Zbigniew Herbert, who was born in 1924 in Lwów and died in Warsaw in 1998, was one of the great poets of our time. His compatriots Czeslaw Milosz and Wyslawa Szymborska, who were both awarded the Nobel Prize in recent years, may now be more famous, but he surely belongs in their company, as this book with its many truly extraordinary poems fully demonstrates. Herbert was the most original of the three and the funniest. Only a mixture of seriousness and comedy could do justice to his experience, which included wartime horrors, totalitarianism, and exile. Tragicomedy was his specialty. In Herbert’s early poem “Five Men,” the condemned, who are to be led before the firing squad at sunrise, spend their last hours among the living talking about dreams, automobile parts, a sea voyage, an adventure in a whorehouse, a fatal error in a poker game, and how vodka is best, since after wine you get a headache. Herbert wrote the kind of poems these five men would not have had trouble understanding on that final night.

The Collected Poems, 1956–1998 contains the nine collections of poetry that Herbert published in his lifetime, most of them put into English by Alissa Valles with the exception of seventy-nine poems translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Peter Dale Scott, which were first published as Selected Poems in the Penguin Modern European Poets series in 1968. This book introduced Herbert’s poems to American readers. I’m willing to bet that no one who read them ever forgot them. Written during the bleak years of Stalinism in Poland and not published until later, they convey what it was like to have lived through some of the darkest years of European history, and yet they are not political poems in any conventional sense. They are too complex for any such reductive label. Here, for instance, is a poem Herbert wrote when he was fifteen about a couple making love as bombs fell on their heads:


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 Czeslaw Milosz and Peter Dale Scott)

Herbert always said that he had no use for that “puffed-up monster with a murderous eye,” the Hegelian spirit of history. “I wasted years learning history’s simplistic workings/the monotonous procession and the unequal struggle/between the thugs at the head of addled crowds/and a handful of the righteous and reasonable,” he wrote in a poem. He didn’t arrive at that knowledge just by reading books. As a fifteen-year-old, Herbert witnessed his hometown occupied by the Soviet Union following the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and some nineteen months later by the Nazis after the alliance collapsed and Hitler attacked Russia. Lwów, a bustling city with a mixed population of Poles, Russians, Ukrainians, and Jews, was changed within a few days into a concentration camp, Herbert remembered. One of his teachers was killed, he said, by “history’s schoolyard bullies,” while others were thrown in jail. Herbert joined the Polish resistance movement and continued his studies at an underground university. With mass slaughter, forced deportation, and widespread fear, he must have seen plenty.

In 1944, before the city was once again taken by the Soviets, Herbert’s family escaped to Kraków. After the Red Army arrived, he attended lectures at the university and drawing classes at the Academy of Fine Arts while obtaining a degree in economics at the Trade Academy. As a former member of the anti-Communist Home Army, he was regarded as politically suspect. He kept a low profile, working at different jobs, as an editor of an economic journal, a bank clerk, a shop attendant, an accountant and timekeeper in a cooperative, a librarian, and eventually as an administrator in the Association of Polish Composers. One difficult year, he supplemented his income by selling his blood. Not until 1950 were his poems published in a magazine, and his first book, Chord of Light, did not come out until 1956, when he was already thirty-two years old. He later attributed his reluctance to fall on his knees before the mighty not to his bravery or strength of character, but to his sense of taste: an inability to bear the regime’s execrable rhetoric, its torturer’s dialectic and reasoning without grace. In other words, aesthetics saved his soul: beauty played a subversive role in his refusal to become one of the corrupted.


From the very beginning, Herbert’s poems had one distinguishing quality. They dealt with complex experiences and ideas in the plainest language. Well aware that he was using an impure tool of expression, banalized and subject to abuse every day, he still strove to make words mean what they mean. For Herbert, a bird is a bird, slavery means slavery, a knife is a knife, death remains death. That makes him easier to translate, of course, than poets who are attracted to rich verbal texture and symbolism. Still, his idiomatic, unpunctuated free verse and his fondness for dramatic monologues as well as his frequent and subtle use of irony do present a challenge. Herbert has been lucky in his translators. Alissa Valles’s renditions here, despite an occasional awkward phrase, inevitable in a book this big, are admirable.

