of Francis Fergusson: "The word political may be misleading for it brings to mind the bad verse of the thirties, verse damaged by causes.... 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 . . . it is not public speech. Subdued and casual, his poems shun both hysteria and apocalyptic intensity." Robert Hass, writing in the Washington Post Book World, calls Herbert "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." According to A. Alvarez in Beyond All This Fiddle, Herbert "is political by virtue of being permanently and warily in opposition.... 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."

Perhaps Herbert's "political" attitude can be found in his interpretation of the role of the poet. "In Poland," Herbert once stated, "we think of the poet as prophet; he is not merely a maker of verbal forms or an imitator of reality. The poet expresses the deepest feelings and the widest awareness of people.... The language of poetry differs from the language of politics. And, after all, poetry lives longer than any conceivable political crisis. The poet looks over a broad terrain and over vast stretches of time. He makes observations on the problems of his own time, to be sure, but he is a partisan only in the sense that he is a partisan of the truth. He arouses doubts and uncertainties and brings everything into question." Still, poetry has limited influence. Speaking to Jacek Trznadel in Partisan Review, Herbert explained: "It is vanity to think that one can influence the course of history by writing poetry. It is not the barometer that changes the weather."

Although Herbert's purpose as a poet and the subjects of his poetry are serious, he mixes humor and satire effectively. "The most distinctive quality of Herbert's imagination," Laurence Lieberman writes in Poetry, "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 for the individual identity, a bulwark against the mental slavery of the totalitarian church and state." Miller also 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 poetry is also laced with biblical and Greek mythological allusions. Miller contends that "the lens of myth reduces the glare of contemporary experience, placing it in a perspective that enables [Herbert] to view it without losing his sanity and sense of humor." He also points out that the use of myth "liberates [Herbert] from the confines of particular historical events.... 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." For example, a poem titled "Preliminary Investigation of an Angel" offers a comparison between totalitarian regimes and biblical mythology: an "angel" of the state, a member of the hierarchy, is put on trial and judged to be guilty of crimes against the "heavenly" government. The poem is reminiscent of the Stalin purges when no "faithful" member of the party was free from suspicion. In another poem, "Why the Classics," Herbert contrasts Thucydides, the Greek historian who accepted the responsibility for the failure of his mission to capture Amphipolis, with the "generals of most recent wars" who wallow in their self-pity and state that everyone, and therefore no one, is responsible for their failures and actions.

Pan Cogito is, according to Ruel K. Wilson, one of Herbert's most pessimistic works. Wilson, who sees Herbert as "Poland's finest postwar poet," notes that his "concern [in Pan Cogito] . . . is for humanity rather than for ideologies, which so often betray those who naively embrace them." To Bogdana Carpenter and John Carpenter, writing in World Literature Today, Herbert's concern is self-identity: "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 . . . is one of Herbert's most striking traits."

Mr. Cogito, the book's central character, is a problem to many critics. Unable to determine satisfactorily the relationship between Herbert and Cogito, critics have labeled the character petty and mediocre. His concerns are practical and his life ordinary. Cogito enjoys reading sensationalist newspaper features, fails when he tries transcendental meditation, and "his stream of consciousness brings up detritus like a tin can." But both Wilson and the Carpenters have dismissed such criticisms by noting that Cogito is a very human and universal man. According to Wilson, Cogito is "a modern intellectual who reads the newspapers, recalls his childhood, his family; he also muses on pop-art, America, alienation, magic, an aging poet, the creative process." For the Carpenters, 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 sense of contradictions." Wilson noted that "in the last analysis, Cogito's 'weaknesses'—his incapacity for abstract thought, his rejection of dogmaticism, his very human petty fears and anxieties, his feelings of inadequacy and the concomitant self-irony—become his greatest strengths and virtues." With regard to the role of characters in his work, Herbert once stated: "The speaker of my poems is a generalized figure who speaks not for himself or for me but for humanity. He is representative; he speaks for a generation, if you like; he makes historical and moral judgements."

When translated as Mr. Cogito, the book's chief character met with further speculation from American critics. E. J. Czerwinski, writing in World Literature Today, noted the book's thematic "juxtaposition of the chaotic and ignoble present and the secure, value-conscious past," making Mr. Cogito "as great a cycle of poems as has been written in this century by any poet." Drawing from Descartes' philosophical position, Mr. Cogito becomes a persona who shares his thoughts and probes the paradoxes of life, yet he is not "a hero or a villain; like others in an occupied land, he is a struggler," observes Kenneth Pobo in World Literature Today, who notes that the poems do not form a linear biography of Mr. Cogito, but offer instead "two points of view . . . a first-person speaker, Mr. Cogito himself; and a third-person speaker, in which another voice comments on Mr. Cogito." This duality is expressed by Herbert in "About Mr. Cogito's Two Legs," showing how Mr. Cogito's left leg is inclined "to leap / ready to dance" while his right is "nobly rigid," so that "in this way / on two legs / the left which can be compared to Sancho Panza / and the right / recalling the wandering knight / Mr. Cogito / goes / through the world / staggering slightly." What results is a character who is "both imagined and heartbreakingly real" states Rita Signorelli-Pappas in Small Press.

