Zbigniew Herbert
Back to Table of Contents >

Zbigniew Herbert’s life has been veiled by the poet’s own reticence, his classical detachment. He has also provided often conflicting, if not openly mystifying, versions of his biography. The highly selective ‘official’ narratives of his life correspond with the role he assumed and enjoyed playing – that of the cicerone in the age of moral chaos, the moral conscience, the nation’s spokesman, the witness to history. If you traffic, as he did, in the biggest names, with Roland and Gilgamesh, if your partners are Hamlet and Plutarch, how can you address matters so trivial as your secret love affairs? Or your struggle with alcoholism and deepening depression? Or a family history which includes a collaborator eliminated by the Polish resistance? I know, these three areas of private life cannot be compared, or perhaps should not even be put side by side. They are of different calibre. And yet they share one thing: Herbert’s unwillingness to address them in his poetry or public pronouncements. But what is silenced, inevitably reemerges, and when it does, becomes disproportionately foregrounded, drawing greater attention than it actually deserves.

It was to be expected that, after the poet’s death in July 1998, biographies would dig into the poet’s private life, bringing to light sensational personal material. And indeed, sensation marked Joanna Siedlecka’s Pan od poezji (The Poetry Teacher, 2002, second edition 2019), and Andrzej Franaszek’s Herbert, the recently published monumental work. Both biographers, though differing in their approach to the subject, deal extensively with the poet’s strictly guarded private life, providing us with much hitherto unknown information, specifically on the three above-mentioned areas: his war years, love affairs, and mental condition. Even if some of their discoveries create primarily voyeuristic excitement, the biographers have good reasons to uncover Herbert’s hidden history. One of them is the poet’s emotional detachment so characteristic of his poetry. Many of his friends recall their disenchantment when they first read Herbert’s poems and found them ‘cold’. It is debatable whether Herbert’s poems are all, or even mostly, ‘cold’. Yet this is how they were often perceived by those who knew Herbert personally. Among his poems, at least the canonical ones, love lyrics are exceptions, as if this theme, without which poetry is simply unthinkable, lay beyond the poet’s horizon. Perhaps he carefully avoided it, just as he remained silent (up till his last collection) about his native city of Lvov, which he had to leave in 1944, as a twenty-year old man, never visiting it afterwards. If Lvov was his love, his loves were his Lvovs – always present, but hardly commented upon.

A year after Herbert’s death, a collection of poems, Podwójny oddech (Double Breath), was published by a small, unknown publishing house in the Baltic city of Gdynia. The book caused a scandal. It was published without the permission, or knowledge, of copyright owners and Herbert’s family. These poems, written between September and December 1950, were, surprisingly for Herbert, love poems throughout. The poet composed, and dedicated them to his then lover, Halina Misiołek, almost ten years Herbert’s senior, with whom he had had a long-lasting affair, despite her being married and having two daughters. The secretary of the Polish Writers’ Union, Misiołek remained in contact with Herbert till the end of his life. A rich collection of their letters exists, documenting their romance from over half a century ago, as well as their relationship which continued after the affair ended. These letters leave no doubt as to the couple’s emotional involvement, despite the difference in age and intellectual background. The two would go on meeting secretly. There might have been an unplanned pregnancy which they possibly decided to terminate. The echo of the child that might have been born to the poet can be heard in two unpublished Herbert poems, quoted by Franaszek. Because of her romance with Herbert, Misiołek separated from her husband and planned to live with Zbigniew, only to learn in 1957 that the poet had fallen in love with someone else. Double Breath was a cycle of poems which Herbert  described as ‘my second book of poems, which being too personal are not intended for publication’. There are two manuscripts of the collection, one of which Herbert gave to Misiołek. He kept a copy for himself. The book of these juvenile love-poems, published posthumously and without authorisation, after a legal battle with the Estate, was quickly withdrawn, its copies destroyed, and its publisher ending up bankrupt. However, a couple of years later, when Ryszard Krynicki, poet, publisher and Herbert’s friend (see Herbert’s ‘To Ryszard Krynicki – A Letter’), edited a volume of Uncollected Poems (2010), the love-poems dedicated to Misiołek were reprinted – this time with the blessing of Katarzyna, Herbert’s widow. The publisher seemed obliged to justify his decision: in a note, he shares his doubt as to the rightness of publishing the poems which the poet did not intend to print, and claims that the intention was to correct the mistakes in the earlier, unauthorized Gdynia edition.

