Classic Teller of Painful Truths

The Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert, whose collected work is now available in English for the first time, crystallised the ravages of invasion and communist rule in his quest to tell the truth about pain

Zbigniew Herbert was born in 1924 in Lwow. The handsome city, inhabited in those years mostly by Poles though surrounded by Ukrainian and Ruthenian farms, was one of those sleepy, cultured outposts in Eastern Europe that still survived from Habsburg days. Herbert conjures up its atmosphere elegantly in three lines about his father, who was a bank manager:

My father liked Anatole France
and smoked Macedonian tobacco
with its blue clouds of fragrance…

He went to one of the best schools in Lwow, the King Kazimierz Wielki gymnasium, and received a classical education just like that of any middle-class boy in Central Europe at that time. It is easy to forget that, unlike Russians, all the older Poles who lived through communism and came out of it again, were brought up in an earlier, very different world, and most of them never relinquished its values. Herbert had a great-grandfather who, according to family talk, spoke English, and there was speculation that the English poet George Herbert was one of his ancestors.

This life was shattered when the Russians invaded Eastern Poland in 1939, and the Germans swept east again in 1941. Herbert’s early poems contain impressionistic glimpses of the horror. In one poem,

home was a sister’s cheek
a flame blew out the cheek…

Isn’t it the flame that is normally blown out? In another moving early poem, Herbert compares dead soldiers to buttons – “boys sewn flatly on a heath”. And in a poem written towards the end of his life he recalls, in a single poignant line, his long-dead mother, his lost home and his lost city:

Mother’s outspread arms glow in the dark like an old town…

Herbert’s Collected Poems, 1956-1998, now published for the first time in English (by Atlantic Books, £30), is a grim book. It is full of exuberance, wit and irony – but in all its 500 pages there is hardly a poem in which the cruelty of invasion or of communist rule is not felt.

He had begun writing poems as a schoolboy, and never stopped thereafter, through all Poland’s upheavals. During the successive occupations, he went on studying in clandestine university classes and apparently became involved in the Polish underground resistance. But just before the Russians returned in 1944, the family moved west to Krakow. Krakow became Polish again but Lwow remained part of the Soviet Union in the postwar settlement, and the great majority of the Poles still living in the city then left it for the new western territories of Poland that had formerly belonged to Germany.

From now until the end of the Cold War, Poland lived under a communist regime. Herbert studied law, philosophy, drawing and trade. He worked in various offices, and at one point was so poor that he lived by selling his blood.

He also began publishing poems in such Catholic newspapers and magazines as the Polish Communist Party allowed to continue. But it was not until 1956 that his first volume of poems could appear. That was the year in which Wladyslaw Gomulka became First Secretary of the party, and the strict communist regime began to relax a little.

How was it that Herbert, plainly no friend of communism, was allowed to publish a book? Another writer, the comic playwright Slawomir Mrozek, whose work was full of brilliant dissident irony, once told me how absurd the post-1956 party was when it was faced with these new writers.

It did not want to continue with the savage censorship of the past, but it did not know how far to go in liberalisation. So, Mrozek said, the central committee of the Polish Communist Party spent a whole afternoon in anguished debate over whether it should allow ten or 12 performances of his new play. It was after similar debate, no doubt, that Herbert was allowed to bring out a very small edition of his first book, Chord of Light.

Those early poems, terse, cutting and bitter, take up much of the book – and it was clear to everyone concerned with literature in Poland that a new poet, of a new kind, had arrived. There is also a poem in which he sadly says farewell to Apollo. From his early days, Herbert was soaked in the beauties of classical literature and art, and was never to forget them. Apollo, he says,

went in a rustle of stone robes
he cast a shadow a glow of laurels…
he raised a lyre to the height of silence.
but now
only an empty pedestal remains.

And in his next volume, Hermes, Dog and Star (1957), he has a poem about Apollo that really sets out the whole future of his life as a poet. It is about the moment after the music competition between Apollo and Marsyas, and Marsyas, the loser, is being flayed alive. It is now, says Herbert, that the real duel begins. Marsyas’s howl of pain is composed of a single vowel,


The simple-looking “A” is Herbert’s representation of Marsyas’s scream – “aaarrrgh”. But in it Herbert hears “the inexhaustible wealth of his body… sweet hillocks of muscle… the wintry wind of bone”. And Apollo finds himself wondering if out of Marsyas’s howling there will not arise a new art – and one that will turn his own music into a “petrified nightingale”.

Herbert’s mission became to create the art of “A” – an art that told the truth about pain. But to it he would bring, harnessed justly to its needs, the classical art of Apollo as well.