In addition to his poetry, Herbert's essays and short prose works or "apocrypha," collected in Still Life with a Bridle, are also noteworthy. Seeking an apparent antithesis to the totalitarian regimes under which he grew up, Herbert seeks answers in the historical background of middle class capitalism, in what Matthew Stadler in the New York Times Book Review calls "our great cultural ancestor, the Dutch bourgeois of the 17th century." Part travel writing, part fiction, part essay, in Still Life with a Bridle Herbert explores history, science, architecture, documents, and painting, looking for a pattern of meaning to emerge from the collage, only to conclude that, according to Stadler, "the past does not dwell in the geography of the present, but in our imaginations." Herbert uses images of lightness, darkness, and color to illustrate his point: "Dusk is falling, the last acrid, Egyptian yellows go out, cinnabar becomes gray and fragile, the last fireworks of the day grow dark. All of a sudden there is an unexpected pause, a short-lasting interval in the darkness as if somebody in a hurry opened the door from a light room into a dark room."

Herbert traveled throughout the West, reading from his work and teaching at several universities. But in his native land, much of his work was for many years first printed in underground publications or in the West because of its political implications. Polish writers who followed the communist line, in contrast, were treated very well. "Whoever chooses [in the West] to become a writer takes an immense risk, whereas here they lived in the lap of luxury, above the average of other professionals," Herbert explained to Trznadel. "The only risk was political. One had to know which way the wind blows.... If one was a member of the Writers' Union it was obvious that his books would be published. I do not know of a single case where a book was turned down because it was badly written."

Once described by Stanislaw Baranczak in the New Republic as "undoubtedly the most admired and respected poet now living in Poland," Herbert had a tremendous influence on younger writers. His advice to them, he once told Trznadel, is that "life is more complicated, more mysterious and more convoluted than the party, the army, the police. Let us detach ourselves a little from this truly horrible everyday reality and try to write about doubt, anxiety, and despair."

Poet of the historical, the philosophical, the political, the individual, Herbert's sparse, carefully-crafted lines and ironic tonality earned him an international reputation. At the time of his death in 1998 at age 73, he was called by Hass, "one of the most influential European poets of the last half-century, and perhaps—even more than his contemporaries Czeslaw Milosz and Wladislawa Symborska—the defining Polish poet of the postwar years." "In a just world Mr. Herbert would have received the Noel Prize long ago," stated Stephen Dobyns in the New York Times.

Source: "Zbigniew Herbert," in Contemporary Authors Online, Thomson Gale, 2003.

Bogdana Carpenter

In the following essay, Carpenter examines Herbert's treatment of history and the past in his work, especially through the his retellings or "apocryphas."

In both his prose and poetry the contemporary Polish writer Zbigniew Herbert constantly returns to themes of the past. But Herbert is not a classicist, like T. S. Eliot for example, and above all he is not an antiquarian for whom the past is a static source of value. The distinction between classicist and antiquarian is important, and even crucial in Herbert's case. One of the most original features of his work is the manner in which he looks at the present and at the past. Many of his poems have attacked the notion of antiquarianism; a prominent example is the prose poem "Classic." Herbert always insists on the life of the past, and he works in a direction that is the opposite of those usually called "classicists." Instead of associating the present with the past, he associates and incorporates the past with the present, proceeding in a completely different manner. Instead of making the present cohere around fixed loci outside it, he extends the present outward—time often taking a broad spatial dimension in his poems—and toward the past, which represents an extension of present life. The past does not possess value in itself because it is past, rigid, or fixed—nor because it has escaped the flux or bias of the present, as historians sometimes assert. In Herbert's work the past is never an escape from the present, nor is it established in any way; no sacrosanct authorities have imposed their stamp upon it, although many lay claim to it. On the contrary, it is an arena of intense struggle for the truth, and for reality—and our own reality depends on its outcome. Herbert has made this especially clear in a new genre he has devised that he calls "apocryphas." These prose pieces are a synthesis of the short story and the essay; they contest traditional and accepted interpretations of major historical events, presenting the very different ("apocryphal") interpretations of the author.

