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Zbigniew Herbert known and unknown
In spite of all the attention Herbert has attracted in Poland
and around the world, there remains an air of mystery to him.
For many years he had taken great care not to write directly
about himself or parade his personal experiences or feelings. It is only in his last volume of poems entitled Epilogue to
a Storm that we can discover some more personal remarks
about his long illness, frailty and suffering, along with some
more straight-forward allusions to his childhood. Literary
scholars go to great lengths trying to decipher biographical
references in his work carefully concealed from the sight of
his readers. For instance, hints at his lost home city of Lviv
can be identified in his early work, notably in the poem My
City (published in the volume Hermes, Dog and Star, 1957)
talking about the locked gate of his city, even though the
name of the city is only mentioned at the end of his life. This
may indicate that the Poet, exiled from his little homeland,
was struggling with this tragedy, both national and personal,
for many bitter years.
Herbert was a man with a complex personality. In everyday life he might have been a sociable and cheerful person, prone to jokes, yet in his writing he was preoccupied with fundamental questions and, at times, even resorted to pathos, as in The Envoy of Mr. Cogito. He was a genuine European, successor to the Mediterranean cultural legacy, free of any nationalistic inhibitions or prejudice, yet, at the same time he was truly patriotic. As an author aware of his civic duties to the Nation, he felt a guardian of the memory of the Poles fighting in the Home Army and the Warsaw Uprising, the generation which was condemned to official oblivion in communist Poland. Writing about his killed or murdered comrades (Prologue, volume Inscription, 1969) he said that they implacably returned his stare.
The public perception of Herbert evolved with time. In the 1960s he was deemed a 'classic' and 'aesthete' - a poet who referred to the Antiquity in order to defy the intellectual, aesthetic and moral mediocrity of communism. After he wrote Mr. Cogito (1974), he became the hero of anticommunist resistance and when the Marshall Law was declared in 1981 he came to be perceived as the 'national banner' - his poems from the volume Report from a Besieged City (published in Paris and printed underground in Poland) were recited at illegal literary meetings held secretly at private homes or in churches. For the Solidarity generation Herbert was someone who taught them how to be brave and courageously stand up for dignity of each person and rights of the community.
The uncompromising civil stance he displayed after 1989 led the Poet to a violent clash with some of his erstwhile allies. It started with a famous interview with Jacek Trznadel for the book Hańba domowa (Dishonour to the Nation) (1986) where Herbert condemned opportunistic attitude of writers involved in Stalinist propaganda. His vehement political commentaries of the 1990s expressing outrage at blurring the moral distinction between former communist apparatchiks and unyielding patriots exposed the Poet to ostracism from his fellow dissidents. Ironically, even communists in the time of the Polish People's Republic did not dare attack the Poet as ferociously as some former members of the opposition who took over power in the reborn country. Making a bitter reference to the Stalinist past of some of the Poet's adversaries, he wrote that from then on he would not be in any group picture and went on sarcastically that he was ostracized as though he were 'an enemy of the revolution' and a follower of 'the leader'.
After his demise in 1998 the superficial and simplified political reception of his poetry lost its timeliness as did his political journalism dubbed 'Mr. Cogito's Duels' in one press interview. Instead, the existential and metaphysical component of his writing came to the fore. Herbert's poetry is permeated with compassion for the fragility of the world: people, animals and objects alike. It reflects joy rooted in the eternal charm of art and nature and admiration for the ethical virtue and the effort to multiply goodness and beauty.
On the other hand, there is melancholy in Herbert's works that finds its source in the transitoriness of life and fundamental loneliness of a human being, as expressed in the poem Lament (written in the memory of his mother). In his poetry, man does not suffer but rather, as ancient Greeks believed, man is nothing but suffering. The only way to come into terms with the tragedy of human existence is through art, which has the power to defy the verdicts of history. History is the record of evil and violence, hence Herbert's poems abound in the existential and historical pessimism. In the Poet's opinion, history is the struggle between the thugs at the head of addled crowds and the righteous and reasonable. The outcome is a foregone conclusion as there are just a handful of the latter ones.
Human beings are the victims of history, yet if they can face up bravely to their fate, they stand a chance of accomplishing greatness. This is as much true about the Philosopher Emperor in the poem To Marcus Aurelius, thus an outstanding personality who came to be remembered by his posterity, as it is about the unknown soldier in Nike Who Hesitates. This difficult optimism of Herbert assumes that we are capable of saving our own humanity, and also that of other people, in spite of the whole evil of the world, on the condition that we take responsibility for our neighbours. This attitude of solidarity - teaches Zbigniew Herbert - does surpass the existential solitude of a human being. Everyone is capable of achieving greatness. Although we have no influence on what happens to us, whether we can rise to the challenge or not depends exclusively on us. It is this decision, this conscious act that turns an accidental event into fate and creates the human being.
Józef Maria Ruszar