As both biographers document, Misiołek was not the only woman with whom Herbert was emotionally involved. His lovers included an Austrian actress (to whom he dedicated ‘Why the Classics’ with a famous image of wall-paper dawning in a small dirty hotel), a Polish painter, an author of bestselling novels for young adults, his German friend’s teenage daughter, and even, under his wife Katarzyna’s nose, his sister-in-law, the one affair Franaszek passes over. If we are to believe Siedlecka’s informants, shortly before his death he was planning (but how seriously, we will never know) to move to Venice with a young nurse Dorota with whom he claimed to have fallen in love. In the eyes of his contemporaries he had a seductive appeal. Impeccably dressed, he was charming and witty, gallant and full of good manners. Always ready to flirt, Herbert never intended to get married, nor start any long-lasting relationship. He envisaged for himself an independent life devoted to his interests in arts and literature. Then there were fairly regular drinking bouts with his chums. Significantly, even when married, he preferred travelling on his own and visiting museums without companions. What made him change his mind about marriage – so swiftly arranged in Paris in March 1968 that people suspected the bride to be pregnant, which she was not – was his growing illness, the fits of depression and drunkenness, which more and more often invalided him. Herbert realised he would not survive without a permanent partner: he needed someone at his side who would look after him and take care of his affairs. And that is what Katarzyna did. Aware of his infidelities, she was his nurse, his driver, his purveyor. In an act of historical redress, after the poet’s death Katarzyna became the custodian of her husband’s work, granting and refusing permissions, giving interviews, directing, if only formally, the Zbigniew Herbert Foundation, which grants annual awards for the achievements in international poetry. (The winners so far include W S Merwin, Ryszard Krynicki, Charles Simic, Lars Gustafsson, Breyten Breytenbach, Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill and Agi Miszol.) This is all predictable – however, Herbert became a focus of contention for the two warring camps in Poland, so her management of the poet’s affairs necessarily had to engage in current political struggles.

Towards the end of his life, Herbert detached himself from many of his former allies, often in a nasty, offensive way. He radicalised his political views: his public pronouncements became more explicitly right-wing, nationalist, anti-Communist. He stopped publishing in liberal journals. Polish nationalist and Catholic circles quickly embraced the poet as their ally. Herbert’s former dissident friends of the liberal and leftist denominations (I’m aware of the simplification that goes with such labels) in their turn attributed Herbert’s political stance to what they defined as his mental instability. Katarzyna associated herself with the liberals, giving her blessing to all initiatives intended to keep Herbert away from any links with the conservative, nationalist right. The two biographies serve as a testimony to this dualistic split in Herbert’s posthumous life and reception.

Siedlecka’s book is the more partisan of the two, including chapters, added to the second edition, which openly attack Katarzyna Herbert’s handling of her husband’s affairs, accusing her of censoring publications, falsifying Herbert’s legacy, apologising for the poet’s behavior in the last years of his life, and, finally, signing his books at book fairs. Siedlecka’s readiness to discuss Herbert’s many love affairs is also an attempt to humiliate Katarzyna by showing that she never was Herbert’s true partner. Siedlecka argues that Herbert’s associations with the right cannot be explained by his depression: by seeing these alignments as consequences of Herbert’s mental instability, his opponents belittle the significance of Herbert’s later political involvement. We cannot talk, she claims, of late or early Herbert, because his political and moral stance remained essentially the same.

Siedlecka devotes much space to those she considers Herbert’s antagonists, particularly – and surprisingly to some – Czesław Miłosz, who in her opinion, despite having contributed to Herbert’s career in America, later worked hard to cast doubt on Herbert’s sanity and moral integrity. One of the crucial episodes in Herbert’s life, which the two biographers diligently describe, is his quarrel with Miłosz in Berkeley, in July 1968. I wrote about the quarrel at length here, in Arete, so now I will only briefly recapitulate. The two poets, with a history of a ten-year friendship, were at each other’s throats, discussing recent Polish history and, particularly, the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. The Uprising, to Herbert, was the moment of national heroism. To Miłosz – an example of political idiocy. When on the warm summer night in Berkeley the two poets got heavily drunk, Miłosz provocatively said that for a nation so deprived of sense, it would be better to be under the Soviet rule. Herbert reacted, in the most unparliamentary language, by accusing Miłosz of cowardice during the war and of conformism under Stalinism (Miłosz, for a while, worked a diplomat in Stalinist Poland). He also suggested that Miłosz’s critical view of the Uprising was a manifestation of his resentment towards those who had risked their lives – while he stayed behind, did not join the resistance movement, and lived safely in occupied Poland on a Lithuanian passport.

The story of the quarrel turned into a full-blown drama, and had its subsequent chapters, with Miłosz depicting Herbert almost as (in Herbert’s opinion), a fascist in his memoirs A Year of the Hunter. Herbert responded with a vitriolic anti-Miłosz poem ‘Khodasevich’, which ridiculed his former friend’s cosmopolitanism and political mimicry (‘let’s say he was a hybrid a bit of everything mixed in / spirit and flesh up and down now Marxist now Catholic’). The two poets finally reconciled, if we are to trust Miłosz, during a phone conversation, shortly before Herbert’s death. The quarrel, soon infamous, was one of the turning points in Herbert’s life. In the eyes of some, including Miłosz, Herbert revealed his deeply-rooted nationalistic inclinations, the effect of which was that the poet started losing support of his former allies. In Miłosz’s life the quarrel did not change anything – an unpleasant episode worth a brief mention in his biography.