Herbert's attitude toward the past has undergone a gradual evolution since his first collection of poems, Struna świat-la (Chord of Light, 1956). This volume contained many poems about the war, as well as many with "classical" themes—"About Troy," "A Parable about King Midas," "A Fragment of a Greek Vase," to mention only a few. Indeed the two themes of war and the classics define the volume both philosophically and structurally. The two worlds they represent stand apart, and in sharp contrast to one another:

truly truly I tell you
great is the abyss
between us and the light

On the one side are ourselves, living in the present, having experienced the war, our ears still full of "barbarian cries of fear"—helpless, despairing humans. On the other side are the great and wise philosophers, gods in "stony cloaks" and "bronze helmets," kings who philosophize with poets. They live in a world where death is peaceful, where harmony is restored each day by Arion's song, and the fire of Troy might become the subject of a poem. However, "there is no instrument or poet that could describe" the fires of our own times. The ancient world is far enough away for us to feel that its defeats are unreal, lacking the painful poignancy of immediate experience:

he flies to a high star
where the fire smells distantly
like a page from the Iliad
("Three Poems from Memory")

In this volume the comparison between the ancient world and contemporary reality is a contrast: between a heroic, harmonious and idealized past, and the cruel, destructive present stigmatized by suffering. The image of the past is one-sided since it serves as a foil for the reality of our own times. The result is a certain romanticization of the past in direct relation to the degradation of the present.

Along with the sense of distance between past and present, the speaker of these poems has, however, an awareness of the closeness and even intimacy of the classical tradition. Many poems are written in the form of address, using the familiar form of the second person singular ("To Apollo," "To Athena," "To Marcus Aurelius"). In Herbert's first volume the present and past are equally close, held in a relatively harmonic balance and on almost equal terms despite the differences between them. The figures from the past are treated as living people. Nike is impulsive, undecided, human; even the fortune tellers in the poem "Fortune Telling" lack any real omniscience that puts them outside the present. The relationship between the speaker and these personages varies from friendship to enmity, but it always retains the special intensity of personal acquaintance rather than scholarly abstraction. The past is seen in the same terms of closeness to experience that characterize the present. The unique balance of this book is shown by the readiness with which both past and present come to mind—they are equally accessible, and share this closeness in an analogous manner. The poem "Altar" describes a bas-relief depicting a sacrificial procession; the stone has been broken, and the break coincides with that between past and present, present life continuing the same events portrayed by the sculptor:

here is a the bas-relief—if you can guess
perhaps the offering wasn't liked by the eternal gods
or the reluctant moisture of duration removed the human forms
.... .... .
you don't know which of your words and what form (perhaps insignificant)
the wrinkle of stone preserves—not what you secretly think
and you don't know whether they choose blood and bones or perhaps an eyebrow . . .

Therefore, despite his distance from the past the poet can conduct a dialogue with it; and in the poem "To Marcus Aurelius" he can stretch out a hand to Marcus, a gesture suggesting the possibility of mutual understanding. There can be relevant communication between the barbarian reality of our own times and the wisdom of antiquity. Herbert extends a "chord of light" that reaches over the abyss.

As Herbert continued to write he insistently questioned this closeness and the nature of experience itself. Numerous poems in his subsequent collections are those of a moralist, for example the well-known "Knocker" from Hermes, pies i gwiazda (Hermes, Dog and Star, 1957); and this ethical concern affects Herbert's relationship to experience, requiring him to distance himself from those versions of it that are untrue, inaccurate, or destructive. Experience and reality are less a single entity and more a field of struggle, subject to diametrically opposed interpretations. The poem "Three Studies on the Subject of Realism" is divided into three parts, the first two presenting contradictory attitudes toward both art and reality. The first describes a group or school of artists, ostensibly painters, who interpret their role as necessarily affirmative; they are optimistic, gentle, make liberal use of fantasy, and are basically yea-saying. The second part describes artists who are social critics: harsh, discontented, debunking, severe. Herbert himself adopts a third attitude: that of a moralist who sees reality in its ethical dichotomy of both black and white, and for whom truth is a function of a moral judgment. This attitude will characterize all of Herbert's writings—it might be labeled ethical realism.

In the prose poem "The Sacrifice of Iphigenia," the burning of Iphigenia on a sacrificial pyre is seen from five equally vivid but different points of view: that of Iphigenia herself, of Agamemnon, of Hippias—Iphigenia's fiancé—of Calchas, and of the chorus. On first reading, all five of the points of view seem equally "justified" by their circumstances and particular psychological perspective. In fact, however, only Iphigenia's fear counts, as well as the pain and compassion of Hippias and Agamemnon. Calchas' eyes are covered with leucoma, and for the chorus standing on a distant hill the human sacrifice is transformed into a sumptuous spectacle. Herbert concludes with biting irony, "The view is superb, with the proper perspective" as Iphigenia is burned alive. "Realism" is thus a matter of perspective, and from this point on the only "proper" perspective for Herbert is of an ethical nature. While he recognizes the possibility of different psychological perspectives and thus different "realisms"—as well as diverse approaches to art—there is still only one possible truth. This truth belongs to the victim, and its essence is suffering. The ethical realism of Herbert consists in faithfulness to this truth. In a recent poem about Mr. Cogito he has described it as follows:

