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Herbert and the East

The burial of the USSR became a personal culmination point for Zbigniew Herbert after a long and painful process of dealing with the trauma of communism and losing his hometown. Thus, the nostalgia after Lviv became a hidden but recurring theme in Herbert’s works.

An interesting collage can be found in the Zbigniew Herbert archives at the National Library in Warsaw. Most likely Herbert made it in December 1991. He glued his own photograph onto a picture he cut out of a newspaper which depicted the signatories of the Białowieża Treaty which led to the dismantling of the Soviet Union. The photograph included such figures as Leonid Kravchuk, Stanislav Shushkevich and Boris Yeltsin. They were the leaders of the Ukrainian, Belarusian and Russian Soviet republics, respectively. In the photograph they were depicted as if they were posing for the camera after signing the document, applauding each other.

September 1, 2018 - Walery Butewicz - HerbertIssue 5 2018Magazine

Photo; Paweł Cieśla (CC) commons.wikimedia.org


Herbert’s intention to make this collage could be interpreted as a jokingly triumphant manifestation, born out of the joyous news of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Placing his own picture in the place where portraits of leaders would usually hang, Herbert presented himself as a champion of socio-political transformations. The applause of these future leaders, in turn, was meant to show the tribute to his achievements in fighting communism.

Herbert was known for his sense of humour. He also had a talent for creating alternative realities, both in art and in real life. His friends shared stories of him showing up at an institution and introducing himself as Aristotle, in all seriousness. He would ask what room he could find his friend Blaise Pascal, or he would dress up as a Gypsy woman. His creativity is also illustrated by his private correspondence humorously signed as Ober-Dionysus or The Commander of the Independent Royal Brigade of Death Hussars. For the latter, he even created a special stamp. His poetry also shows these qualities through omnipresent irony, diverse masks and, most of all, his famous alter ego – Mr Cogito.

I brought this collage up in order to show that humour was an integral part of Herbert’s artistic and private behaviour. Herbert did not, after all, have any aspirations for political leadership. His collage could be interpreted as a self-ironic gesture in which he was saying goodbye to his past incarnation as a spiritual leader fighting with the communist monster.

It was the crowning of his image as a moral authority of the Solidarity movement, partly forced on him by the spirit of the times which found its logical fulfilment in the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc. It was also his farewell as, affected by illness and old age, Herbert changed the tone of his poetry in the early 1990s. Thus, the three of his volumes written in that period – Elegy for the departure (1990), Rovigo (1992) and Epilogue to a storm (1998) – together make something which we could call an elegiac triptych, where metaphysics and physicality slide into the foreground. In these poems Herbert comes across as someone who prepares himself for an expedition to the other bank of existence, coping with unfinished earthly businesses before his departure.

The situation was very different in the 1970s and 1980s. Then, classical in its form, Herbert’s emotionally balanced and philosophical poetry was received by Polish readers as an anti-communist hymn. The image of the author behind Mr Cogito that existed among Poles during these hard times was a reflection of the need for a spiritual guide in literature. Herbert’s poetry could be read in a politicised manner thanks to his subtle intellectuality and his use of myth and remote historical stories which were used to make allusions to the socio-political realities of the Polish People’s Republic. The latter was full of lies, manipulations, trials and imprisonments. In this kind of suffocating atmosphere, “The Message of Mr Cogito” became a quasi-sacred text in its own right. It called for action and defined a model of conduct – “a table of values”.

Dying beast

Although Herbert accepted his role without any unnecessary pathos, doing so with self-irony, he was nonetheless engaged in the resistance, which in his case meant a desire to share the fate of his compatriots.  Even though he travelled abroad quite a lot, he never chose the fate of an émigré. He would always return “to the stony bosom of his homeland” (“Mr Cogito – the Return”).  Describing the totalitarian reality of the Polish People’s Republic, he often used animistic metaphors, as he did after he returned to Poland in the spring of 1970 and wrote the following letter to the Polish journalist working for Radio Free Europe, Marek Walicki:

Forgive me for not writing in a while … I had much work and the atmosphere in the army was deadly, some kind of never ending winter, wet and cold pre-spring with its nostalgia and longing. As part of those latter I went to Poland. I felt as if entering a cage with a wild animal. The wild animal didn’t tear me to shreds but tried to bite.

A similar motif can be found in a letter to the poet, Julia Hartwig, and her husband and also a poet, Artur Międzyrzecki, which was written in the spring of 1973:

I came back because I can earn and live “peacefully” in the West, but I can’t write there. (More accurately, I can write a bit, but can’t find the reason why) … The Beast is dying, but I am unsure if we will give it a burial.