The greatest surprise, perhaps, for any first-time reader of Herbert’s poetry is his many poems on Greek and Roman antiquity. These are not the respectful versions of myths and historical figures one encounters in contemporary verse in which the poet questions neither the philosophical nor the ethical premises of the original, but are radical reevaluations from the point of view of someone who has experienced modern wars and revolutions. What Herbert does is introduce Achilles to Hitler. We read in one poem about Nike, goddess of victory, who hesitates and remains frozen on seeing a youth ride off to his death in a war chariot. In another, more terrifying poem, Herbert speculates about the ending of the story of Marsyas, the foolish satyr, who after finding a flute Athena tossed away teaches himself to play it and thoughtlessly challenges Apollo, the god of music, to a contest. He loses and the god exacts payment for his insolence by having him flayed alive and nailed to a tree:


The real duel of Apollo
with Marsyas
(absolute ear
versus immense range)
takes place in the evening
when as we already know
the judges
have awarded victory to the god
bound tight to a tree
meticulously stripped of his skin
before the howl reaches his tall ears
he reposes in the shadow of that howl
shaken by a shudder of disgust
Apollo is cleaning his instrument
only seemingly
is the voice of Marsyas
and composed of a single vowel
in reality
Marsyas relates
the inexhaustible wealth
of his body
bald mountains of liver
white ravines of aliment
rustling forests of lung
sweet hillocks of muscle
joints bile blood and shudders
the wintry wind of bone
over the salt of memory
shaken by a shudder of disgust
Apollo is cleaning his instrument
now to the chorus
is joined the backbone of Marsyas
in principle the same A
only deeper with the addition of rust
this is already beyond the endurance
of the god with nerves of artificial fibre
along a gravel path
hedged with box
the victor departs
whether out of Marsyas’ howling
there will not some day arise
a new kind
of art—let us say—concrete
at his feet
falls a petrified nightingale
he looks back
and sees
that the hair of the tree to which Marsyas was fastened
is white

(translated by Milosz and Scott)

In Ovid’s version, the action ends with the victory of the god, but Herbert is curious about what happens after, so he keeps him around long enough to hear, with a “shudder of disgust,” what torturing a human sounds like. Apollo represents an aesthetic so pure that it has no place for sufferings of mere flesh and blood. As he hurries away, he wonders whether out of Marsyas’ raw pain a new realistic art may arise some day. The tree and the nightingale show more compassion for the pain of the mutilated body than the god who is too busy congratulating himself on his idea. Perfection is inseparable from indifferent cruelty; that is how Stanislaw Baranczak reads this poem in A Fugitive from Utopia, his authoritative study of Herbert’s poetry.1

One little prose poem in Collected Poems, 1956–1998 is called “Practical Recommendations in the Event of a Catastrophe.” My father, who came from the same part of the world, used to ask me from time to time, “Where are we going to immigrate next?” He was a cheerful pessimist who never lost sight of the fact that our reprieve from history may be temporary. Neither did Herbert. Strategies for physical and spiritual survival were his constant worry. In a very funny and terrifying poem called “Attempt at the Dissolution of Mythology,” the Greek gods end up by being exiles too. They gather and decide to disband their racket, join rational society, and somehow make do. Late in the evening, they take the road into town, with false documents in their pockets and a handful of copper coins. As they cross a bridge, Hermes jumps into the river. They see him drowning, but do not try to save him, debating instead whether this was a bad or a good omen.


This next poem is also about displaced persons. It describes the fate of hundreds of thousands of Russians who left their homes during the Revolution:


It was in the year twenty
or perhaps twenty-one
the Russian émigrés
came to us
tall blond people
with visionary eyes
and women like a dream
when they crossed the market-place
we used to say—migratory birds
they used to attend the
soirées of the gentry
everyone would whisper—look what pearls
but when the lights of the ball were extinguished
helpless people remained
the gray newspapers were continuously silent
only solitaire showed pity
the guitars beyond the windows would cease playing
and even dark eyes faded
in the evening a samovar with a whistle
would carry them back to their family railway-stations
after a couple of years
only three of them were spoken about
the one who went mad
the one who hanged himself
she to whom men used to come
the rest lived out of the way
slowly turning into dust
This parable is told by Nicholas
who understands historical necessities
in order to terrify me i.e. to convince me

(translated by Milosz and Scott)

“A serious, honest mind understands—and can understand—nothing of history. History in return is marvelously suited to delight an erudite cynic,” E.M. Cioran wrote.2 This would not be quite true of Herbert, who has a novelist’s interest in character. Even his darkest poems tend to be humorous and compassionate. He speaks of wanting to understand Pascal’s night, the prophets’ melancholy, the wrath of Achilles, the fury of mass murderers, the dreams of Mary Stuart, the fear of Neanderthals, the last Aztec’s despair, Nietzsche’s long dying, and the Lascaux painters’ joy. How different human types make sense of their world, the kind of language they use, and the sort of things they believe are what fascinates him. If they are no better than Caligula or some village idiot, so be it. He lets them have their say:


The tsar our little father had grown old, very old. Now he could not even strangle a dove with his own hands. Sitting on his throne he was golden and frigid. Only his beard grew, down to the floor and farther. Then someone else ruled, it was not known who. Curious folk peeped into the palace through the windows but Krivonosov screened the windows with gibbets. Thus only the hanged saw anything.