Mr. Cogito's imagination
has the motion of a pendulum
it crosses with precision
from suffering to suffering

there is no place in it
for the artificial fires of poetry

he would like to remain faithful
to uncertain clarity
("Mr. Cogito and the Imagination")

Just as Herbert's descriptions of present reality become increasingly sharp in his writings after 1957, so too his attitude toward the classics and Greek mythology—toward all the major myths of Western European culture—become equally probing and critical. Beginning with Hermes Dog and Star, he measures the past with the same criteria that he uses for the present. In the poems "The Missing Knot," "Ornamental Yet True," and "Attempt to Dissolve Mythology," all included in the volume entitled Napis (Inscription, 1969), Herbert's treatment of the gods is totally irreverent. In "Ornamental Yet True" the plaster statues of mythological gods in a park are hideous: "Symmetrical Aphrodite, Jove mourned by his dogs, Bacchus drunk with plaster. A disgrace to nature. The lichen of the gardens." The somewhat idealized versions of the gods in the earlier poems give way to a new one in which the gods are no different from humans—"hunting and hunted, sweating, noisy." In "The Missing Knot" Electra works in a coop, and Orestes studies pharmacology: "soon he'll marry his careless classmate with the pale complexion and eyes continually filled with tears." In the "Attempt to Dissolve Mythology" the gods form an underground organization (curiously resembling the Polish underground at the end of World War II), hoping to adapt to contemporary society and somehow survive. The results are ludicrous: It is interesting to observe that at this time, Herbert's "angels" of the contemporary world receive no better treatment than the Greek gods. The past and the present do not belong to two separate realms but are seen as made of the same human substance. In the poem "Preliminary Investigation of an Angel" an angel is imprisoned, tortured, finally hung upside down—

after a few nights
the job is finished
the leather throat of the angel
is full of gluey agreement

Herbert's attitude toward Old Testament legends is similarly critical. The modern Jonah in Herbert's poem of that name "goes down like a stone," and once saved, behaves more cleverly than his biblical colleague; he grows a beard and far from Nineveh, under an assumed name, deals in cattle and antiques, eventually dying of cancer in a neat modern hospital. Herbert returns to these legends because of their core of meaning and experience. This core is also our experience—we participate in it, and it is there that we can read our own lives, actual, living and breathing, demanding, constantly requiring judgment. In many of these poems Herbert achieves two simultaneous goals: he discredits the present, and at the same time throws shadows on the veracity of the old myths. It should be pointed out that the present reality referred to in these poems is not the same as that of Chord of Light, which was dominated by the experience of the war.

Already these poems might be called "apocryphal" in the sense that traditional or antiquarian versions of the past receive very short shrift. The unreal or "mythical" layers are peeled off in an attempt to reach the underlying core. It is the mythic aspect that Herbert deals with most sharply, and encrustations that show hero-worship, artificiality, propaganda, dogmatism, or sentimental clichés. Above all Herbert takes aim at the "literary" versions of these stories, and the writers and anti-quarians who were responsible for them. On the other hand the philosophers who sought the truth, and some of the actors in the stories when restored to their human dimensions, emerge much better. Admiration is shown to Marcus Aurelius in the poem "To Marcus Aurelius," and to Thucydides in "Why the Classics." They too were engaged in the task of finding reality behind its myriad appearances, behind the countless falsifications created by interested and biased parties.

In a few poems Herbert tentatively tried to recreate some of the crucial events of the past and to imagine what they were really like, without any fictitious additions. The poem "Five Men" had been a sustained attempt to recreate an event from the recent past—an execution during the war—in its psychological complexity. He followed a method of presenting different successive versions of the same event, each probing more deeply than the one immediately preceding it. Two poems in particular, "On the Margin of the Trial" and "The History of the Minotaur," are attempts to describe events that have been central to Western civilization. Far from retelling the myths the poems try to demythologize the original events; in this sense they prefigure Herbert's "apocryphas." "On the Margin of the Trial" is included in the volume entitled Inscription, and presents an entirely "apocryphal" version of the trial of Jesus. Without touching upon the religious content of the Gospels' version, the poem attacks the literary treatment of the event and its resort to the imagination rather than facts:

Sanhendrin's court was not open during the night the blackness was needed by the imagination it was in flagrant contradiction to normal practises

Herbert recognizes that the account in the Gospels is dramatic and has strong emotional appeal; but these very characteristics undermine its credibility. He confronts that version of Jesus' trial with his own, in which he strictly adheres to facts and historical probabilities. Seen from this perspective the trial was neither a provocation nor a conspiracy, but instead appeared to be "an impeccable administrative procedure" played out between the officials. Herbert counters the spectacular scenery of "frightened bearded men" and the roaring mob with his own laconic conclusion:

it might have been gray without passions

Written "on the margin" of the Bible, the poem is a curious apocrypha à rebours: instead of constructing a new fiction on an original event, it does the opposite by divesting the event of all imaginary additions.

