Zbigniew Herbert (29 October 1924 in Lvov – 28 July 1998 in Warsaw) was an influential Polish poet, essayist, drama writer, author of plays, and moralist. A member of the Polish resistance movement – Home Army (AK) during World War II, he is one of the best known and the most translated post-war Polish writers. He was first published in 1950; his writing debut was a volume of verse String of light and it was published in 1956. One of Herbert’s most valuable works is a cycle of writings about Pan Cogito (Mr. Cogito), a character that is very modern but still sticks to the European cultural tradition. He was a distant relation of the 17th century poet George Herbert.
Herbert was a bachelor of the Order of the White Eagle and was educated as an economist and lawyer. In the 1980s Herbert was the main poet of the Polish opposition. Starting in 1986, he lived in Paris, where he cooperated with the journal Zeszyty Literackie. He came to Poland in 1992. On 1 July 2007 the Polish Government decided that 2008 would be the Year of Zbigniew Herbert.
The Herberts had probably some English roots and they came to Galicia from Vienna. Poet’s father, Bolesław (half-blooded Armenian), was a legionary in the Polish Legions during World War I and defender of Lvov; he was a lawyer and worked as a bank manager. Herbert’s grandfather was an English teacher. Zbigniew’s mother, Maria, came from the Kaniaków family.
Before war Herbert attended the Państwowe VIII Gimnazjum i Liceum im. Króla Kazimierza Wilekiego in Lvov (during the occupation the name was changed to High School nr 14). After the German invasion of Lvov, he continued his education at the secret meetings where he graduated and passed the A-level exam (matura) in January 1944. At the same time, (following the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939) he probably got involved in conspiratorial action (AK). During the occupation, he worked as a feeder of lice in the Rudolf Weigl Institute that produced anti putrid fever vaccines; he also worked as a salesman in a shop with metal articles. After his A-level exam, he began Polish Philology studies at the secret University of Jan Kazimierz in Lvov but he had to break them off because of his moving to Kraków (spring 1944, before second invasion of the Soviet Red Army in Lvov).
At first, he lived in Proszowice, near Kraków (May 1944 - January 1945). Herbert studied Economics in Kraków and also attended lectures at the Jagiellonian University and Academy of Fine Arts. According to later opinion, it is assumed that at this time he contacted the Home Army (AK). In 1947, after three years of studying, he got his Trade Academy diploma. He continued his Law studies, however, not in Kraków but at the Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń, where he received a Master of Law. In the same year he was carried on the list on the second year of Philosophy at NCU in Toruń, where he was inter alia a student of his later master, Henryk Elzenberg He lived in Sopot (from 1948), where his parents moved in 1946. He did different jobs; he worked in the Polish National Bank (NBP) in Gdynia (1 March – 30 June 1948), he sub-edited the journal Przegląd Kupiecki, and worked in Gdańsk department of the Polish Writers’ Union (ZLP). He met Halina Misiołkowa there and their relationship lasted till 1957. In 1948 he became a member-candidate of the ZLP but resigned in 1951; however, he joined the union again in 1955.
In 1949 Herbert moved to Toruń, where he studied since December 1947, worked in the District Museum and in primary school as a teacher. In Autumn 1951 the poet moved to the University of Warsaw, where he continued studying Philosophy for some time. At first, he lived alone in very poor conditions in suburban Warsaw, Brwinów, but then (December 1952 - January 1957), he lived in Warsaw itself on Wiejska Street in a room rented by 12 people. Subsequently, Herbert moved to an official flat on Aleje Jerozolimskie.
