This page was created thanks to cooperation with The Zbigniew Herbert Foundation.
The text below as well as the translation of both poems, thank the courtesy of the Foundation.
Zbigniew Herbert 1924-1998
Poet, essayist and playwright, Zbigniew Herbert was born on October 29, 1924, in Lwów, (formerly in Poland, now in present day Lviv, Ukraine) and died on July 28, 1998, in Warsaw, Poland.
He spent the first twenty years of his life, including the period of German occupation, in Lwów, the multicultural city of his birth. He studied Economics at the Krakow Business School (Krakowska Akademia Handlowa) and law at Torun’s Nicolaus Copernicus University (Uniwersytet Mikołaja Kopernika). He also studied philosophy. He settled in Warsaw in 1951, from where he travelled to many Western European countries for stays which were often of many years’ duration. His first essay appeared in 1948, whilst his first poetic works appeared in 1951, though he considered the 1956 publication of a volume titled “String of Light” (Struna Światła) as his poetic debut.
His work is rooted in the traditions and symbols of Mediterranean Civilisation, as well as in the European Christian culture that grew from it; the starting point for his deliberations on moral issues as well as on the spiritual condition of contemporary man. Volumes: “String of Light” (Struna Światła), 1956; “Hermes, Dog and Star” (Hermes, pies i gwiazda), 1957; “Study of an Object” (Studium przedmiotu), 1961; “Inscription” (Napis), 1969; “Mr Cogito” (Pan Cogito), 1974; “Report from a Besieged City” (Raport z oblężonego miasta), 1983; “Departure Elegy” (Elegia na odejście), 1990; “Rovigo”, 1992; “Storm Epilogue” (Epilog burzy), 1998, and collected essays: “Barbarian in the Garden” (Barbarzyńca w ogrodzie), 1962; “Still Life with Bridle” (Martwa natura z wędzidłem), 1993; “Labyrinth on the Seashore” (Labirynt nad morzem), 2000; “King of Ants” (Król mrówek), 2001, number among the most important Polish literary achievements of the second half of the twentieth century. Herbert also wrote drama works for the stage and radio, including: “Cave of Philosophers” (Jaskinia filozofów), 1956; “The Other Room” (Drugi pokój), 1958; “Reconstruction of a Poet” (Rekonstrukcja poety), 1960; Lalek, 1961, and “Letters from Our Readers” (Listy naszych czytelników), 1972.
Translated into 45 languages, his writings brought him numerous prestigious awards, including:The Jurzykowski Millennium Prize in 1965; The Kultura Foundation Prize (Nagroda Fundac ji Kultury) in 1997, The International Nicolaus-Lenau Prize (Internationaler Nikolaus-Lanau Preis) in 1965, The Gottfried-von-Herder Prize (Gottfried-con-Herder Preis) in 1973, The Petrarca Prize (Petrarca Preis) in 1979, The Bruno Schulz Prize in 1988, The Jerusalem Prize for the Freedom of the Individual in Society in 1991, The T.S. Eliot Award for Creative Writing in 1995.
He posthumously received The Order of the White Eagle (Order Orła Białego), the Poland’s highest distinction awarded to both civilians and the military for their merits.
Zbigniew Herbert is however best known in world literature thanks to his poetic alter-ego, Mr Cogito (Pan Cogito).
Prayer of the Traveler Mr Cogito
I thank You for creating the world beautiful and various
and for allowing me in Your fathomless goodness to visit places which were not the sites of my daily torments
-- that at night in Tarquinia I lay in the square by the well and a gunmetal pendulum rang out from the tower your wrath or forgiveness
and that a little donkey on the island Corkyra sang to me from the unfathomable bellows of its lungs the melancholy of the landscape
and that in the ugly city of Manchester I discovered kindhearted and sensible people
nature repeated its wise tautologies: the forest was a forest the sea the sea a cliff a cliff
stars revolved and it was as it ought to be – Iovis omnia plena
-- forgive me – that I thought only of myself while the lives of others cruel and inexorable turned around me like the great astrological clock of St Pierre in Beauvais
that I was lazy distracted too timid in labyrinths and caves
and forgive me also that I did not fight like Lord Byron for the happiness of oppressed peoples and studied only the rising moon and museums
-- I thank You that works created for Your greater glory yielded to me particles of their mystery and that with great presumption I thought that Duccio Van Eyck and Bellini painted for me also
and also that the Acropolis which I never fully understood patiently revealed to me its mutilated body
-- I ask You to reward the gray old woman who unbidden brought me fruit from her garden on the sunburned native island of the son of Laertes
and Miss Helen of the foggy island of Mull in the Hebrides for offering Greek hospitality and asking me to leave a lamp lit at night in the window facing Holy Iona so that the lights of earth would greet each other
and also all those who gave me directions and said kyrie kyrie kato
and take under your protection Mama from Spoleto Spiridion from Paxos the good student from Berlin who saved me from oppression and then when met unexpectedly in Arizona drove me to the Grand Canyon which is like a hundred throusand cathedrals standing on their heads
- Lord let me not think of my moist-eyed gray deluded persecutors when the sun sets on the truly indescribable Ionian Sea
let me understand other people other languages other sufferings
and above all let me be humble that is to say one who longs for the source
I thank You Lord for creating the world beautiful and various
and if this is Your seduction I am seduced for good and past all forgiveness
Translated by Alissa Valles
Forest of threads thin fingers loom of fidelity
expectation's shadowy bier
so then frail memory be near
lend me your infinity
Dim light of conscience a monotonous thud
measures the island's years in scores
and carries at last to a nearby shore
bark and weft warp and shroud
Translated by Alissa Valles