"On the Margin of the Trial" is still tentative in its conclusions, which are modified by expressions such as "it might have been" and "it seems." The first open attack on myth is to be found in the poem "The History of the Minotaur," written about five years after "On the Margin of the Trial" and included in the volume Pan Cogito (Mr. Cogito, 1974). The poem retells the slaying of the Minotaur by Theseus in Herbert's own "apocryphal" version. Herbert claims his new version is the true one, written in the "as yet undeciphered" Linear A script. The Minotaur was not fathered by a bull but was the son of Minos. His unusually large head was a sign of mental deformation: he was a half-wit. The labyrinth was built in an unsuccessful attempt to educate the Minotaur: "By a system of corridors, from the simplest to the more complicated, by a difference in levels and a staircase of abstractions it was supposed to initiate the prince Minotaur into the principles of correct thinking." Finally, Theseus was not a liberator but a professional killer contracted for by Minos, who had "decided to get rid of the disgrace to the family." Herbert tries to strip off the mythological layers of the story by explaining all its actions within a natural human framework. The poem shows Herbert's scorn for non-human solutions, and for improbable fictions invented to serve a myth. If reality does not meet the requirements of literature and myth, Herbert sides against them and with reality. His ordinary, unspectacular story might not fulfill the demands of those who prefer the distortions of myth, but the truth it reveals is more important than the myth's imaginary fireworks.

The process of demythologization acquires new scope in Herbert's most recent literary endeavor, his "apocryphas." These prose pieces take leave of poetry altogether and offer reinterpretations of historical events and figures. The narrator assumes the role of sceptic; he has total distrust toward prevailing historical interpretations. Like their generic models, Herbert's apocryphas are connected to a canonical text but at the same time contain its negation by drawing attention to important details and facts overlooked in the original text. Thus the use of the term "apocrypha" is both accurate and ironic. It is accurate insofar as Herbert builds upon existing historical and literary documents that provide him with a point of departure. Yet it is ironic, because his apocryphas demythologize. The characteristic feature of the genre is the invention of imaginary, often fantastic, stories—that is, the fabrication of myths. The procedure Herbert adopts is similar to that of his earlier short prose pieces called "fables." In these the rebuttal of an accepted "truth" or story was achieved not by straightforward negation but by a modified and carefully arranged, usually ironical, repetition of the story. In the apocryphas, Herbert's strategy is to offer simultaneously two or three different versions of the same event. Each version adds new information and a new perspective on the story, thus modulating its meaning and undermining the reliability of the original text. In the name of truth Herbert sets himself the task of reproducing the story stripped of all false mythological accretions. While he ostensibly polemicizes with the mythmakers of ancient times, he contests any literature relying on the imagination at the expense of reality and historical facts. Herbert profoundly distrusts the imagination. And this distrust has a deeper meaning, because he wants to restore a sense of moral responsibility to literature: an ethical dimension.

In the apocrypha entitled "Kleomedes," the real story of Kleomedes is confronted with distorted versions by eyewitnesses, reporters, and interpreters. The result is a narrative containing a double story: one extraordinary but untrue, the other ordinary, completely contained within human categories, and true. Kleomedes was a handsome youth of unusual physical strength from the virtually unknown island of Astypalea. Most versions ascribed spectacular, heroic deeds to him, but Herbert presents him as a simple, modest young man whose external attributes clash with his personality, that is passionless and devoid of ambitions. At a critical point in the story, after describing Kleomedes' unfortunate duel at the Olympic games and his subsequent madness, Herbert opposes his version to that of ancient authors: ". . . we will try to avoid psychology as well as lofty symbolism, and limit ourselves to a simple presentation of the facts, as with Pausanias, who first recorded the story." Pausanias' version, however, terminates at the moment when Kleomedes has involuntarily caused the death of sixty school-children and, pursued by an angry crowd, mysteriously disappears inside a stone chest in the temple of Athena. This lack of any ending, this "disquieting lack of a point, a moral, a . . . bottom" to the story provides Herbert with the opportunity to write his own, following the tradition of ancient apocryphas not included in "canonical" texts. Herbert suggests that his ending is the true ending of Kleomedes' story: Kleomedes escapes his pursuers by means of a tunnel, leaves his native island and settles in Corinth. For years he lives there, working by the sweat of his brow, vainly waiting for an opportunity to return to Astypalea. His quiet and anonymous death contrasts with the events of his native island, where the absent Kleomedes has been restored to the status of a hero, then was deified with a statue built in his honor. Kleomedes' fate has developed along two parallel lines that never meet—Kleomedes the hero and Kleomedes the man have nothing in common.