He tried to live from his writing. However he did not follow the then current style of literature that was involved in political propaganda socrealistic. He published theatrical and musical criticisms and reports from exhibits which ignored the criteria of socrealistic art. In 1948 the weekly magazine Tygodnik Wybrzeża published his cycle Poetyka dla Laików (Poetry for Lay People). Herbert also published a few of his reviews in the journal Słowo Powszechne in 1949 under his real name and a year later under a pen name, Patryk. The same happened with his publishing in Tygodnik Powszechny. In 1952 Przegląd Powszechny, guided by Jesuit fathers, published a few of his reviews under a pen name – Bolesław Hertyński. He was publishing under pen name Stefan Martha in Dziś i Jutro, the PAX Association magazine (1950 - 1953). These periodicals, represented different styles of Catholicism. Pax sought to 'collaborate' with the communist government, while Tygodnik Powszechny took a more oppositional stance (it was legal but its circulation was limited). Herbert definitely finished a cooperation with PAX in 1953. Przegląd Powszechny was closed and Tygodnik Powszechny was transferred to PAX after it refused to publish an obituary of Stalin’s death. In this situation Herbert decided that his cooperation with PAX was impossible.
During that time, he also earned money from biographies and librarian registrations. From January until July 1952, he was a salaried blood donor. Finally, he had to undertake a job not connected with pen writing. He worked as a timekeeper in Inwalidzka Spółdzielnia Emereytów Nauczycieli ‘Wspólna Sprawa’ (from 1 October 1953 till 15 January 1954), also as a senior assistant in Centralne Biuro Studiów i Projektów Przemysłu Torfowego Projekt Torf (19 January – 31 November). Thanks to the favouritism of Stefan Kisielewski, Herbert worked as a manager of the office of the Chief Management in the Union of Socialist Composers (ZKP) from September 1956 till March 1957.
The year 1956 marked in Poland the end of Stalinism and as a result also of social realism as the only and obligatory style in art and literature. This enabled Herbert's debut as a poet. Thanks to this, his material position also improved. In 1957 supported by Jerzy Zawieyski he received a small studio to live in (in Warsaw) one of the flats distributed for young writers by the Polish Union of Writers (ZLP). He also was granted with a scholarship (100 USD) that allowed him to go on his first trip abroad.
Herbert was attached to his homeland, but at the same time he was deeply disgusted by all effects (political, economical, cultural etc) of the communist rules enforced by the Soviet Union on Poland (arguably the best artistic expression of this disgust is contained in his poem "The power of taste"). Therefore a will to escape from this gloomy reality and see "a better world" was one of important driving forces behind his passion of travelling. Even though he spent a great deal of time abroad he never wanted to choose the life of an émigré. Despite administrative difficulties imposed by the communist regime with regard to longer stays abroad he always tried to extend his Polish passport while abroad so that the possibility of coming back home was always open. His first lively impressions from his trips and reflections triggered by the direct contact with the cultural heritage of the Western Europe were enclosed in the essay "The Barbarian in the Garden" (Barbarzyńca w Ogrodzie, 1962). He also says in his poem The Prayer of Mr. Cogito – The Traveller (Modlitwa Pana Cogito – podróżnika) travelling allowed him to get to know better ''the world beautiful and of such variety”.
Herbert’s trips cost as little as possible, as a poet’s finances (from not stable sources: prizes, honorariums for the readings etc.) were very limited. This way of life contributed to his weak health condition in the future; however, He traveled through Vienna to France (May 1958 – January 1959), he visited England (January – March 1959), Italy (June – July 1959) and then France again. He came to Poland in May 1960. The result of that journey was the essay Barbarzyńca w ogrodzie (The Barbarian in the Garden). In Autumn 1960 Herbert travelled to England and Scotland. In December 1963 he went to Paris. In January 1964 he was given the Kościelskis Prize in the Polish Library in Paris, which allowed him to extend his stay in the West. In 1964 he spent the Summer in Italy (July – August) and in Greece (October 1964). Then he came back to France and at the end of that year he returned to Poland.
From 1965 till 1968 he was a member of the editorial team at the monthly magazine Poetry. In 1965/66 he was a literary manager of the Juliusz Osterwa Theatre in Gorzów Wielkopolski.
In October 1965 he was awarded with The Lenau Prize, and he went Vienna to receive it. This period also marks a growing international esteem for Herbert as a man of culture. He becomes a member of Academy of Arts in West Berlin and Bavarian Academy of Fine Arts in Munich. He stayed in Austria till spring 1966.