These examples are plentiful and are not only found in private correspondence. The image of a fight with the beast found its most spectacular depiction in the poem “The Monster of Mr Cogito” (first published in 1974) but later included in the volume Report from a besieged city and other poems (1983). In the poem Herbert compared Mr Cogito to a patron Saint of Knights, who, in fighting the monster, found himself in a much more difficult situation:

Lucky Saint George
from his knight’s saddle
could exactly evaluate
the strength and movements of the dragon
the first principle of strategy
is to assess the enemy accurately

Mr Cogito
is in a worse position
he sits in the low
saddle of a valley
covered with thick fog

through fog it is impossible to perceive
fiery eyes
greedy claws

through fog
one sees only
the shimmering of nothingness

the monster of Mr Cogito
has no measurements
it is difficult to describe
escapes definition

it is like an immense depression
spread out over the country

it can’t be pierced
with a pen

with an argument
or spear (…)

These examples also show that the above-mentioned collage was the measure of Herbert’s symbolic victory over the shapeless monster whom he managed to pierce with his pen-spear.

If we enter the psychological realm of Herbert’s poetry, we can also see that the collage was a testament to his own mental transformation. The burial of the USSR became a personal culmination point for Herbert after a long and painful process of dealing with the trauma of losing his hometown. In his works, the nostalgia after Lviv is a hidden but recurring theme.

Herbert was an eyewitness to the Red Army’s occupation of Lviv in September 1939. Later he survived the Nazi occupation. Together with his family, he left Lviv right before the Soviet “liberation”. These severe experiences had a deep impact on his psyche. For Herbert, the lost city remained a symbol of being a captive of the monster. Thus the collage where Herbert jokingly welcomed the liberation of his homeland from the red spider’s web seems to be a testimony of how he acknowledged the loss of his city after Ukraine’s independence.

The latter is further confirmed by two episodes from Herbert’s biography. The first one is related to his relation with the émigré Polish journal Kultura, which in the post-war period extensively focused on Poland’s relations with the societies of its former territories in the East. Like many Polish intellectuals at that time Hebert too published his works in the magazine. The second is a less known fact that could be interpreted from the poet’s personal correspondence with his sister.

Episode one

From the memoirs of Gustaw Herling-Grudziński (Polish émigré writer and dissident) and Jerzy Giedroyc (editor-in-chief of Kultura), presented by Joanna Siedlecka in her biography of Herbert, we learn about Herbert’s conflict with Giedroyc and Zofia Hertz (a close colleague of Giedroyc and a co-founder of the Literary Institute in Paris which was publishing Kultura). Siedlecka’s book, however, remains controversial since it was released after the protagonists’ deaths. Therefore, it is hard to confirm the credibility of the oral testimonies it presents. However, based on the information presented by Giedroyc, the conflict surrounded the fee of Herbert’s collection of poems, called Elegy for the departure, which was published in 1990 as part of Kultura’s collection. In Giedroyc’s records we thus read:

Zosia was in charge of the financial side, so he was angry with her over the fee even though he knew about Kultura’s poor financial situation. He even hired a lawyer. After the quarrel she offered more money, but he considered it an affront and decided to hand it over to a Ukrainian school. Then he forced us to note it in the publication!

There is no reason we should not believe Giedroyc, however some of the details in the statement seem a bit puzzling. For example, the sentence on forcing the editors to make a note about the donation to the school seems a bit estranged from reality. Especially as it was well-known that Giedroyc always informed his readers about all payments that were made into Kultura’s fund as well as any payments made to the charities organised by its editorial team. It was the same case with the collection of funds for the Ukrainian school. Thus in the 9th issue of Kultura in 1990, we can find the following note: Payments for the dormitory of the Ukrainian high school of Legnica, with information stating that “Zbigniew Herbert, Paris, transfers his honorarium for Elegy for the departure – F.3.000.00”.

Thus, the conflict between Herbert and the editors of Kultura most likely came about because of differences in character and political opinion. The picture we get from the correspondences, saved in Zbigniew Herbert’s archive, is that the conflict was not as drastic as Siedlecka presents it in her book, and it did not lead to the full severing of ties between Herbert and Kultura.

This can be seen in the letter Herbert sent to Giedroyc, dated July 28th 1990, three months after publishing of the volume. There, in a calm tone, he informs the editor about his decision:

Most Respected and Dear Editor, I would like to give my whole honorarium for the Elegy for the departure to the dormitory of the Ukrainian high school in Legnica. Yours sincerely, best regards.