Herbert's Kleomedes lacks the qualities of a hero, and his story is unheroic; unlike Odysseus, whose adventures and sufferings are the price of his return home, Kleomedes is "a deserter of fate." His fate does not bring fulfillment but frustration. Herbert succeeds in drawing a portrait of an anti-hero, but he still manages to communicate much compassion for this unimaginative protagonist, who is endowed by fate with exceptional strength but at the same time completely lacks "the art of imitating passions and safely balancing over the abyss." Herbert's choice of an unknown, mediocre individual and a gray, ordinary setting is intentional, because these contrast sharply with the extraordinary nature of the myth. The focal point of Herbert's story, its dramatic interest and human factor, is precisely this discrepancy between Kleomedes' "heroic" appearance and his totally "unheroic" personality. As in the story of the Minotaur, Herbert pulls his hero down to earth from the mythic pedestal where he was enthroned.

The longer, more elaborate form of the apocryphas allows Herbert to examine more closely than the poems the mechanism of the transformation of reality into myth and literature. He argues convincingly that the process of deformation—of mythologization—is not necessarily a function of time and distance from the original event, but, on the contrary, occurs simultaneously with the original event and often has political ramifications. The complexities of this process are dealt with in greatest depth in the apocrypha entitled "Mirror," where the symbolism of the mirror as transmitter of truth acquires unexpected ambivalence. In Herbert's story a mirror sends back a number of different, contradictory, and confusing images to its owner, Dsu-Gi, who is prime minister in the distant kingdom of Tsi. The mirror is a deceptive "unpredictable object" whose image depends entirely on the mood of the minister; he can give this image the coloration he wants and interpret it according to his own predispositions. He sees himself through the prism of his emotions and his vision is deceptive, like the mirror. Aware of this, Dsu-Gi asks for the opinions of other people (who also function as mirrors), hoping their images of him will be more objective and unaltered by subjective emotions. But the opinions of his wife, his mistress, and a guest turn out to be even less reliable than his own perceptions, for they are dictated by love, by fear, and by self-interest; these emotions prevent them from speaking the truth. Although disappointing, Dsu-Gi's experiments with "mirrors" remain innocuous as long as they are limited to his own person. When he decides to transfer them to the political plane, their effects take on disastrous proportions. At the instigation of Dsu-Gi, King Wei agrees to seek the truth about his own failings and the abuses of his government. To do this he encourages his subjects to express openly their opinions and criticisms—that is, to function as his mirrors. But this action not only unsettles the internal balance of the state, it indirectly leads to wars with neighboring states, their outcome being the defeat and, ultimately, the annihilation of the kingdom of Tsi. Dsu-Gi's utopia, like his vanity, does not survive the concrete confrontation with reality. Truth and politics are at odds, and King Wei understands this better than his minister:

'I am not at all certain'—said the king—'if it is necessary to see one's true face in the mirror. Perhaps it is good for philosophers, but not for rulers.'

The allegory of the mirror in Herbert's apocrypha applies to still another domain, that of art, literature, and history. The reflections they give of events are distorted and false as well:

The official version of the war was inscribed on bronze tablets. Also, numerous poets and painters celebrated it. But after the passage of centuries the results of their efforts seem strangely unconvincing and pale.

They are examples of "courtly art" in which the desire to please the ruler is stronger than concern for truth. Motivated by political opportunism, this kind of art blindly follows accepted conventions and, regardless of its content, reduces reality to established "topoi."

So far, all the "mirrors" have sent false messages: either because of vanity, fear, love, or opportunism. But the fact that truth is difficult to find in life, art, and politics does not mean that it doesn't exist. The mirror presupposes both the image and the person perceiving this image; it is the onlooker who distorts an image that in itself is neither false nor deceptive. Herbert does not doubt the existence of objective reality. What he questions, instead, is the objectivity with which art and history reflect that reality. In other words, the mirror can be faithful if we approach it without preconceptions, and it can be objective if we are willing to see in it the true image it is giving us. In the kingdom of Tsi, set apart from the official artists, courtiers and politicians, there is a group of philosophers who from the very beginning detect the demagoguery of Dsu-Gi's "reforms." However, Dsu-Gi causes these philosophers to be exiled to the mountains. Their exile coincides, significantly, with the moment at which the minister ceases to look at his reflection in the mirror.