Herbert travels across Germany, and then stays longer in France (June 1966 – September 1967). Then he arrives again to Germany, visiting Holland and Belgium. On 29th of March 1968 he marries Katarzyna Dzieduszycka in a Polish consulate in France. At the end of April, the Herberts returned to Berlin. In the summer of 1968, Herbert visited the USA (invited by the Poetry Center). He went to New York, California, The Great Canyon, New Mexico, New Orleans, Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles. At that time, the translation of his works was published in the USA, which made Herbert one of the most popular contemporary poet in the English literary circles. While traveling across the country he gave several talks in New York, Berkley and Los Angeles. After visiting the USA, Herbert went back to Berlin, where he lived until September 1970 (with some short breaks to Poland and a holiday in Italy). In 1969, he took part in Dei Duo Mundi – The Festival of Two Worlds. From September 1970 to June 1971, the Herberts again stay in the USA, where the poet gave lectures as a visiting professor at California State University, Los Angeles.
From Autumn 1971 to Spring 1973, not having his own flat, he lived in Artur Międzyrzecki’s flat in Warsaw. In 1972 he became a member of the board of the Polish Literary Association (ZLP). At that time he got involved in pro-democracy actions initiated by writer circles - he was one of the signatories of 'List 17’ (‘Letter of 17’) which supported civil rights of the members of an openly anti-communist organization The Movement (Ruch). He was also an organizer of protests against censorship. In 1972 he joined Pen Club In 1973 he received the Herder’s Prize in Vienna. The summer of that year he spent together with Magdalena and Zbigniew Czajkowscy in Greece. He came back to Poland in Autumn 1973. He spent the academic year of 1973/74 giving lectures at the University of Gdansk. In 1974, he worded the ‘Letter of 15’ (‘List 15’) which was about the laws of the Polish Community in the Soviet Union. In December 1975, he signed ‘Letter of 59’ (‘Memoriał 59’) against the changes in the Constitution of the People's Republic of Poland forced by the communist party introducing mostly declarations of eternal loyalty of Poland to the Soviet Union. In 1974 he settled at Promenade’s Street in Warsaw.
From 1975 to 1981 Herbert lived abroad, mainly in Germany, Austria and Italy.
Herbert came back to Poland at the beginning of 1981 – in the short period of the legal existence of ‘Solidarity’the only independent mass organization in the Soviet block. At that time he joined the editorial team of the underground journal Zapis (Record). At the time of the martial law he supported the opposition personally, under his own name – he attended the secret meetings and published in ‘second circulation’. His writings have become the manifesto of freedom, the expression of the resistance and the poet himself has become the symbol of uncompromised objection, especially for the young people. Przemysław Gintrowski played a huge role in presenting Herbert to the contemporary audience. Together with Jacek Kaczmarski and Zbigniew Łapiński, he composed the music to the poet’s writings and performed it on stage. Herbert himself wasn’t pleased with these doings at the beginning; however, later he accepted them and joked that he ‘writes lyrics for Gitrowski’.
In 1986 Herbert moved to Paris. In 1989 he joined the Polish Writers’ Association (Stowarzyszenie Pisarzy Polskich) . A year later he became a member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. In 1991, receiving the Jerusalem Prize gave Herbert another reason to travel to Israel for a while.
In 1992 the seriously ill poet returned to Warsaw. The fierce anti - communist journalism of Tygodnik Solidarność (1994, # 41) and supporting the statement of the editorial office of Arka magazine about the decommunisation of the elites stoked the controversy among Herbert’s opposition friends. He praised the Cold War anti-communist spy Colonel Ryszard Kukliński in an open letter to then president Lech Wałęsa in 1994, and later also expressed support for the Chechen Dzjochar Dudajev. He also organized the financial aid for Chechnya. This wasn’t his only initiative. Earlier in an open letter to U.S. President George H. W. Bush he criticized the indifference towards the situation of Kurds. What is more, he supported the investigation of Liga Republikańska (Republican League) in the case of assassination of Stanisław Pyjas and advocated revealing the UB (Office of Security) files from 1956. In 1994 in the interview for Tygodnik Solidarność he criticized not only the Round Table Agreement and the politics of the Third Polish Republic (III Rzeczpospolita), but also accused some prominent public figures, such as Czesław Miłosz and Adam Michnik as being personally responsible for the country's difficulties. These controversial opinions prompted counter-polemics that would continue even after Herbert’s death. This conflict has its roots in different judgments on the communist regime in Poland at the time of the People’s Republic of Poland.