In the end the tsar our little father died for good. The bells rang and rang, yet they did not bring his body out. Our tsar had grown into the throne. The legs of the throne had become all mixed up with the legs of the tsar. His arm and the armrest were one. It was impossible to tear him loose. And to bury the tsar along with the golden throne—what a shame.

(translated by Milosz and Scott)

One of the favorite strategies of Herbert is what Baranczak calls “unmasking,” the unveiling of the true face of some object or idea which up to that moment had been concealed by its false appearance. A clock, for example, may appear as the placid face of a miller, full and shiny as an apple with one dark hair creeping across it, when, in fact, if you were to look inside, you would discover a nest of worms or the bowels of an anthill. Although Herbert’s intentions are often satirical, his way of defamiliarizing the familiar reminds me of folk humor. It’s the same free play of the imagination and jocularity one encounters in fairy tales, riddles, and creation myths, which thrive on making the familiar strange. These two prose poems show how such unmasking works:


I don’t understand how you can write poems about the moon. It’s fat and slovenly. It picks the noses of chimneys. Its favorite thing to do is climb under the bed and sniff at your shoes.

(translated by Alissa Valles)


The hen is the best example of what living constantly with humans leads to. She has completely lost the lightness and grace of a bird. Her tail sticks up over her protruding rump like a too large hat in bad taste. Her rare moments of ecstasy, when she stands on one leg and glues up her round eyes with filmy eyelids, are stunningly disgusting. And in addition, that parody of song, throat-slashed supplication over a thing unutterably comic: a round, white, maculated egg.

The hen brings to mind certain poets.

(translated by Milosz and Scott)

Herbert used this same approach in a variety of poems. In “Rosy Ear,” a man living with the same woman for many years, believing he knows her well, notices one winter night as she sits down beside him a rosy ear he never noticed before, all because of the way the lamplight happens to fall. He says nothing to her, since that little discovery has turned her into a mysterious being. Only much later, when they are in bed together, does he lean over and take a delicate nibble of that exotic ear. Another poem, “What Mr Cogito Thinks of Hell,” debunks the popular opinion that hell is populated by despots, matricides, those who lust after the flesh of others, and so forth. Actually, it is a bit like Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony, for Beelzebub is a lover of the arts who boasts that his choirs, poets, and painters nearly equal those in heaven. Not that there’s much singing and rejoicing these days in the angelic realm, as one can see from this next poem:


In paradise the work week is fixed at thirty hours
salaries are higher prices steadily go down
manual labour is not tiring (because of reduced gravity)
chopping wood is no harder than typing
the social system is stable and the rulers are wise
really in paradise one is better off than in whatever country
At first it was to have been different
luminous circles choirs and degrees of abstraction
but they were not able to separate exactly
the soul from the flesh and so it would come here
with a drop of fat a thread of muscle
it was necessary to face the consequences
to mix a grain of the absolute with a grain of clay
one more departure from doctrine the last departure
only John foresaw it: you will be resurrected in the flesh
not many behold God
he is only for those of 100 per cent pneuma
the rest listen to communiqués about miracles and floods
some day God will be seen by all
when it will happen nobody knows
As it is now every Saturday at noon
sirens sweetly bellow
and from the factories go the heavenly proletarians
awkwardly under their arms they carry their wings like violins

(translated by Milosz and Scott)

This paradise has clearly been contaminated by socialist ideas. The heavenly workers appear to be unionized. Herbert is amused by the mental debility that goes into imagining a paradise or a utopia that requires us to overlook our psychological makeup. He tells us in another poem that from infancy, immortality induced in him a state of tremendum. Envy the gods for what? he asks. Botched management? In his view, the universe may be perfect, but unlivable. Even if he were in heaven, he writes elsewhere, he would refuse to part with his humanity and would defend to the end his very own unique and splendid sensation of pain. As far as Herbert is concerned, the beauty of what is transient suffices.

Herbert’s poetry is a dramatization of our irresolvable contradictions. We live between a cloud and a mud puddle, he says. Inheritors of many different traditions and ideas, both religious and secular, familiar with death and suffering, unsure as we grow older whether fate or chance rules our lives, we find ourselves, if we are prone to think about such things, in constant conflict with ourselves. As he says in “Report from Paradise,” it was necessary to face the consequences and mix a grain of the absolute with a grain of clay. When it comes to making a choice, Herbert’s sympathies are with both, although he never forgets that most of our troubles come from dreamers, unworldly idealists, and tragic heroes, and far less from practical men:


