Herbert Zbigniew
Herbert Zbigniew; drawing by David Levine

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, in the style of Lidice and Oradour; Warsaw razed and emptied of its million inhabitants, the Nazis boasting that they would turn it into “a second Carthage”; Governor General Hans Frank’s infamous Operation AB which aimed at the total elimination of the country’s intelligentsia—and succeeded in murdering 3,500. There was an old historical grudge between the Germans and the Poles, and it was settled by twentieth-century totalitarian methods. All this instilled in the survivors—among other things—a distaste for rhetoric and artistic pretension that amounted almost to a hatred of poetry itself. Tadeusz Rózewicz, who is three years older than Herbert, looked on art as an offense against human suffering and reduced his poems to a minimalist notation stripped of meter, rhyme, even of metaphor. “Modern poetry,” he wrote, “is a struggle for breath.” Herbert, too, eschews all punctuation and every unearned gesture. “He lowers his voice rather than raising it,” John and Bogdana Carpenter write in the introduction to Report from the Besieged City, “the rhythm of his poems sometimes approaching the level of a whisper, or silent thinking.” Yet despite the lack of punctuation, the argument of his poems is unfailingly lucid and the voice, however low, clear and precise.

This clarity is the core of everything Herbert has written. Despite the historical catastrophes he has lived through, he is a classicist, like Eliot, whom he reveres, like Valéry, like Piero della Francesca, about whom he has written eloquently in his collection of essays, Barbarian in the Garden.

Or perhaps he is a classicist because the continuing Polish catastrophe has placed such curious burdens on its writers. It is a nation that has held itself together for the past two centuries only by a collective effort of will. For 150 years Poland was partitioned between Russia, Prussia, and Austria, reemerging between the world wars, then swallowed up again, first by the Germans, then by the Russians. All this puts a special strain on writers, for in an occupied or one-party nation literature takes on the patriotic, educative, and moral burdens normally assumed by the state. It becomes, for instance, a forum for national debate in which political issues are discussed in guise of imaginative writing. Whence the Polish penchant for allegory and what they call “Aesopian language.” Whence, too, the strange phenomenon of the underground presses, during both the Nazi occupation and the present troubles, continuing to print poetry and fiction along with political leaflets. In the Polish context, a poem or story can seem as rousing and urgent as a fighting handbill, and is probably as effective.


One of Herbert’s earliest poems, written when he was in his teens, first appeared in this clandestine way. It is called “Two Drops” and is prefaced by a quotation from the nineteenth-century poet Slowacki—“No time to grieve for roses when the forests are burning”—which the young Herbert, writing at a time when all of Poland was on fire, then proceeded to turn on its head:

The forests were on fire—
they however
wreathed their necks with their hands
like bouquets of roses

People ran to the shelters—
he said his wife had hair
in whose depths one could hide

Covered by one blanket
they whispered shameless words
the litany of those who love

When it got very bad
they leapt into each other’s eyes
and shut them firmly

So firmly they did not feel the flames
when they came up to the eyelashes

To the end they were brave
To the end they were faithful
To the end they were similar
like two drops
stuck at the edge of a face
—translated by Peter Dale Scott

It is a beautiful poem; given the circumstances in which it was written and the poet’s age at the time, it is extraordinary. The theme is one that Herbert has repeated, in one form or another, throughout his work: that the feeling that can flower between people, however frail, is somehow a match for history, however violent. Most young poets would have been satisfied with that ultimate existential gesture—making love while the bombs fall, as if a kiss could annihilate annihilation. Herbert, however, uses it to affirm less obvious, more abiding virtues: bravery, faithfulness, restraint (grief becomes merely “two drops / stuck at the edge of a face”). In the end, the poem is not about a gesture of defiance but about dignity; it is classical in the true Roman sense.

Herbert has never deviated from this passion for virtù. The hero of many of his later poems is Mr. Cogito, a battered descendant of Valéry’s luminously intelligent M. Teste, and also a descendant of Descartes who exists because he thinks about his existence. In other words, Mr. Cogito is a witness whose duty it is to serve truth not art, to think dispassionately about what he has seen, and to speak up for morality, however inappropriate it may seem:

go upright among those who are on their knees
among those with their backs turned and those toppled in the dust

you were saved not in order to live
you have little time you must give testimony

be courageous when the mind deceives you be courageous
in the final account only this is important…
—translated by John and Bogdana Carpenter1

That is from “The Envoy of Mr. Cogito,” Herbert’s stern and moving last testament that ends his 1977 Selected Poems. But independence and courage, like clarity and restraint, have little chance against what he calls “the babble of the speaker’s platform the black foam of newspapers.” The best he can do is elevate plainness into an aesthetic and moral principle. In an early poem, “A Knocker,” he wrote wryly of his style, as though it were a limitation beyond his control:

my imagination
is a piece of board
my sole instrument
is a wooden stick

I strike the board
it answers me
—translated by Czeslaw Milosz

In the latest collection, “Mr. Cogito and the Imagination” repeats the same theme less hopefully, but as an article of faith:

he wanted to make it
an instrument of compassion

he wanted to understand to the very

and so to bring the dead back to life
to preserve the covenant

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

Early and late, Herbert has avoided “the artificial fires of poetry” by using irony, that most classical of instruments, the enemy of rhetoric, of inflation, of distortion. But irony is also the weapon of the powerless, as Herbert himself pointed out—ironically, of course—at the end of a prose poem called “From Mythology”:


Then came the barbarians. They too
valued highly the little god of irony.
They would crush it under their heels
and add it to their dishes.
—translated by Czeslaw Milosz

For Herbert, irony has always been a two-edged instrument that turns on the poet as readily as on the outside world. But in the earlier poems he used it playfully to rewrite his beloved classical myths in modern, deflationary terms—Arion, for instance, becomes “the Grecian Caruso”—and even, in some of his love poems, as an improbable way of expressing sensuality without being victimized by it:

Inadvertently I passed the border of her teeth and swallowed her agile tongue. It lives inside me now, like a Japanese fish. It brushes against my heart and my diaphragm as if against the walls of an aquarium. It stirs silt from the bottom.

