Herbert, Zbigniew


Herbert, Zbigniew
born Oct. 29, 1924, Lwów, Pol.
died July 28, 1998, Warsaw

Polish poet and essayist.

Herbert started writing at age 17 but published little before 1956. His poetry expresses an ironic moralism in free verse laden with classical and other historical allusions. His most distinguished collection of poetry, Elegy for an Exit, was published in 1990. His essays, published in volumes such as Barbarian in the Garden (1962) and The King of the Ants (1999), are also memorable.

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▪ 1999

      Polish poet, essayist, and playwright (b. Oct. 29, 1924, Lwow, Pol. [now Lviv, Ukraine]—d. July 28, 1998, Warsaw, Pol.), revealed his lifelong opposition to communism in dissident poetry that was characterized by irony, historical allusion, restraint of language, and moral authority. Born into a wealthy, well-educated family, he served during World War II in the underground Polish Home Army, which fought against the Germans. Herbert later studied humanities, law, economics, and philosophy at the Universities of Krakow, Torun, and Warsaw. After his first poems appeared in 1950, he was declared an enemy of the people for refusing to cooperate with Poland's Stalinist regime and was expelled from the Writers' Union. Following a liberalization of the political climate, he was reinstated in the union and was coeditor (1955-65 and 1965-68, respectively) of the literary magazines Twórczość ("Creation") and Poezja ("Poetry"). Herbert's first collection of poems, Struna światła (1956; "A String of Light"), included writings from his years of enforced silence. As a writer, he traveled freely, and his trips in Europe resulted in a book of essays, Barbarzyńca w ogrodzie (1962; "A Barbarian in the Garden"). After publishing Selected Poems (1968), his first poetry translated into English, he taught (1970) modern European literature at California State College, Los Angeles. An ardent supporter of the pro-democracy Solidarity movement, he published Raport z oblężonego miasta (1983; "Report from the Besieged City") from an underground press. The book was an allegory of life under the martial law that was imposed to block the movement. Recognized by critics as one of Poland's greatest postwar poets, he was the recipient of numerous literary prizes. Herbert published his final collection, Epilog burzy ("Epilogue of a Storm"), several months before his death.

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▪ Polish author
born October 29, 1924, Lwów, Poland [now Lviv, Ukraine]
died July 28, 1998, Warsaw

      one of the leading Polish poets of the post-World War II generation.

      Herbert attended an underground high school during the wartime German occupation of Poland and also took secret military training courses with the Polish Home Army. After World War II he earned degrees in economics, law, and philosophy at various universities in Poland. He published little poetry in 1949–54, when Socialist Realism was mandatory in Poland, but in 1955 he began a long association with the literary review Twórczość (“Creation”). Herbert's first collection of poems, Struna światła (1956; “Chord of Light”), was followed by Hermes, pies i gwiazda (1957; “Hermes, a Dog and a Star”), Studium przedmiotu (1961; “A Study of the Object”), and such later volumes as Pan Cogito (1974; Mr. Cogito) and Raport z oblężonego miasta (1983; Report from the Besieged City and Other Poems). After travels in France and Italy between 1958 and 1961, Herbert published the essays inspired by these visits as Barbarzyńca w ogrodzie (1962; Barbarian in the Garden). From 1975 to 1992, he lived mostly in western Europe, although during that time he returned to Poland for the five years from 1981 to 1986. Then, from 1992 until his death, he made his home in Poland.

      Herbert's poetry expresses an ironic moralism in free verse laden with classical and other historical allusions. In reflecting on Poland's traumatic experiences at the hands of the Nazis and Soviets during World War II and afterward, he uses a sarcastic rhetoric to question the gap between ideal morality and the nightmares of 20th-century totalitarianism. English translations of his poems appear in Elegy for the Departure and Other Poems and in Selected Poems (1968 and 1977). The King of the Ants: Mythological Essays (1999) comprises some of his essays.

      Herbert's poetry and his essays evoke the best traditions of antiquity, relating them to modern times in an inspiring way and showing the sources of European civilization reaching back to Greek and Roman mythology as relevant factors of modern philosophy, art, and literature.

Additional Reading
Stanisław Barańczak, A Fugitive from Utopia (1987, originally published in Polish, 1984); and Bożena Shallcross, The Other Herbert (1998).

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Universalium. 2010.

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