A similar opposition between philosophy and politics, truth and falsehood, is found in the apocrypha entitled "The Gordian Knot." "Mirror" is structured into several parts, each representing a new and different version of what was in reality the same event; or rather, each part is a different "reflection" of it. "The Gordian Knot" focuses more intensely on the initial event as it happens. When Alexander the Great is confronted with the huge, mysterious knot and expected to unravel it, he cuts it through with a single stroke of the sword. His act is interpreted in two diametrically opposed ways. The first interpretation is made by Alexander's "political advisor" the soothsayer Aristander, the second by Alexander's tutor, the philosopher Aristotle. Aristander, who plays the role of "minister of propaganda," unconditionally approves the action and interprets it as a divine sign of approval of Alexander's war. Aristotle, however, strongly disapproves of it. Aristotle expresses his opinion in a letter to Alexander: "Alexander was mistaken if he thought he rose to the occasion (granting even a minimal meaning to this distasteful show). The knot should have been untied—not at all cut through. This could have been done by any sordid butcher." The falsity of the official version, prepared by the soothsayer for political reasons and then repeated by appointed poets and was historians, was detected immediately by the philosopher. The opposition between the philosopher and the soothsayer—Aristotle and Aristander—is the opposition between two different approaches to reality that are mutually exclusive. The philosopher's approach and his ultimate motive is the search for truth. As Herbert writes, even when Alexander was preoccupied with the siege of a city, Aristotle wrote letters "about the properties of uneven numbers, the constitution of Carthage, his theory of the waves of the Nile, and the life of bees." On the other hand the politician, who plays the role of ideologist in a modern communist country or secretary of state in a Western democracy, is exclusively concerned with the political efficiency of actions, and with an image of the ruler that has no relation to its ethical content.

Although truth is on the side of Aristotle, it is the soothsayer Aristander's interpretation that wins. Not only does it become official in his own time, this is the version recorded by history and the only version continuing until our own time. This persistance of the false version is made possibly by the existence of poets, artists, and historians who can be bought or co-opted—they are venal and corruptible. Their reasons are not political like those of Aristander but opportunistic; they cannot be excused even by raison d'état. Yet it is their records of the action that are left to posterity, the only ones extant. As he questions the action of Alexander and the myth of the Gordian knot, Herbert reveals that the ethical value of the action has actually been contested from the very beginning, even though all traces of this original contestation have disappeared. As a result, an action that was ethically questionable acquired the status of myth and supposedly positive symbol.

For Herbert the knot is an ambiguous and therefore suspicious symbol; the act of cutting it might represent intellectual courage, but equally well it could represent a "sly trick," brutal force, and tyranny. If Alexander's motive was intellectual helplessness and frustration, then his resort to brutal force is ethically unacceptable. This is the conclusion that results from Herbert's investigation of the episode, and his retelling the story of Alexander's stay in Gordion that reproduces all the circumstances preceding and accompanying the cutting of the knot. Herbert contests the accepted interpretation of the knot's symbolism because it implies a lack of criticism and intellectual minimalism—how could Alexander "overlook the fact that the untying of knots and problems is not an athletic display but an intellectual process, and this assumes trial and error, helplessness in the face of the tangled material of the world, wonderful human uncertainty and humble patience." The Gordian knot illustrates the danger of a myth that conceals a reality impossible to approve; the myth's apparent simplicity is contradicted by the complex reality that gave rise to it. As in his earlier poems, Herbert solves the contradiction by siding with reality and complexity, that is, with the truth.

The myth of the Gordion knot contains another danger as well: that of its actualization, and its continued vitality in the future. "The Gordian knot ceased to exist as a real object, but it continues to exist, and to exist stubbornly, as an object of our imagination, as a cognitive problem." For Herbert the knot represents the wisdom of an old belief that was "murdered" by Alexander and cannot be reconstructed: ". . . in the very middle of this tangle so ill-treated by the conqueror an important legacy resided, a warning, wisdom, a prayer, hope, or at least a model of old cosmology. Now, no one knows any longer how to reconstruct the knot—for how could this be done? And it is painful beyond words. The Mystery was murdered." Alexander committed an act of violence and its popular "mythic" success endowed this violence with legal status. And yet, whether performed against people or against objects, an act of violence remains an act of violence, and is the beginning of crime. This is why Herbert underlines the analogy between Alexander's action and the pyres burning in the future: "heaps of papyrus, manuscripts recorded on calf-skin, pyres of books, in which is thrown—as if only as a supplement—the non-submitting author." The allusion to contemporary political repression is obvious; censorship, the persecution of writers, and the state's use of naked force on a widespread scale.