There were obvious political differences between them. Miłosz was a cosmopolitan figure, seeing greatest danger in the upsurge of nationalism. Herbert, despite his multicultural origin – Polish, Armenian, Austrian, English – was closer to nationalist movements. Herbert might have admired classicist poise, prefer emotional detachment and impersonality in arts, but in his ethics he was a romantic, praising the virtues of heroism and singing of great men of the past. His moral stance was ‘no compromise’, with no place for relativism, the Biblical yes-yes, no-no, the language of the knocker from his poem of the same title. Grey was not his colour, the world being black or white. He would say that an intellectual who faces a choice between lesser and larger evils, should choose loneliness.

After the quarrel with Miłosz, there came another event which shocked Herbert’s supporters and polarised public response to him. During martial law in Poland, Jacek Trznadel, professor at Warsaw University, conducted a series of long interviews with Polish writers, mostly the ones who under Stalinism were actively supporting the system, but had since become dissidents. Among the authors was Herbert, whose biography did not include instances of collaboration. Herbert makes it a leitmotif of his talk, his life serving as a proof that you did not have to collaborate with the regime, because there were alternatives. What was needed was neither heroism, nor courage, but moral integrity (or, as the title of one of his poems calls it, ‘the power of taste’). He goes further than this: answering Trznadel’s questions, Herbert launches an uncompromising critique of his fellow writers, some of them his good friends, claiming that the reason for them joining the Stalinist ranks was not ideological infatuation, ‘the Hegelian bite’, nor even fear of one’s life, but sheer conformism, desire for the advantages with which the Party bribed its supporters. Herbert fashions himself as the only righteous soul. He deals out blows to everyone, ignoring individual circumstances, denying the possibility of true ideological engagement and paying no respect to those people’s later conversion and their contribution to the dismantling of the system. By giving this interview, which alienated even his closest friends, Herbert, a solitary defender of absolute truth, excluded himself from the literary milieu and found himself subject to social ostracism.

The interview inspired a backlash against the implacable Herbert. The story of his critical reception entered the stage of revisionism. Critics and historians started examining the poet’s supposed sainthood, verifying his versions of his war and post-war years. First, Herbert’s claim that he took part in the resistance was refuted – there are no documents that would support it. With his lame leg, an effect of a skiing accident before the war, Herbert might not have been seen as useful in military acts organised by resistance movement. He did not take any verifiable part in anti-Nazi, or anti-Soviet conspiracy: he was not involved in acts of small sabotage, underground press, intelligence, clandestine teaching. His active opposition against occupants was a myth. It is true that he did not support the Communist regime – he did not write poems celebrating Stalin, as did many of his colleagues whom he castigated in the Trznadel interview. It is also true that he spent the Stalinist years doing menial jobs, far from being pampered by the regime. And yet, he did work for a journal run by Catholic collaborators and published a cycle of poems in a Stalinist anthology.

Reactions to the Trznadel interview also took a different form. Questions were raised about Herbert’s limited responsibility for the vindictive tone he adopted in the interview. Siedlecka will have none of it. She claims that the poet was in full control of what he was saying. Admittedly, there is continuity between Herbert’s earlier dispute with Miłosz in 1968 and the Trznadel interview of 1985 – there is no understanding in Herbert for those who failed in the time of trial. ‘And do not forgive in truth it is not in your power / to forgive in the name of those betrayed at dawn’ – writes Herbert in one of his most famous poems, ‘The Envoy of Mr Cogito’.

Yet, Franaszek reminds us, Herbert’s attack can be seen in the context of his numerous outbursts of unprovoked aggression, which could turn against the poet himself. Herbert started writing to his translators and editors offensive letters, accusing them of defrauding his royalties. He accused one of his Polish publishers of pirating his work – the publisher’s attempt to explain that the poet he recently published was George, not Zbigniew Herbert, was to no avail. When the curator of Beinecke Library, Vincent Giroud, visited Herbert in Paris to purchase the poet’s archives, he physically assaulted him, pushing him down the stairs. He broke his long-time friendships with people who, like Al Alvarez, took pains to promote his work and help him when the poet was in need. When the black monster of paranoia overcame Herbert, even his closest allies turned into foes.

