In the darkest days of winter, in a moment of deep darkness for my adopted country, Italy, and its garishly painted tyrant, the writings of a Polish poet have kept me company. Zbigniew Herbert died in 1998 at the age of seventy-three; like another compatriot, Karol Wojtyła, he lived through some of the most difficult times of the twentieth century, in the very heart of that darkness, the “bloodlands” of Eastern Europe. His native city, Lwów, was overrun by both the Red Army and the Nazis during World War II; afterward, Herbert lived under Polish Communist rule and witnessed the rise of the labor union Solidarność, the military takeover of 1981, and the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Through all of these cataclysms, he wrote poetry as if life depended on poetry, and he wrote beautiful prose, much of it devoted to works of art. In a world that had shown him spectacular ugliness, he responded with a steady stream of paeans to beauty.
Despite restrictions and the inevitable bureaucratic hangups, Herbert’s success in his own country allowed him to travel widely in Europe, always on a tiny budget. His reflections on those travels, not surprisingly, are all about freedom and the real meanings of life—animal, vegetable, and especially human—but they are so subtly expressed that there is no way to challenge their politics.
Herbert is, above all, a comforter of souls. He puts a credo of sorts into a letter from the great Dutch painter Vermeer to the microscopist Anton van Leeuwenhoek; the letter is fictitious, but its historical setting is plausible: Leeuwenhoek was, in fact, the executor of Vermeer’s will, and this is the kind of information that Herbert reliably ferrets out about every place he visits, every person he meets, whether living or long deceased.
Herbert’s Vermeer cautions his optically minded friend against the headlong pursuit of science, the same science that has just revealed to the two of them that what has always looked like a clear, sunlit drop of water is instead a murky bead of sludge, teeming with tiny creatures. Look through your microscope if you must, the painter concedes:
But allow us as well to continue our archaic procedure, to tell the world words of reconciliation and to speak of joy from recovered harmony, of the eternal desire for reciprocated love.
In his eventful youth, Herbert studied both philosophy and art history in admirable depth; he thought about becoming a professor in one of these fields or the other. Hence his descriptions of paintings, whether on the walls of Lascaux or of the Rijksmuseum, are informed as well as sensitive, and for this author of tiny prose poems, as for Plato once upon a time, the margin between poetry and prose does not really exist. Even in translation, he writes about art, history, myth, and travel in ecstatic, inspired language. Of the Sienese painter Sassetta’s Betrothal of St. Francis to Poverty, he writes:
Two monks (St. Francis can be recognized…
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