Now that we’re alone we can talk prince man to man
though you lie on the stairs and see no more than a dead ant
nothing but black sun with broken rays
I could never think of your hands without smiling
and now that they lie on the stone like fallen nests
they are as defenseless as before The end is exactly this
The hands lie apart The sword lies apart The head apart
and the knight’s feet in soft slippers
You will have a soldier’s funeral without having been a soldier
the only ritual I am acquainted with a little
there will be no candles no singing only cannon-fuses and bursts
crepe dragged on the pavement helmets boots artillery horses drums drums I know nothing exquisite
those will be my manoeuvres before I start to rule
one has to take the city by the neck and shake it a bit
Anyhow you had to perish Hamlet you were not for life
you believed in crystal notions not in human clay
always twitching as if asleep you hunted chimeras
wolfishly you crunched the air only to vomit
you knew no human thing you did not know even how to breathe
Now you have peace Hamlet you accomplished what you had to
and you have peace The rest is not silence but belongs to me
you chose the easier part an elegant thrust
but what is heroic death compared with eternal watching
with a cold apple in one’s hand on a narrow chair
with a view of the ant-hill and the clock’s dial
Adieu prince I have tasks a sewer project
and a decree on prostitutes and beggars
I must also elaborate a better system of prisons
since as you justly said Denmark is a prison
I go to my affairs This night is born
a star named Hamlet We shall never meet
what I shall leave will not be worth a tragedy
It is not for us to greet each other or bid farewell we live on archipelagos
and that water these words what can they do what can they do prince

(translated by Milosz and Scott)

Beginning in 1958, when he received his first travel grant from the Polish Ministry of Culture, Herbert spent many years living abroad. He traveled widely, visiting England, Italy, Holland, Greece, and other countries; lived in Paris, Berlin, and Los Angeles. The publication of Selected Poems brought him fame. He was elected a member of the German Academy of Arts, received several prestigious international literary awards, including the Jerusalem Prize, worked in theater and as an editor, and wrote two books of essays, Barbarian in the Garden (1962) and Still Life with a Bridle (1993). In 1974, Herbert published Mr. Cogito, a book of poems in which a persona by that name first appears. Mr. Cogito either speaks of himself or he is spoken of by someone else. Each poem is like a little biographical sketch, a little meditation on the character of Herbert’s hero. Mr. Cogito studies his face in the mirror, examines his two legs, reads the newspaper, considers returning to his native town, bemoans the pettiness of dreams, mulls over the aesthetics of noise at a pop concert, tells of the temptation of Spinoza, observes a deceased friend, reflects on redemption, thinks of hell, contemplates the ideas of the abyss, alienation, or the possibility of pure thought, and many other such things.

The persona of Mr. Cogito allowed Herbert to write about himself, to express his opinions on a wide range of subjects while at the same time treating himself as a fictional character. He continued to write poems in his earlier manner about Prometheus, Beethoven, Isadora Duncan, Lev Tolstoy, and other subjects, concurrently with those about Mr. Cogito. The whole sequence brings to mind Villon’s “Testament,” another poem taking stock of one’s life and jokingly bequeathing to posterity the bits of wisdom one has accumulated. “Writing,” Herbert said in an interview, “must teach men soberness: to be awake.”3 Even with all the fun, there’s a didactic side to these poems. They teach how to face existence with fortitude:


All attempts to avert
the so-called cup of bitterness—
by mental effort
frenzied campaigns on behalf of stray cats
breathing exercises
let you down
you have to consent
gently bow your head
not wring your hands
use suffering mildly with moderation
like a prosthetic limb
without false shame
but without pride also
don’t brandish your stump
over other people’s heads
don’t knock your white cane
on the panes of the well-fed
drink an extract of bitter herbs
but not to the dregs
be careful to leave
a few gulps for the future
accept it
but at the same time
isolate it in yourself
and if it is possible
make from the stuff of suffering
a thing or a person
with it
of course
joke around with it
very solicitously
as with a sick child
cajoling in the end
with silly tricks
a wan

(translated by Valles)

In 1992, seriously ill and living in great poverty in Paris, Herbert was forced to return to Warsaw. Back in Poland, he managed to anger many by giving a series of interviews in which he criticized the presence of former Communists in public life and the effects of fifty years of totalitarianism on Polish society and its morality. He didn’t spare even his old friends Czeslaw Milosz and Adam Michnik, both of whom he accused of lacking intellectual honesty, and a few even worse things. Herbert, who fought with the Home Army during the war, could never forgive that their struggle, as well as their Warsaw uprising in August of 1944, in which so many died, continued to be described as futile and politically erroneous by some literati. At the end of his life, Herbert once again found himself alone, ostracized, and at odds with most Polish writers and intellectuals. Given his proclivity for always saying things no one wanted to hear, he acted in character. He said not too long before his death:

Life is like knitting: one has to attach the old thread to the new. Before we descend to the grave, the garment should be fit to wear. One has to know what kind of garment it is, which parts of it are poorly made and which are of better quality. It is important to realize that about one’s own life, and also about the life of that nation or society in which one’s private life was spent.4

This Issue

April 26, 2007