In his earliest poetry Herbert used the past as a foil for the present; beginning with Hermes, Dog, and Star he assumed the stance that the past represents experience comparable to our own—in the apocryphas the past is seen from the perspective of present experience, and this is instrumental in the reevaluation of the past. In "Mirror" the narrator explains how temporal distance makes him sceptical about all versions of events in the past that have come down to us: "the perspective of time changes the way we look at these testimonies, and makes them unconvincing." The new way of looking at the passage of time has a two-fold significance. On the one hand it permits considerably greater objectivity, since the narrator is uninvolved in the events and can evaluate them from the standpoint of a detached observer. On the other hand, the time separating the narrator of today from those events is not an empty space, not a vacuum; it has been filled with history, including the most recent history in which the narrator himself is steeped—it is not a matter of distance but above all of experience. Herbert's scepticism has been learned by observing the reality of his own times as well as by studying the past. The edge of his attack against myth is directed in equal measure against the present and against the past. The ultimate conclusion to be drawn from the apocryphas concerns ourselves, and the way we evaluate the world in which we live. Contemporary politicians dislike looking in a mirror as much as King Wei, and they use swords to cut difficult knots with an ease like that of Alexander. The bronze tablets on which our own history is recorded are just as unreliable as those of the distant kingdom of Tsi. Mythology is not the exclusive domain of the past, but is being created at the present moment under our very eyes. By no means does the presentness of our reality, the fact we live in it and are surrounded by it, ensure that our perception of it is correct; time after time we have distorted it and continue to distort it, failing to "give testimony" to events in a truthful and accurate manner. Although Herbert's apocryphas take place in the past they are a warning to his contemporaries. The imperative remains, more urgent than ever: to find the truth, to bear witness to it.

Source: Bogdana Carpenter, "Zbigniew Herbert's Attack against Myth," in Cross Currents, Vol. 3, 1984, pp. 221–33.


Alvarez, A. "Introduction to the Poetry of Zbigniew Herbert," in Selected Poems, translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Peter Dale Scott, Echo Press, 1986, pp. 9–15; originally published by Penguin, 1968.

Bowdler, Neil, "Zbigniew Herbert: Songs of Solidarity for Poland," in the Guardian, August 3, 1998, p. 13.

Campbell, Joseph, with Bill Moyers, "The First Storytellers," in The Power of Myth, Anchor Books, 1988, pp. 86–112.

Carpenter, Bogdana, "The Barbarian and the Garden: Zbigniew Herbert's Reevaluations," in World Literature Today, Vol. 57, No. 3, Summer 1983, pp. 388–93.

—, "Zbigniew Herbert, the Poet as Witness," in the Polish Review, Vol. 32, No. 1, 1987, pp. 5–14.

Carpenter, John, and Bogdana Carpenter, "Zbigniew Herbert and the Imperfect Poem," in Malahat Review, Vol. 54, 1980, pp. 110–22.

Czerniawski, Adam, "Zbigniew Herbert," in the Independent, July 30, 1998, p. 6.

Herbert, Zbigniew, "Why the Classics," in Selected Poems, translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Peter Dale Scott, Ecco Press, 1986; originally published by Penguin, 1968.

"Polish Poet Gets Jerusalem Prize," in the Jerusalem Post, May 2, 1991, p. 10.

Further Reading

Aulich, James, and Marta Sylvestrova, Political Posters in Central and Eastern Europe 1946–1995: Signs of the Times, Manchester University Press, 2000.

This book is an illustrated history of the political poster in the post–World War II era and during communist rule. Political posters were a closely monitored and often discredited means of expression. The reproductions of posters contained within this book offer an interesting glimpse into political ideology as expressed in an art form that was readily available to the people.

Cipkowski, Peter, Revolution in Eastern Europe, John Wiley & Sons, 1991.

This book provides a detailed examination of the events of 1989 that brought about the end of communism in Eastern Europe. The book also provides a history of communism in Poland from 1945 until 1989 and includes lots of background information to help readers understand these events more thoroughly.

Czerniawski, Adam, The Mature Laurel: Essays on Modern Polish Poetry, Seren Books, 1991.

This book is a collection of essays that features the work of many different poets. The poets discussed are not the Romantic poets of Poland's past, and the subjects discussed are often the turmoil of war and politics. This book makes a good effort to introduce readers to the variety and depth of modern Polish poetry.

Drakulic, Slavenka, How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed, Perennial, 1993.

This book is a collection of essays about ordinary life in Eastern Europe during the communist regimes. The essays focus on a woman's perspective and how the failure of communism was more than ideological but also practical, from a failure to manufacture decent toilet paper to a failure to provide tampons. This book illustrates that humor can also be an important way to assess political failures.

Kraszewski, Charles S., Essays on the Dramatic Works of Polish Poet Zbigniew Herbert, Edwin Mellen Press, 2002.

Rather than focusing on Herbert's poetry, this writer chooses to examine Herbert's dramatic works, especially his five plays. Kraszewski also includes a discussion of Herbert's other works that have been adapted to the stage.

Shallcross, Bozena, ed., The Other Herbert, Indiana Slavic Studies series, No. 9, Indiana University Press, 1998.

This book is a collection of essays written by literary critics who examine Herbert's plays, essays, and legacy. The purpose of this collection is to examine Herbert's work exclusive of his poetry, for which he was best known. This volume of essays helps to establish Herbert as a multi-talented writer who was not restricted to one genre.