One further event contributed to the growing conflict between Herbert and the liberal camp that once supported him. Herbert had long been considered candidate for the Nobel prize. If one can trust Stockholm leaks, he was very close to winning it. In 1980 the Nobel went to Miłosz, an expatriate Pole, and then, when it was expected that if another Polish poet gets it, it would be Herbert, the prize went to Wisława Szymborska, to the surprise of many. Franaszek suggests that Herbert stopped being considered candidate, when news spread about the poet’s mental problems and his frequent periods of hospitalisation. He quotes one of Miłosz’s letters: ‘Objectively considered, it is Herbert who deserved the Nobel, but I don’t think he was considered due to his stays in psychiatric clinics. The Swedes are afraid of it’ [672]. Siedlecka, for her part, is ready to see the Nobel affair as the revenge of all those who fell out of Herbert’s favour and could not share his new political alliances. She goes as far as saying that it was Miłosz who conspired against Herbert, disseminating news of his former friend’s madness, and even after the poet’s death, insinuating that he might have had some secret dealings with the security forces in Communist Poland, considering his frequent journeys abroad (there is no evidence for it). To new supporters of Herbert, Szymborska’s Nobel was a blow to Herbert, a proof that the uncomfortable, uncompromising poet was persecuted by his political opponents. Herbert himself reacted to the news in a way uncharacteristic of his stoic, classical demeanour. He sent a formal telegramme to Szymborska, which one could hardly call elaborate: ‘Congratulations, Zbigniew Herbert.’ At the same time, he asked Katarzyna to send in his name a message to Tadeusz Różewicz: ‘My deepest condolences on the occasion of a scandalous verdict of the Swedish Academy.’ In the poet’s archive Franaszek discovered Herbert’s caricature depicting Szymborska skiing, with brooms instead of ski sticks, accompanied by a caption: ‘Swedish combination.’

Herbert who once seemed to have been the spokesman of his tribe, an unacknowledged legislator, whose poems were on the lips of many in the times of hardship, started to divide and antagonise. His reception in Poland reflects the deep divisions within the country itself, though it would be equally accurate to say that these divisions which run across Polish history are reflected in the poet’s life and work. If Miłosz, Szymborska or Zagajewski have their well-defined places in the literary, social and political landscape in Poland (liberal, left-to-centre, pro-European, internationalist), the same cannot be said of Herbert – his place is doubled and ambiguous. At a risk of simplification for the sake of polemical clarity, one could say that there are two Herberts – one portrayed by Siedlecka, the other by Franaszek. One is a nationalist patriot and moral fundamentalist; the other – a poet of irony, scepticism, detachment. One is an heir of Polish romantic heroes; the other, a Hyperborean, Atlas of Civilization (as Heaney called him), ‘a barbarian in the garden’. Whether this split is permanent, or will pass with the rearrangement into the Polish political scene, it is impossible to say now. It had its counterpart in the English-speaking world, when new translations of the poet’s work by Alissa Valles appeared, replacing the widely praised translations by John and Bogdana Carpenter. The reason for this change is an echo of the conflicts in Poland.

The poet’s two biographies illustrate the Herbert war that we have been witnessing for many years now. Franaszek’s book, judicious, nuanced and analytical, was published by one of the leading Polish publishing houses in Cracow. A two-volume work, it is based on thorough research – of special value are numerous long fragments quoted generously from Herbert’s hitherto unknown correspondence, diaries, notebooks, and uncollected or unfinished works. Siedlecka’s biography is a journalist’s work, based mostly on interviews she had conducted with people who knew or claim to have known Herbert. Franaszek writes with Herbert’s widow’s blessing, Siedlecka against and in spite of her. When Franaszek’s Herbert came out last year, a few months later Siedlecka’s work was republished in an expanded edition with six new chapters, with an evident intention to counteract the impact of the other biography. In her book Siedlecka takes a clear political stand, which Franaszek, not a journalist, but an experienced literary critic, tries to avoid. His Herbert offers a balanced portrayal of a tormented man, persecuted by the monsters of addiction and depression, a man leading a chaotic and nomadic life, changing places, lovers, friends, and at the same time writing classically ordered verse, pursuing moral imperatives, a man who became ‘a hostage of his own morality’ [598].

The first volume of Franaszek’s biography is called Niepokój (Anxiety), a risky thing to do, as it is the title of Tadeusz Różewicz’s debut collection of 1947 (Różewicz, who thought of Herbert as his plagiarist, was certainly not his friend). The photograph on the cover shows, as Alvarez put it, ‘a penguin with Tintin’s hair’, the young Herbert of 1956, with an disorderly mop, looking at us with a mischievous smile on his face in a direct contrast to the meaning of the volume’s title. Maybe this is the true face of Herbert’s anxiety – without histrionic gestures or dramatic poses, slightly grotesque and mischievous, as befits Tintin who will soon start conversing with Roland and Gilgamesh.

 


'Arete is a journal as exquisite in its execution as in its intentions.'
John Updike

'Vous m’avez donné un grand plaisir … votre revue m’est très sympathique et proche.'
Milan Kundera