Week of The Festival: European Poet of Freedom, Poland

Herbert Unbound

A Review of Andrzej Franaszek’s Herbert. Biografia, (Znak 2018)

/ by Anna Arno

In the poem About Mr Cogito’s Two Legs, Zbigniew Herbert described his protagonist’s left leg as ‘normal/one could say optimistic/a little too short’, while the right leg was ‘thin/with two scars/one along the Achilles tendon/the other oval/pale pink/shameful reminder of an escape’. Herbert’s own right lower limb was shorter, as a result of an unfortunate skiing accident at the age of seventeen. Later, the poet claimed to have suffered injury two years later, during military service in the Second World War. However, there are no documents to prove Herbert’s military exploits: Dates and places do not compute. Andrzej Franaszek’s monumental two-volume biography marks the twentieth anniversary of Zbigniew Herbert’s death.


Franaszek approached the poet’s own accounts of his life with apposite caution. Herbert was a lover of anecdote and never hesitated to brighten up episodes of his personal history. These stories are lovely, even if not always utterly truthful. We would like to believe that, presented with a choice of a confirmation gift, the eight-year old Zbyszek gave up on a bike and picked the Bible. However, it seems less credible that, while in middle school, he burnt the portrait of Lavrentiy Beria in the middle of the classroom and called up his classmates to resistance. Herbert quite consciously ‘wrote’ his own life story, more often than not, he moulded it to fit the ideal image that he bore of himself. Franaszek disproves some of Herbert’s bold statements (especially concerning his early life) as part of the poet’s personal mythology. However, he avoids harsh judgments, he does not seek to expose Herbert’s ‘lies’ and mystifications. After years of meticulous research, Franaszek has accomplished a multifaceted portrait of the great poet.


One should assume that the two volumes roughly correspond with the obvious categories of ‘formative years’ in the first part and ‘maturity and recognition’ in the second. However, Herbert’s trajectory was less obvious. He debuted late, at the age of 32 – his first book came out only in 1956, during the ‘Polish thaw’. Herbert never rushed his publications, he preferred to wait for his works to age and mature. He was also eager to learn, he even said once that he would gladly accept the position of an ‘eternal student’ – if such were available. However, the poet’s trajectory was also conditioned by the sad reality of a communist country. And an eternal student he was indeed – not just on the account of his curiosity; at most times, he lived from hand to mouth. He was well over fifty and his books had been translated in the West, when he hitchhiked to Greece, because he could simply not afford a train ticket.


Herbert spent many years abroad – he accepted various fellowships and teaching positions in France, Germany and the United States. But he was also an avid traveller and art lover, who literally wore out his shoes: Italy was probably the country of his heart, but he almost equally loved and missed Greece. Foreign travels were not obvious to a citizen of a communist country, and a number of times Herbert had to go through humiliating interrogations by the Polish secret services. He never informed and does not seem to have blabbed about anything that might have helped to persecute any of his friends in Poland or abroad. In the late 50s, he distanced himself from ‘the revisionists’– he had never been charmed by communism and said that he had nothing to revise. It was only in the late 70s that Herbert did actively participate in the anti-communist opposition. He never believed in ‘socialism with a human face’. This was partly due to his uncompromising and intransigent character. Unfortunately, this streak in his nature exacerbated in his later years.


Herbert suffered from bipolar disease, which became more severe after he had crossed ‘the shadow line’. Franaszek reveals a curiously sad relationship between ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ in the poet’s personality: As a young man, Herbert was a jocular and jovial, an eternally immature Peter Pan. He was also volatile, capricious, at times helpless, but also capable to take advantage of his charms (especially when his victims were affectionate and devoted young women). He could go over the top in rambunctious merry-making; after such episodes, he often sent stylish and charming apologies. However, in later life, his excessive behaviour would often take a darker turn: He drank heavily and turned violent when under the influence. In a fit of rage and reproach he ruined friendships (as he did in his infamous dispute with Miłosz in Berkeley), lost job opportunities and offend people who meant a lot to him. Blinded by rage, he would see no middle tones, he would speak in a persecutory one. Only rarely would his companions realise that his tirades and uncontrollable behaviour could partly be blamed on his ailment. From the late 60s, Herbert went through long bouts of depression and even more terrifying manic periods. During his ‘highs’ he went out of control, wreaking havoc in his personal and professional life. He was intermittently hospitalized and treated with lithium, but he was not the best of patients: He feared that strong medications would leave him numb, deprived of his imaginative power.


Franaszek’s book is a great achievement: With the sheer bulk of its research, it adds a lot to what we had known about Herbert’s life. The author is impartial and reluctant to judge, presenting us with various facts and opinions to put together. This strategy is particularly efficient when applied to the most controversial aspects of Herbert’s life, such as his ‘mythologizing’ of his past and the furious attacks of his late years, when the poet fell victim to his right-wing passions, exacerbated by the disease. However, at times, Franaszek’s impartiality seems insufficient. Giving the account of the poet’s numerous romances and love affairs, Franaszek also attempts to assume an ‘objective’ reporter’s stand. He rightly avoids moralising, he does not judge Herbert for his unfaithfulness or for his simultaneous or ‘parallel’ love affairs. However, he sometimes seems to fall short of appreciating the depth or importance of Herbert’s passions and relationships with women. The poet was usually not ‘the more loving one’ and persevered in unequal relationships, meagrely feeding his lovers’ illusions and thriving on their affections. He was indeed a boyish man, in need of being taken care of, rather than a charming prince, defending the mistress of his heart. The biographer seems to underestimate the weight of hardly graspable emotions. However, he rightly admits that the crooked ways of human heart are beyond explanation; and there are things that make sense only in the lovers’ secret tongue.

Anna Arno