Zbigniew Herbert is an author not particularly well known for his essays; his poetry is what has earned him a reputation as one of the best contemporary writers now living in Poland. Yet his two modest collections of essays, inspired by his travels to France, Italy, and Holland—Barbarzyńca w ogrodzie (1962.; Barbarian in the Garden) and Martwa natura z wędzidłem (1991; Still Life with a Bridle: Essays and Apocryphas)—secure Herbert a place among the world’s most distinguished essayists. His modest output as an essayist is supplemented by his early and lesser-known attempts at prose writing. Herbert started his career in the late 1940s and early 1950s by publishing articles, feuilletons, and reviews of books, theater, painting, and photography. He wrote for such periodicals as Dziś i Jutro (Today and tomorrow), Słowo Powszechne (Universal word), Przeglqd Powszechny (Universal review), Tygodnik Powszechny (Universal weekly), and
Twórczość (Creation). Herbert’s contributions to these periodicals—along with his publications in the Paris-based Polish journals Kultura (Culture) and Zeszyty Literackie (Literary notebooks)—may indicate the kind of audience to which he addresses his essays: his readers are highly select and belong to the intellectual and literary elite.
During the communist period in Poland, they also represented the unyielding and politically independent circles who confronted the authorities.
What truly defines Herbert’s select and intellectual audience is the very nature of his essays, which are sophisticated and witty, thoughtful and artistic. For the most part they represent the type of essay known as the travel essay, but not in its “pure” form: they also contain elements of the philosophical and historical essay as well as those of the critical article aiming to explain an historical event or interpret a work of art. Critics have noticed that these essays, like Herbert’s other writings, are permeated with the spirit of humanism.
One of the main traits of Herbert’s essays is their polemical character—myths, widespread beliefs, and commonly accepted opinions are often questioned, scrutinized, and revised. Herbert reveals the falsity of conventional assumptions and the fragility of established truths. His deliberations on an issue from the history of art—one of his favorite topics—almost always constitute a dispute against the “learned” judgments of savants, the immovable “wisdom” of tradition, and widely shared popular knowledge.
Thus, in an essay on Gothic cathedrals, after the blunt statement, “One should finally dispose of the myth of the cathedral builders’ anonymity” (“Kamień z katedry” [1962; “A Stone from the Cathedral”]), Herbert proceeds to revise the idea. Similarly, after realizing the boldness of his questioning on other occasions, he decides, “One must blaspheme against the authors of handbooks—the Orvieto frescoes are much more impressive than Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel” (“Il Duomo” [1962; “Orvieto’s Duomo”]), or, “I realize I am allowing myself to write blasphemies, because ‘Swearing of the Peace Treaty in Muenster,’ according to general opinion, is a masterpiece… I think only that this is not Terborch’s best painting …” (“Gerard Terborch: Dyskretny urok mieszczaństwa” [1991; “Gerard Terborch: The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie”]).
However, in his revisionary approach to a subject, Herbert does not pretend to be omniscient. He himself hesitates, asks questions, weighs his own words, and declares that sometimes his statements may also be simply speculations. By such deliberation Herbert not only demonstrates the limitations of human knowledge about the past and the present; he also attempts, through questioning and examining, to indicate that some understanding of historical and current events is possible. Revision of myths, beliefs, and opinions helps remove mendacities gathered like patina on works of history and art. Karl Dedecius (1975), who detects the same feature in Herbert’s poetry, rightly notices that Herbert, with the same purpose in mind, travels like a “barbarian” through the “garden” of European culture and tradition. He sets out to the mythical places he has always heard of and explores them himself to uncover hidden truths and to gain authentic knowledge.
The polemical character of Herbert’s essays is also revealed in the selection of his subjects. His travel essays are indeed, as the author says, a confrontation of “monuments, books, and paintings with the real sky, the real sea, and the real land” (“Delta,” 1989).
