Category Archive 'Zbigniew Herbert'

09 Sep 2021

Why the Classics


Why the Classics
by Zbigniew Herbert

in the fourth book of the Peloponnesian War
Thucydides tells among other things
the story of his unsuccessful expedition

among long speeches of chiefs
battles sieges plague
dense net of intrigues of diplomatic endeavours
the episode is like a pin
in a forest

the Greek colony Amphipolis
fell into the hands of Brasidos
because Thucydides was late with relief

for this he paid his native city
with lifelong exile

exiles of all times
know what price that is

generals of the most recent wars
if a similar affair happens to them
whine on their knees before posterity
praise their heroism and innocence

they accuse their subordinates
envious collegues
unfavourable winds

Thucydides says only
that he had seven ships
it was winter
and he sailed quickly

if art for its subject
will have a broken jar
a small broken soul
with a great self-pity

what will remain after us
will it be lovers’ weeping
in a small dirty hotel
when wall-paper dawns

Translated by Peter Dale Scott and Czeslaw Milosz.

13 Nov 2017




First there was a god of night and tempest, a black idol without eyes, before whom they leaped, naked and smeared with blood. Later on, in the times of the republic, there were many gods with wives, children, creaking beds, and harmlessly exploding thunderbolts. At the end only superstitious neurotics carried in their pockets little statues of salt, representing the god of irony. There was no greater god at that time.

Then came the barbarians. They too valued highly the little god of irony. They would crush it under their heels and add it to their dishes.

–Zbigniew Herbert

08 Aug 2007




In Utica
the citizens
don’t want to put up a defense

in the city an epidemic broke out
of an instinct of self-preservation

the temple of freedom
has been turned into a flea market

the senate deliberates on how
not to be a senate

the citizens
don’t want to put up a defense
they enroll in accelerated courses
in falling to their knees

passively they wait for the enemy
write servile speeches
bury their gold

they sew new flags
innocent and white
teach children to lie

they’ve opened the gates
hrough which a column of sand is now passing

apart from that as usual
commerce and copulation

Mr Cogito
would like to rise
to the occasion

that is
look fate
straight in the eye

like Cato the Younger
see Plutarch’s Lives

he does not have a sword
or an opportunity
to send his family overseas

so he waits with the others
pacing an insomniac room

despite the Stoics’ advice
he’d like to have a body
of diamond and wings

he watches from the window
as the sun of the Republic
sinks toward the West

not much is left to him
really only
the choice of attitude
in which he wishes to die
the choice of a gesture
the choice of a last word

so he does not go to bed
to avoid
being throttled in his sleep

he would like to rise
to the occasion fully

fate looks him in the eye
in a place where he once
had a head

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