The letter received a reply from Zofia Hertz on August 2nd 1990:

Dear Zbyszek, […] On Monday the postman came with your letter to Jerzy [Giedroyc] in which you ask for your honorarium to be transferred to the dormitories of the Ukrainian high school in Legnica. I have to admit that I was a bit surprised. After all the fee isn’t great, and you are not in a great financial situation yourself. Why this decision then? I interpreted this behaviour as ostentatious. It hurts me a bit, after all you could have called. If you really had a plan to donate to the dorms, you still didn’t have to give up your entire amount […] Sending you and Kasia my best regards.

On August 6th, Herbert confirmed his intention to donate the money, motivating it with settling the score with the Ukrainians, something he jokingly classified as an act of “revenge”:

Dear Zosia, […] There are no grievances on my side. Our financial situation has improved temporarily, so I have decided to finish my former plan to join your pious initiative to build a Ukrainian high school in Legnica. As you write yourself, the fee for Elegy for the departure isn’t very large, so it makes no sense to split it in two. As a native of Lviv I have many issues to resolve and scores to settle with the Ukrainians. Finally, I had an opportunity to do something small. I would like to thank you for the initiative which I join without any second thoughts. I kiss your hands, and send my regards to the Editor.

Herbert’s decision to donate his author’s honorarium to the Ukrainian school could be understood as a personal slight towards Giedroyc and Hertz. That would mean the payment was devoid of any significance. However, another episode from the biography indicates Herbert did have honest intentions of doing something good for the Ukrainian minority in Poland. This episode was not known to Giedroyc, Hertz, or any other friends. It only became available in 2008, after Herbert’s correspondence with his family was released.

Episode two

On August 3rd 1990 Herbert received a letter from his sister, where she describes her trip to Lviv:

We were in Lviv with Rafał in the beginning of May. The town hall was flying a yellow and blue flag – instead of the red one – as the national and democratic parties won in the local election. The attitude towards the Poles that flock to the city is positive. The Cemetery of the Eaglets is being organised. The graves of great Poles: Konopnicka and Zapolska have flowers. We cleaned the tombs where the General uncle lies and little Janusz. We could not find the grave of grandmother this time. I am slowly taking care of the court case regarding our property left behind in the city. Nothing is likely to come out of it, but I am doing this for the principle. I am at the stage where the case is being transferred from Sopot to the court in Otwock. Please send me your power of attorney as you are the second beneficiary.

He answered her on August 6th 1990 – the same day he confirmed his intention to donate his honorarium to the Ukrainian school:

Your description of your trip to Lviv was very interesting. I admire your interest in the burial places of our relatives. Please find an authorisation attached with a statement confirming that I have no demands to the inheritance. I consider the case closed, at least from my side.

The next letter from his sister is dated October 21st 1990, and she comments on Herbert’s decision:

In your last letter there was a document of how you renounce any inheritance from the property. I should be thanking you for it, but I interpret it more as the famous transfer of the Netherlands by Zagłoba to Karl Gustav. I also have very weak hopes that something could be achieved in this case. I am also not doing it for the money, but for the principle. Our father as well as other fathers worked and built. We were attacked and looted. Not even trying to claim our inheritance, especially now when things are better organised than in the past, would not be alright.

Herbert’s response to his sister’s letter did not survive to this day. Maybe he did not refer to her comments on the matter. I believe that his decision to quit the topic of inheritance was motivated by not wanting to deal with such issues – as he was towards the end of his life. However, in light of the letters to his sister and those to the Kultura editors – which were dated on the same day – we can say that Herbert agreed with the concept of “UBL”. This geopolitical strategy, put forward by Juliusz Mieroszewski and Jerzy Giedroyc of Kultura, with the full name Ukraine, Belarus and Lithuania, assumed that Poland would relinquish any territorial claims towards its Eastern neighbours and accept the independence of Ukraine, Belarus and Lithuania as a condition for Polish independence.

Another crucial and symbolic fact is that Herbert also accepted the loss of his hometown – the city that was never named, but always present in his poetry. However it was finally named towards the end of his turbulent life in the poem titled “High Castle”:  

reflected in the window
chandelier of tears

But that is an entirely different story…

Translated by Daniel Gleichgewicht

Walery Butewicz is a literary scholar, an essaist and translator. In 2018 he defended his PhD at the University of Warsaw. In his dissertation, he analysed the works of Zbigniew Herbert. He currently works in the Adam Mickiewicz Museum of Literature in Warsaw and lectures at the University of Warsaw.


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