But when he writes about Dutch art and landscape, about French or Italian Gothic cathedrals and the shape of the terrain, and about Doric temples and the sunlight, or even when he relates the course of a 16th-century battle as recorded in a Dutch chronicle, Herbert’s interest does not lie in what is obvious, typical, and expected from the choice of such a subject. Instead he searches for and describes things which are either unknown or unnoticed, as well as things traditionally considered insignificant and not worth mentioning. A famous painting as the theme of an essay serves as an inspiration for a commentary on the material conditions of painters of a given epoch (“Cena sztuki” [1991; “The Price of Art”]); the subject of a Gothic cathedral brings about a detailed account of a church construction technique in the Middle Ages (“A Stone from the Cathedral”). Critics have noticed that Herbert is interested in defeated civilizations and defeated individuals, in nations that failed and in peoples whose “tribulations and defeats left no trace and had no career in history.” Herbert’s selection of the subject allows him to make good use of irony, his favorite literary device. He comments frequently on history in a familiar tone of voice, and from the convenient distance of a contemporary observer.
The polemic, as one of the main traits of Herbert’s essays, obviously determines his style. But this polemic is discreet; questioning, arguing, and proposing new answers are not dominant characteristics of Herbert’s style. Other stylistic elements are more conspicuous. Herbert’s vocabulary is simple but representative of poetic prose. Polished, subtle, and ingenious metaphors are common; especially captivating are the metaphors used in descriptions of works of art: in the Greek column “under the weight of the architrave a branchy capital is swollen from an effort” (“U Dorów” [1962; “Among the Dorians”]).
The specific artistic qualities of the two collections of essays may point to Herbert’s affinities with such masters of the essay as Paul Valéry and T.S.Eliot, and place him among the best of the 20th-century Polish essayists, such as Jerzy Stempowski, Mieczysław Jastrun, and Czesław Miłosz. It is surprising that Herbert’s fine essays have so far attracted little attention from critics; the fact that he is famous for his outstanding poetry cannot explain this neglect.
Born 29 October 1924 in Lvov. Studied at the Academy of Economics, Cracow, M.A. in economics, 1947; Nicholas Copernicus University of Toruń, M.A. in law, 1949;
University of Warsaw, M.A. in philosophy, 1950; also studied briefly at Jagiellonian University and the Academy of Fine Arts, Cracow. Worked for Twórczość literary monthly, 1955–65; coeditor, Poezja (Poetry), 1965–68. Married Katarzyna Dzieduszycka, 1968. Taught at California State College, Los Angeles, 1970–71, and University of Gdańsk, 1972.
Awards: several, including the Nikolaus Lenau Prize (Austria), 1965; Herder Prize, 1973; Knight’s Cross, Order of Polonia Restituta, 1974;
Petrarch Prize, 1979; Jerusalem Prize, 1991; Ingersoll Prize, 1995.
Essays and Related Prose
Barbarzyńca w ogrodzie, 1962; as Barbarian in the Garden, translated by Michael March and Jarosław Anders, 1985
Still Life with a Bridle: Essays and Apocryphas, translated by John and Bogdana Carpenter, 1991; as Martwa natura z wędzidłem, 1993
Other writings: many collections of poetry (including Pan Cogito [Mr. Cogito], 1974;
Raport z oblężonego miasta [Report from the Besieged City and Other Poems], 1983, and several Selected Poems), and several plays.
Dedecius, Karl, “Anbau der Philosophie: Zbigniew Herbert auf der Suche nach Selbstgewissheit,” in his Polnische Prophile, Frankfurt-on-Main: Suhrkamp, 1975
Dybciak, Krzysztof, “W poszukiwaniu istoty i utraconych wartości,” in his Gry I katastrofy, Warsaw: Biblioteka Więzi, 1980
Kijowski, Andrzej, “Pielgrzym,” Twórczość 5 (1963):57–60
Kijowski, Andrzej, “Outcast of Obvious Forms,” Polish Perspectives 2 (1966):34–41
Kott, Jan, Introduction to Four Decades of Polish Essays, edited by Kott, Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1990
Kwiatkowski, Jerzy, “Symbol trwałości,” Życie Literackie 9 (1963)
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