Zbigniew Herbert remains one of the most widely known and admired Polish poets. If I had to choose one word to describe his poetry, I choose “honesty”.
Herbert was very young when Nazi Germany invaded Poland and the atrocities he saw profoundly impacted the way he perceived reality. However, that was not the only totalitarian system to which he was subjected. Years later, Soviet Army took control over Lwów, his beloved home city, and the Polish population was expelled.
Although, after World War II, Poland was gradually rebuilding itself in economic and technical sense, Poles were still persecuted and imprisoned for any act of disobedience. How should an individual react? Is resistance possible? What am I supposed to sacrifice? These were the questions he touched upon in his bitter-sweet poetry.
“Herbert’s steadily detached, ironic and historically minded style represents, I suppose, a form of classicism. But it is a one-sided classicism…In a way, Herbert’s poetry is typical of the whole Polish attitude to their position within the communist bloc; independent, brilliant, ironic, wary, a bit contemptuous, pained” – wrote A. Alvarez in his book Under pressure (1965).
Herbert demonstrates the absurdity of war and terror and pays particular attention to those who are humiliated and demeaned. He never portrays himself as an authority but rather another human being struggling to find truth that would set him free. The poet often draws examples from ancient history and myths in order to confront them with present reality. In his poem “Why the classics” he establishes a model of a leader who willingly accepts the responsibility for failure, even if he shouldn’t be the first to blame, and compares it with modern leaders who have no sense of accountability.
Many times Herbert in his poems speaks on behalf of somebody by putting himself in the position of the actor and creating the “poetry of masks” or “poetry of roles”. This is particularly visible in the series of poems about “Mr. Cogito”. He points to the necessity of integrity and perseverance although doesn’t promise any award for this, at least in our times.
One of his most moving pieces is “Report from the Besieged City”:
…Cemeteries grow larger the number of defenders is smaller
yet the defence continues it will continue to the end
and if the City falls but a single man escapes
he will carry the City within himself on the roads of exile
he will be the City
we look in the face of hunger the face of fire face of death
worst of all – the face of betrayal
and only our dreams have not been humiliated
His moral rigorism elicited vigorous critique, some claimed that political pragmatism should prevail in certain situations. Herbert, however, didn’t like pathos and instead preferred to call acts of resistance and standing up for one’s convictions a matter of “taste”, as he expressed it in the poem “The Power of Taste” in which he referred to the communistic oppression.
It didn’t require great character at all
our refusal disagreement and resistance
we had a shred of necessary courage
but fundamentally it was a matter of taste
but what kind of hell was there at this time
a wet pit the murderers’ alley the barrack
called a palace of justice
a home-brewed Mephisto in a Lenin jacket
sent Aurora’s grandchildren on into the field
boys with potato faces
very ugly girls with red hands
…Our eyes and refused obedience
the princes of our senses proudly chose exile
Very thought-provoking part of Herbert’s life is his approach to faith. Born and raised as Catholic, he struggled with the questions about the existence of God, His omnipotence, the meaning of suffering. Herbert was never satisfied with easy explanations, but desired to honestly find Truth and follow what he discovers. The character with whom he identified the most was Doubting Thomas. For him, his story represented the hope that God doesn’t condemn those for whom it is so difficult to believe. To believe that God truly became human and died for our sins was the matter of the highest importance to him, something he had to personally accept, not just as a part of doctrine, but a fact with profound meaning for himself.
Especially, the last years, when he faced serious illness, became a period of reflection.
was my life
not like circles on the water
welling from infinite depths
like an origin which grows
falls into layers rungs folds
to expire serenely
in your inscrutable lap.
Shortly before his death, Herbert asked the sacrament for confession. “I have always needed Christ, because He is the One who understands my suffering” – he told the priest.