Friday, December 11, 2009

`Until the World's Four Walls Go Down'

I’ve just read a clumsily written but heartfelt and morally sound essay by Piotr Wilczek, a professor at the University of Warsaw Institute of Interdisciplinary Studies. Whether the clumsiness is due to an imperfect command of English or his standing in academia, I can’t say, though I dread the shiver of unhappy anticipation I feel when preparing to read something written by a contemporary university professor. Wilczek’s title is “Marcus Aurelius, Henryk Elzenberg, and Zbigniew Herbert: An Encounter,” an examination of Herbert’s “To Marcus Aurelius,” from his first book, Chord of Light (1956). The unknown quantity to most Western readers will be Elzenberg. Herbert wrote the poem in 1951 and mailed it to his intellectual mentor. Wilczek explains:

“As a student of philosophy in Toruń, Herbert attended the lectures of Henryk Elzenberg, a prominent university teacher of philosophy. In the worst Stalinist period Elzenberg lost his position at the university and was forbidden to teach students. Thus these two outstanding Polish intellectuals were obliged to live on the margins of society at a time when many intellectuals in the West praised the communist regime and its generosity toward writers and artists. Zbigniew Herbert was a freelance poet with no permanent job who lived in the suburbs of Warsaw, and Henryk Elzenberg was a professor who was forbidden to teach at the University of Toruń, and instead conducted illegal seminars at his home.”

Such a scene is almost impossible to imagine in the United States. Herbert was not yet 30 when he wrote the poem. His devotion to Elzenberg, who had published a volume on Marcus Aurelius 30 years earlier, was both filial and principled, in a time and place that had outlawed loyalty and intellectual honesty. As Wiczek writes: “The poem is an expression of allegiance to the roots of Western civilization.” Here is “To Marcus Aurelius,” translated by Alissa Valles (The Collected Poems: 1956-1998):

“Good night Marcus put out the light
and shut the book For overhead
is raised a gold alarm of stars
heaven is talking some foreign tongue
this the barbarian cry of fear
your Latin cannot understand
terror continuous dark terror
again the fragile human land

“begins to beat It’s winning Hear
its roar The unrelenting stream
of elements will drown your prose
until the world’s four walls go down
As for us? – to tremble in the air
blow in the ashes stir the ether
gnaw our fingers seek vain words
drag off fallen shades behind us

“Well Marcus better hang up your peace
give me your hand across the dark
Let it tremble when the blind world beats
on senses five like a falling lyre
traitors – universe and astronomy
reckoning of stars wisdom of grass
and your greatness too immense
and Marcus my defenseless stars”

Herbert’s gesture – reaching across centuries to grasp Marcus’ hand – is a vow of solidarity with his teacher and the Western intellectual tradition. Wilczek goes too far when he calls the poem “an allegory of Polish history, of Soviet occupation.” Allegories, typically, are one-dimensional. The speaker of the poem is too colloquial, too sarcastic, too aware of the barbarian victory but resolved not to sound smugly self-satisfied, to turn the poem into an Us-and-Them rant. In 1992 Herbert published Rovigo, containing "To Henryk Elzenberg on the Centennial of His Birth,"which includes these lines:

"Your severe gentleness delicate strength
Taught me to weather the world like a thinking stone
Patient indifferent and tender all at once"

Behind every Herbert poem stands a man who has suffered losses and on whom nothing is lost. In Polish Writers on Writing (edited by Adam Zagajewski), Herbert says in an interview:

“I had the feeling that my individuality was not absolute, certain, finished, that it was by an accident that I was born into the Herbert family. I could have been that child in the courtyard with whom I played, that daughter of the Jewish shopkeeper with whom I was so in love–she was my first love. Here we return to empathy, which for me is something completely natural and even, let’s say, a precondition of writing.”

Marcus Aurelius writes in Meditations (VIII, 59), as translated by George Long:

“Men exist for the sake of one another. Teach them then or bear with them.”

1 comment:

William A. Sigler said...

That's the beauty of poetry, you don't have to understand the context at all to feel it. There are always those people, who acquire sacred knowledge to share, only to find the sharing is more sacred than the knowledge.