“This might seem bleak, but [Zbigniew] Herbert doesn't mean it as a ponderous revelation. His tone is truly ambivalent, intimating horror even as he revels in beauty. He allows each place and time its tragicomedy, its identity, its humanity, its conditions. He writes with compassion for human folly, and his descriptions of particulars ring with charm and personal zaniness.”
Thanks to Brian Sholis for passing along a link to Tess Taylor’s thoughtful celebration of Zbigniew Herbert at Barnes & Noble Review. Nominally a review of the essay collection Barbarian in the Garden (Polish edition, 1962; English, 1985) and The Collected Poems 1956-1998 (English, 2007), it reads like one reader’s enthusiastic sharing of a formerly private pleasure, as though Taylor were calling friends and strangers alike and urging them to read Herbert. I’m particularly gratified by the attention she devotes to Herbert’s essays, which also include those in Still Life with a Bridle (English, 1991). A survivor of the 20th century’s two-headed monster, Nazism-Communism, Herbert, despite a world of excuses, never succumbed to nihilism and remained a great lover and preserver of Western Civilization. The ambivalence cited by Taylor is on display in the final sentences of “A Stone from the Cathedral” (Barbarian in the Garden):
“The construction sites of unfinished cathedrals stand desolate. No one is interested any longer in arches and intricate vaults. The sons of those who sculpted an angel’s smile turn cannon balls.”
The only essay in Barbarian in the Garden devoted to a single artist is “Piero della Francesca.” If you savor symbolism, consider that Piero died on the first Columbus Day – Oct. 12, 1492. Herbert judges him virtually a saint of humanism. Here’s the conclusion of his essay:
“Tradition holds that he went blind towards the end of his life. Marco di Longara told Berto degli Alberti that as a young boy he walked the streets of Borgo San Sepolcro with an old, blind painter called Piero della Francesca.
“Little Marco could not have known that his hand was leading light.”
Herbert was no stuffy academic or critic. His essays are acts of regeneration for an age increasingly stricken with amnesia. All history, in Herbert’s hands, is contemporary. As Taylor writes:
“His tour of the long-ago-and-faraway beauties and cruelties of Western civilization hovers as a prolonged, never wholly resolved allegory for the complexity of a present --any present -- in which both things, art and cruelty, are still taking place. In this way, four decades later, the book remains as fresh as when it was written.”
We observe the 10th anniversary of Herbert’s death at age 73 on July 28 – a fitting excuse, if we need one, to remember a great writer from the last century. The Polish government, once the scourge of Herbert and all true Polish artists, declared 2008 the Year of Zbigniew Herbert. Two years after his death a third collection of essays, Labirynt nad morzem (Labyrinth on the Sea-Shore), written in the late nineteen-sixties, was finally published in Poland. Let’s hope some enterprising publisher honors us – and Herbert’s memory – with an English-language edition.