In 1993 Herbert became a member of the Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 1994, already in a wheelchair, he traveled on a very personal trip to Holland for a tulip festival in Nieuwe Kerk. The last years of his life he spent in bed fighting with severe asthma. Despite that he never stopped working – Epilog burzy (Epilogue to a Storm) was published shortly before his death.
Zbigniew Herbert died on 28 July 1998, in Warsaw. He was buried in Powązki Cemetery. President Aleksander Kwaśniewski sought posthumously to honor Herbert with the Order of the White Eagle, but his widow Katarzyna declined to accept the honor. On 3 May 2007, Herbert was posthumously invested with the Order of the White Eagle by President Lech Kaczyński; Herbert's widow Katarzyna and sister Halina Herbert-Żebrowska accepted the Order.
The first poems by Zbigniew Herbert were published in Dziś i jutro (#37, 1950). Poems entitled: Napis (Inscription), Pożegnanie września and Złoty środek were printed however, without the permission of the author. The real debut occurred at the end of the same year with the publishing of the poem without the title (Palce wrzeciona dźwięków…) in Tygodnik Powszechny (#51). Until 1955 the poet published some of his works in that newspaper; however, kept out of the literary environment. Not having a chance for his own volume of poems, he decided to publish 22 poems in the anthology of modern catholic poetry …każdej chwili wybierać muszę… (Warsaw, 1954).
Herbert was introduced to the bigger audience in Premiera pięciu poetów (The debut of five poets) in magazine Życie Literackie (#51, December 1955). He was presented together with other young poets, such as Miron Białoszewski, Bohdan Drozdowski, Stanisław Czycz and Jerzy Harasymowicz In 1956 he published his debut book of poetry Struna światła (String of Light) and year later another one Hermes, pies i gwiazda (Hermes, Dog and Star). A relatively late debut of Herbert made him belong to the modern generation in literature which appeared after 1956, whereas biographically he belonged to the same generation as Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński and Tadeusz Różewicz. Another two books of poetry: Studium przedmiotu (Study of the Object) and Napis (Inscription) were published in 1961 and 1969. In 1974 the main character from another book of poetry Pan Cogito (Mr. Cogito) appeared in the Polish culture. The character of Pan Cogito appeared also in the later works of the author. The poet always liked to use the lyric of role (in which the lyrical persona cannot be identified with the author), multistage irony – the character introduced for good favored the game conducted by the author, between him and the reader.
In 1983 the Literary Institute in Paris published another book of poetry by Herbert entitled Raport z oblężonego Miasta i inne wiersze (Report from a Besieged City and Other Poems). In Poland it was reprinted by the underground publishing houses. The time and the circumstances favored the literal understanding of the poem’s title. Despite the fact that the title provoked such understanding, it led to the simplification in interpreting the poem. Another book of poems Elegia na odejście (Elegy for the Departure) (1990) was published also in Paris. In 1992, back in Poland, Herbert published Rovigo (Wrocław). Finally, the last work of the poet Epilog burzy (Epilogue to a Storm) came out shortly before his death.
Herbert often used elements of mythology, medieval heroes and works of art in his writing, which attracted the attention of the critics. Those elements, however, didn’t mean the dead parts of literary convention. Herbert uses the mechanism of special demythologization - he tries to get rid of any cultural layers (if possible) and reach the prototypes, face the antique heroes. In his literary output the past is not treated as something distant or closed – revived characters and events allow making an attempt at understanding not only history but also the current moment. The past is a measure of the present.