She whom I deprived of a voice stares at me with big eyes and waits for a word.

Yet I do not know which tongue to use when speaking to her—the stolen one or the one which melts in my mouth from an excess of heavy goodness.

(“Tongue,” translated by Czeslaw Milosz)

But the playfulness has seeped away over the years as his confidence in the power of truth and intelligence, as well as of irony, has weakened. The tone of his recent poems is grim, like the situation of his country and of the civilized standards on which his work is based. “I avoid any commentary I keep a tight hold on my emotions I write about the facts,” he says in the title poem of Report from the Besieged City.

“Then came the barbarians”: when he called his prose collection Barbarian in the Garden he was implying that he himself was the barbarian outsider reacting to the civilized gardens of France, Italy, and ancient Greece. Yet these elegant, meticulous, oddly passionate essays return continually to the theme of vanished cultures and their violent destruction—the Templars, the Albigensians at Montségur, the Greek colonists at Paestum—as though his underlying concern was always the modern barbarians from East and West who have erupted into the precarious culture of his own country.

In the poems, too, the focus constantly shifts backward and forward between past and present. “Report from the Besieged City” is both about Poland after December 1981, when General Jaruzelski declared “a state of war,” and about Poland as it has been through the centuries, a crossroad for invading barbarians:

in the evening I like to wander near the outposts of the City
along the frontier of our uncertain freedom
I look at the swarms of soldiers below their lights
I listen to the noise of drums barbarian shrieks
truly it is inconceivable the City is still defending itself
the siege has lasted a long time the enemies must take turns
nothing unites them except the desire for our extermination
Goths the Tartars Swedes troops of the Emperor regiments of the Transfiguration
who can count them
the colors of their banners change like the forest on the horizon
from delicate bird’s yellow in spring through green through red to winter’s black

Invading armies have become so much a condition of Polish life that Herbert describes them as if they were manifestations of nature itself—that is, dispassionately and with an eye for their “delicate bird’s yellow” beauty.

It is this objectivity—the rigorousness with which he avoids the easy outs of self-pity, melodrama, even nostalgia—that preserves the classical spirit in Herbert’s work. Mr. Cogito’s imagination may cross “with precision from suffering to suffering,” but as it does so the precision matters as much as the suffering. Whatever his subject, the steady light of his intelligence imposes on it a kind of serenity of which the classics themselves are part, since they enable him to view the unruly present in the long, cooling perspective of history. What he wrote of his idol, Piero della Francesca, is also true of his own work: “Over the battle of shadows, convulsions and tumult, Piero has erected lucidus ordo—an eternal order of light and balance.”

Czeslaw Milosz once wrote that Herbert survived the war and Stalinism because of “his personal qualities—good health, toughness, an orderly mind.” Those qualities have also kept him from being abstract in his classicism, or pedantic, or superior. His poetry is founded on a belief in ordinary human values—love, dignity, intelligence, common decency—as the only true defense against the barbarians. “History teaches us that nations and their achievements can be destroyed in an almost total manner,” he said in an interview quoted by the Carpenters in their introduction to the 1977 Selected Poems. “During the war I saw the fire of a library. The same fire was devouring wise and stupid books, good and bad. Then I understood that it is nihilism which menaces culture the most. Nihilism of fire, stupidity, and hatred.”

Herbert has steadily opposed nihilism with neither rhetoric nor anger, but with sanity—wakeful, ironic, evenhanded, intransigent:

The pebble
is a perfect creature

equal to itself
mindful of its limits

filled exactly
with a pebbly meaning

with a scent which does not remind one of anything
does not frighten anything away does not arouse desire

its ardour and coldness
are just and full of dignity

I feel a heavy remorse
when I hold it in my hand
and its noble body
is permeated by false warmth

—Pebbles cannot be tamed
to the end they will look at us
with a calm and very clear eye
(“Pebble,” translated by Czeslaw Milosz)

Herbert is the only contemporary poet I know who can talk about nobility and, more important, sound noble without also sounding false. It is a note that is rare in the arts of any period. The Romans had it, so did Shakespeare, Donne, and Milton. But it hasn’t been much in evidence in recent years and perhaps it took someone who has witnessed close-up—“with a calm and very clear eye”—some of the worst horrors of this century to speak out for virtù and endurance without sounding sentimental.

The strengths Herbert praises in his poems—steadfastness and independence, imperviousness to cant, contempt for the bullies—have their corollary in the purity of his style. He has been marvelously served by his translators but perhaps his persistent lucidity has made their task a little easier. All of them remark on how much is lost in translation. Despite that, his poems, even in English, seem to me finer than anything currently being written by any English or American poet.

This Issue

July 18, 1985