The language of his poetry is, in fact, almost throughout, a kind of “A” – precise, denotative, logical in structure (though always without any punctuation, in the manner he had adopted from the start). This, incidentally, is why his poems are relatively easy to translate without losing too much of the character of the original. It is not a poetry that depends on elusive rhythm and suggestive connotation. Another poem in this volume, “Pebble”, shows this distinctive art to perfection. Its subject is precisely how to deal with a world full of cruelty, and it both describes and enacts it:

The pebble
is a perfect creature
equal to itself
mindful of its limits…
its ardour and coldness
are just and full of dignity…
– Pebbles cannot be tamed
to the end they will look at us
with a calm and very clear eye.

In a poem addressed to a former philosophy teacher, Herbert thanks him for teaching him “to weather the world like a thinking stone”. Very aptly, Herbert invented for himself an alter ego called “Mr Cogito”, and in the volume of that title (1974) we see Cogito pursuing his life in that mode. Herbert was more relaxed by this time, though he was forgetting nothing. Cogito is very aware of the complexity of things – he knows that “so many feelings fit between two heartbeats” – and at the start we learn how his legs are different (the left “given to leaps… too fond of life”, the right “nobly rigid”) with the result that he goes through the world “staggering slightly”.

He reflects on many things, now wittily, now gravely, generally both. “Even dreams are shrinking,” he notices – he would like to dream of a hangman’s red coat or a queen’s necklace but all he gets is an unpaid bill. Then, before the next heartbeat, he finds himself considering the theme of redemption, and decides that God should not have sent his son to die on earth, because it has only encouraged cruelty and bloodshed:

too many nostrils
inhaled with relish
the smell of his fear.

Appositely, Herbert once told a friend he was more of a Roman than a Catholic.

His poems acquired a more precise, earthly target after the crushing of the Solidarity movement in Poland in 1981. He had managed to live and travel abroad from time to time before this, but he had returned to Poland that year and given his support, and with it the respect and authority he had by now achieved, to Solidarity. Now in his volume Report From A Besieged City, published in Paris in 1983 (though some of the poems had already been printed by dissident inmates of a Warsaw prison), he gave vent to his hatred of communism.

His poem “The Divine Claudius” is one of his most powerful and impassioned. The image of Stalin and his apologists is clearly visible behind Claudius’s words:

it seems
I ordered the execution of 35 senators
and three centurions on horseback
so what
a little less purple
a few gold rings less
but also – no small thing –
more room in the theatre…
I remember with pride
a liberal decree
which sanctioned the release of stomach sounds
during banquets.

But a poem called “The Power of Taste” employs obliquity in a different way. He is talking of the defenders of the “Besieged City”, which is many cities, but most of all is Gdansk, where Solidarity threw down its challenge to the communist regime:

we had a scrap of necessary courage
but essentially it was a matter of taste
Yes taste
which has fibres of soul and the gristle of conscience…

That, in its high disdain and its understatement, has a particular Herbertian, withering sting.

On his travels in Europe, Herbert was able to see some of the great art and architecture of which he was only able to dream as a young man. He made the most of his opportunity and wrote two unusual, very personal books, Barbarian in the Garden and Still Life with A Bridle, which aimed to introduce Poles to something of what had been so long denied them. It is notable that among the places he most loved were the simple Doric temples of southern Italy – what might be called the letter “A” of European architecture.

Herbert stayed faithful to his mission, and the necessity that drove him. But towards the end of his life, living in Poland again after it regained its freedom, in some poems he sounds a note that I find particularly touching. It is a note of weariness and regret, rendered with delicacy and humour, as in the poem “Request”, where he says he forgot to ask the father of the gods for a “sublime gift”:

for flighty empty mornings afternoons evenings
for little soul
little conscience
for a light head
and dancing step

One must hope that this brave, committed man sometimes experienced those.

Since his death in 1998, he has become a revered figure in Poland; the year 2008 was an official Year of Zbigniew Herbert. He might have mused ironically, like the English war poet Keith Douglas, “Simplify me when I’m dead.”

But I think he would have been glad that at the funeral last year of one of the other great Polish dissidents, Jacek Kuron, his “Envoy of Mr Cogito”, with its open emotion, was read:

be courageous when reason fails you be courageous
in the final reckoning it is the only thing that counts…
and your helpless Anger – may it be like the sea
whenever you hear the voice of the insulted and beaten…
go for only thus will you be admitted to the company of cold skulls
to the company of your forefathers Gilgamesh Hector Roland
the defenders of the kingdom without bounds and the city of ashes.

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