Report from the Besieged City and Other Poems
Zbigniew Herbert has had an exemplary Central European education. He was born in 1924 in Lwów in eastern Poland, the son of a lawyer and professor of economics whose great-grandfather spoke only English (hence his literary British surname). In September 1939, when Herbert was fifteen, Lwów was swallowed by the Russian whale. Twenty months later, the Germans marched in and Herbert finished high school underground; fighting in the Resistance. At the end of the war he went to university to study both his father’s disciplines: he took a master’s in economics at Kraków, then a master’s in law at Torun, where he stayed on to study philosophy. In 1950 he moved briefly to Gdansk, then on to Warsaw where for six years he held down a series of menial, Kafkaesque jobs: in a bank, in a shop, as a clerk in the management office of the peat industry, in the department for retired pensioners of the Teachers’ Cooperative, and in the legal department of the Composers’ Association.
During the Nazi occupation his poems had been published irregularly in underground magazines and they continued to appear more or less in the same unofficial way during the grim Stalinist period after the war. Although he was a precocious poet, he had to wait until Khrushchev’s thaw in 1956, when he was thirty-two, to publish his first book of poems. The second appeared the following year, two large collections representing a decade and a half of work, which established him as the leader of his exceptionally gifted generation. It is typical of his ironic indifference to success that he celebrated this recognition with an apologetic poem dedicated to the desk drawer which in sterner times had been his one true audience; his “rebel’s first stiff in dissent,” he wrote, had given him a subject and an excuse, and his new liberty to publish what he wants is only responsibility in another guise:
such is freedom one has again
to invent and overthrow gods
He has been inventing and overthrowing gods ever since, a party of one, permanently and warily in opposition. Although he lived abroad from 1965 to 1971, when the conditions in Poland were relatively relaxed, and was abroad again in the late 1970s—he was awarded the Petrarch Prize in 1979, Germany’s greatest cultural accolade—he returned home immediately after the troubles started in Gdansk in 1980 and has stayed there since. His international reputation is now too secure for the authorities to harm him, yet he refuses to accept their embrace. Report from the Besieged City was first published by internees in the Rakowiecka Prison in Warsaw in 1983.
To understand modern Polish poetry it is necessary to understand also something of what the country went through during the Nazi occupation: 6 million killed out of a population of 30 million; dozens of villages destroyed and their inhabitants massacred,…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.