In Herbert’s poetry there is no consistent historiosophic conception. Quite the opposite – there is a clear reluctance towards systems which clarify everything, which explain a course of events as an inevitable logic of history. Everything what can be said about history is a result of a simple observation – namely, that history is (at least it used to be so far) the area where evil is rife, which is accompanied by a handful of indomitable people constantly opposed to it. An individual is not able to change the course of history; however, he is obliged to put up hopeless resistance despite everything. The ethical base of Herbert’s artistic work constitutes the conviction that justice of a particular matter and actions taken in its defense; do not depend on a chance of victory. This pathetic message is accompanied by ironic consciousness of the fact that it is delivered in not a very heroic period – a period in which a potential hero is exposed not so much to martyrdom as to ridiculousness. The characteristic of the contemporary world is the fuzzy borderline between good and evil, the degeneration of language, which deprives words of their clear-cut nature, and common debasement of values. Contemporary evil is not demonic and cannot be easily defined. The hero, being aware of his own ridiculousness, provokes critical situations not only for preserving faithfulness of the message but also in order to provoke and force evil to reveal its real nature.
Yet, the tough assessment of the present does not mean idealizing history. The last war experiences have put an end to the naïve perception of the past. The exposer’s suspicion arises due to the fact that visions of history are created usually by the winners’ chroniclers. Therefore, what is under the fresco Przemiany Liwiusza (Transformations of Livy) should be analyzed diligently. The monumental picture of the ancient heroes can be false, or in other way – it can be based on judging criteria, which should not be acknowledged uncritically. Possibly, the vanquished are those who are entitled to our solidarity.
According to Herbert, the field of history being maybe the easiest one to make observations is not the only one in which evil reveals itself. The presence of evil entails the question of life’s meaning and order, which means that also of presence of God in the world. The history of literature has not yet settled a dispute over the sacred in Herbert’s poetry. In his earliest volumes one can notice two completely different images of God, once he is almighty, cold, perfect and remote and next time powerless by his coming down from heaven Kapłan (Priest), Rozmyślania Pana Cogito o odkupieniu (Mr. Cogito’s Reflections on Redemption). The first God is rather disliked – as all abstractions – indeed; everything that is valued in this poetry is small, tangible and close. After all, it is nothing else but senses, especially the most unerring touch, which give us the most reliable support in everyday life. Moreover, in this poetry, one has never reconciled oneself to the collapse of the sacred, as well as to the world of chaos. Against everything, being loyal – even to dead God – make sense. For want of no other refuge, we are supposed to seek power in us to save the world from chaos and nothingness Napis (Inscription).
In his later works, there is less such pagan declarations, yet the need for reconciliation is being articulated more and more clearly. Compared to the poems from Epilog Burzy (Epilogue to the Storm) and his previous works, Puste Niebo Pana Cogito collected not very favourable critics’ opinions.
In his works he presented the 'reflection-intellectual' perspective, with stress on human beings and their dignity, to the background of history, where people are almost irrelevant cogs in the machine of fate. He often used elements of Mediterranean culture in his works. "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." - A. Alvarez, Under Pressure (1965)
"If the key to contemporary Polish poetry is the selective experience of the last decades, Herbert is perhaps the most skilful in expressing it and can be called a poet of historical irony. He achieves a sort of precarious equilibrium by endowing the patterns of civilization with meanings, in spite of all its horrors." - Czesław Miłosz, Postwar Polish Poetry (3rd ed., 1983)
"There is little doubt that at this writing Zbigniew Herbert is the most admired and respected poet now living in Poland. (...) Polish readers have always revered poets who succeed in defining the nation's spiritual dilemma; what is exceptional in Herbert is that his popularity at home is matched by a wide acclaim abroad." - Stanisław Barańczak, A Fugitive from Utopia (1987)
In modern poetry, Herbert advocated semantic transparency. In a talk given at a conference organized by the journal Odra he said: "So not having pretensions to infallibility, but stating only my predilections, I would like to say that in contemporary poetry the poems that appeal to me the most are those in which I discern something I would call a quality of semantic transparency (a term borrowed from Husserl's logic). This semantic transparency is the characteristic of a sign consisting in this: that during the time when the sign is used, attention is directed towards the object denoted, and the sign itself does not hold the attention. The word is a window onto reality."
