The Jerusalem Prize

1991 - Zbigniew Herbert

Born: 29 October 1924, Lwow, Poland

Author's quote: "Be courageous when the mind deceives you Be courageous In the final account only this is important"

Field: Poet, Essayist

Prize share: 1/1

Books Written By Zbigniew Herbert

About Zbigniew Herbert

In Herbert’s poetry there is no consistent historiosophic conception. Quite the opposite – there is a clear reluctance towards systems which clarify everything, which explain a course of events as an inevitable logic of history. Everything what can be said about history is a result of a simple observation – namely, that history is (at least it used to be so far) the area where evil is rife, which is accompanied by a handful of indomitable people constantly opposed to it. An individual is not able to change the course of history; however, he is obliged to put up hopeless resistance despite everything. The ethical base of Herbert’s artistic work constitutes the conviction that justice of a particular matter and actions taken in its defense; do not depend on a chance of victory. This pathetic message is accompanied by ironic consciousness of the fact that it is delivered in not a very heroic period – a period in which a potential hero is exposed not so much to martyrdom as to ridiculousness. The characteristic of the contemporary world is the fuzzy borderline between good and evil, the degeneration of language, which deprives words of their clear-cut nature, and common debasement of values. Contemporary evil is not demonic and cannot be easily defined. The hero, being aware of his own ridiculousness, provokes critical situations not only for preserving faithfulness of the message but also in order to provoke and force evil to reveal its real nature.

Yet, the tough assessment of the present does not mean idealizing history. The last war experiences have put an end to the naïve perception of the past. The exposer’s suspicion arises because visions of history are created usually by the winners’ chroniclers. Therefore, what is under the fresco Przemiany Liwiusza (Transformations of Livy) should be analyzed diligently. The monumental picture of the ancient heroes can be false, or in other way – it can be based on judging criteria, which should not be acknowledged uncritically. Possibly, the vanquished are those who are entitled to our solidarity.

According to Herbert, the field of history being maybe the easiest one to make observations is not the only one in which evil reveals itself. The presence of evil entails the question of life’s meaning and order, which means that also of presence of God in the world. The history of literature has not yet settled a dispute over the sacred in Herbert’s poetry. In his earliest volumes one can notice two completely different images of God, once he is almighty, cold, perfect and remote and next time powerless by his coming down from heaven Kapłan (Priest), Rozmyślania Pana Cogito o odkupieniu (Mr. Cogito’s Reflections on Redemption). The first God is rather disliked – as all abstractions – indeed; everything that is valued in this poetry is small, tangible and close. After all, it is nothing else but senses, especially the most unerring touch, which give us the most reliable support in everyday life. Moreover, in this poetry, one has never reconciled oneself to the collapse of the sacred, as well as to the world of chaos. Against everything, being loyal – even to dead God – make sense. For want of no other refuge, we are supposed to seek power in us to save the world from chaos and nothingness Napis (Inscription).

In his later works, there is less such pagan declarations, yet the need for reconciliation is being articulated more and more clearly. Compared to the poems from Epilog Burzy (Epilogue to the Storm) and his previous works, Puste Niebo Pana Cogito collected not very favourable critics’ opinions. Statue of Zbigniew Herbert in Kielce, Poland Poetic style


Barbarian in the Garden - Zbigniew Herbert

By A Customer

Zbigniew Herbert (died 1998) is counted among the finest poets of 20th century Poland, on a par with Szymborska and Milosz, world-famous Nobel Prize winners. This book of essays is a record of his journeys in France, Italy and the Netherlands: from the rock-paintings of Lascaux, through the medieval architecture of the great cathedrals, to the quiet consummate perfection of the Flemmish Masters. The rich meditation on art and life is your reward for joining the eccentric and humane poet with his 19th century Baedekker guide.


Barbarian in the Garden - Zbigniew Herbert

By Marysia

It is an excellent book by a Polish writer that I highly recommend for all of those who like to read a good literature and learn about art.