Zbigniew Herbert and the Notion of Virtue

Part of the Studies in Russia and East Europe book series (SREE)


The aim of this essay is, first and foremost, to undertake a close reading of Zbigniew Herbert’s Pan Cogito o cnocie (Mr. Cogito on Virtue), a poem originally written in the 1970s and included in the poet’s perhaps most widely read and discussed collection, his 1983 Raport z oblężonego miasta i inne wiersze1 (published in 1985 in John and Bogdana Carpenter’s English translation as Report from the Besieged City and Other Poems). I have already attempted to analyse this poem in my 1984 book on Herbert Uciekinier Utopii (published in English in 1987 as A Fugitive from Utopia).2 Due to limits of space, however, that analysis was unavoidably sketchy and compressed; it also constituted not much more than just a link in an extended argument on Herbert’s overall ethical system. It seems to me now that the poem, and particularly its specific kind of ironic rhetoric, deserves more undivided attention. Moreover, during the seven years that have passed since the completion of my book, numerous pieces of corroborative information have emerged (including Herbert’s famous or, shall we say, notorious interview given to Jacek Trznadel)3 which shed additional light on the weighty issues raised by this particular poem. As time goes by, Mr. Cogito on Virtue appears more and more convincingly a poem that should be put on equal footing with such better known masterpieces as Elegy of Fortinbras or The Envoy of Mr. Cogito.


Feminine Gender Literary Image Christian Ethic Implied Reader Undivided Attention 
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  1. 2.
    Stanisław Barańczak, Uciekinier z Utopii: O poezji Zbigniewa Herberta, London, 1984, pp. 122–123;Google Scholar
  2. 2a.
    Stanislaw Baranczak, A Fugitive from Utopia: The Poetry of Zbigniew Herbert, Cambridge, Mass. and London, 1987, pp. 128–30.Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    See: D. C. Muecke, The Compass of Irony, London, 1969, p. 54.Google Scholar
  4. 4a.
    Comp. also: Wayne C. Booth, A Rhetoric of Irony, Chicago, 1974;Google Scholar
  5. 4b.
    S. J. E. Dikkers, Ironie als vorm van communicatie, Den Haag, 1969.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy, New York, 1972, p. 178.Google Scholar
  7. 8.
    Henryk Elzenberg, ‘Brutus czyli przekleństwo cnoty,’ in his Próby kontaktu, Cracow, 1966.Google Scholar
  8. 9.
    Krystyna Nastulanka (interv.), ‘Jeśli masz dwie drogi … Rozmowa ze Zbigniewem Herbertem’, Polityka, No. 9, Warsaw, 1972.Google Scholar

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© School of Slavonic and East European Studies 1992

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