Barbarzyńca w ogrodzie (Barbarian in the Garden), the result of Herbert’s first trip abroad, was portrayed in 1962. It is composed of essays, which describe particular places and things that have been seen by the poet, as well as two historical essays – the story about Albigensians and the persecution of the templar order. The journey takes place in two dimensions simultaneously – it is both contemporary travel and time travel. The last one starts with prehistory, in the Lascaux caves, lasts over the age of Greek and Roman antiquity, the days of Gothic cathedrals, Renaissance painting and sentimental gardens. The journey becomes fascinating because the traveler shares with his readers the knowledge of the less and more serious history of the places, items and people portrayed in the essays. Even Herbert defined it as not only a journey to the places, but also to books.
In Barbarzyńca w ogrodzie there are two historical essays. The Albigensian history and the collapse of the Knights Templars absorbed Herbert not because of its peculiarity, but quite the opposite, namely because of its ubiquity in history. Therefore, both of the themes are described by the poet with proper respect to historical detail and towards the drama of the individuals being involved, thereby timeless crime mechanisms have been revealed. Another collection of essays, Martwa natura z wędzidłem (Still Life with a Bridle), portrayed in 1993, is devoted to seventeenth-century Dutch painting. Just as in Barbarzyńca w ogrodzie, here widely accepted assessments have no impact on the author’s personal preferences. Among Dutch painters, the one who fascinates Herbert the most is hardly known Torrentius, whose work Martwa natura z wędzidłem is the only one to be preserved. In this particular volume of essays the figure of traveler is less noticeable than in the previous one. Yet, people still arouse Herbert’s interest – not only painters, also those who were buying and often ordering their works – since Dutch painting is typical of a certain civilization and is not possible to exist in any other place or time. Although written much more earlier than Martwa natura z wędzidłem, the last volume of essays Labirynt nad morzem (Labyrinth on the Sea-Shore) was portrayed only after the poet’s death. Herbert handed in this volume to the Czytelnik publishing house already in 1968, however some time later withdrew it. Labirynt nad morzem consists mainly of essays devoted to ancient Greek culture and history, as well as in a lesser degree to the Etruscans and the Roman legionnaires from Hadrian’s Wall. This time however, the traveler seems not to be seeking his own ways – he copes with the monuments of culture – the Acropolis of Athens or Knossos. Yet, when referring to the history of Greece, Herbert draws out the episodes which take up not too many pages in textbooks, and wrecks view patterns. He shows how Pericles’ policy in the case of Samos became the beginning of the end of not only the Greek cities union but also of Athenian democracy. The assessments of history are reviewed in the same way as the one postulated in the poetry – by changing the perspective, rejecting the winners’ point of view. That is in Labirynt nad morzem where the above rule was given the most visibly.
Jaskinia filozofów (Cave of Philosophers), probably the most valued among all Herbert’s dramas, and Rekonstrukcja poety (The Reconstruction of the Poet) refer to antiquity. The plot of Jaskinia filozofów is set in an Athenian prison cell, where the main character, Socrates, waits for his death sentence. Conversations held with his students, wife and warder let him conduct an examination of his life; however, this is not the only theme brought up in the drama. Socrates could easily escape if he wants, as the death penalty was to be token. Those by whom he was sentenced, presume that he will escape and they saw to it that he had such a possibility. Yet, the philosopher does not reconcile himself to the hypocrisy of freedom without actual freedom – he goes to extremes and finally resigns himself to death. Rekonstrukcja poety refers to Homer. The author of great epics, being already blind, alters his view into something vital and worthy of interest – no more battle’s clamor, but now detail, something which is considered to be the most personal and fragile.
The remaining three dramas refer to more contemporary themes. The way of showing the ordinariness and triviality of situation, in which evil reveals itself, is extremely convincing. One can crave the other room so much as to wish a neighbour’s death or even to contribute to it Drugi pokój (The Other Room). One can be deprived of everything that matters a lot in life, as a result of inhuman regulations and human stupidity. Listy naszych czytelników (Letters From Our Readers). In a small normal town, among respectable people, even murder can happen. The murder which no one is able to explain, and which no one had attempted to stop (Lalek).
Posthumously – without the permission of heiresses of the copyrights:
All posthumously: Dramaty (Drama), Wrocław 1997. (Wydawnictwo Dolnośląskie)
(in chronological order)