Friday, November 15, 2019

The Envoy of Mr. Cogito

The Envoy of Mr. Cogito

Zbigniew Herbert
(Translated by John Carpenter & Bogdana Carpenter)

 Go where those others went to the dark boundary
for the golden fleece of nothingness your last prize

go upright among those who are on their knees
among those with their backs turned and those toppled in the dust

you were saved not in order to live
you have little time you must give testimony

be courageous when the mind deceives you be courageous
in the final account only this is important

and let your helpless Anger be like the sea
whenever your hear the voice of the insulted and beaten

let you sister Scorn not leave you
for the informers executioners cowards - they will win
they will go to your funeral with relief will throw a lump of earth
the woodborer will write your smoothed-over biography

and do not forgive truly it is not in your power
to forgive in the name of those betrayed at dawn

beware however of unnecessary pride
keep looking at your clown's face in the mirror
repeat: I was called - weren't there better ones than I

beware of dryness of heart love the morning spring
the bird with an unknown name the winter oak
light on a wall the splendour of the sky
they don't need your warm breath
they are there to say: no one will console you

be vigilant - when the light on the mountains gives the sign- arise and go
as long as blood turns in the breast your dark star

repeat old incantations of humanity fables and legends
because this is how you will attain the good you will not attain
repeat great words repeat them stubbornly
like those crossing the desert who perished in the sand

and they will reward you with what they have at hand
with the whip of laughter with murder on a garbage heap

go because only in this way you will be admitted to the company of cold skulls
to the company of your ancestors: Gilgamesh Hector Roland
the defenders of the kingdom without limit and the city of ashes

Be faithful Go

 The poem posted above is a profound one, almost an ethical manifesto, by Zbigniew Herbert(1924-1998) ,one of the most original and memorable Polish poets of last century. Mr. Cogito is his ironic alter ego, an imaginary character that the poet has employed in many of his poems to voice truths too painful or difficult to say aloud. There are circumstances in our lives when others try to dwarf us, stifle our voice, and puncture our stature when we strive to make a righteous living. The poem is addressed to those who dare to be different, for whom courage entailing defeat is not an act of cowardice.

 In this poem, the poet appears to be looking back on his life in Poland during the long years of war and repression (under soviet occupation). Here,  Mr. Cogito seems to stagger slightly as he walks in the world, a world in crippled condition, full of contradictions. An envoy is a messenger and here the voice of the envoy to Mr Cogito is the  voice of Herbert  as the poet himself never ever compromised his principles till his death.  His tone is sardonic and yet simple and humorous. His message has stoic appeal and moral equilibrium.

 The poem starts with something that is so difficult to grasp-“golden fleece of nothingness your last prize”. Possibly, the concept of a heaven where eternal rivers flow and young houris wait on seems so much more easier to understand. Every exhortation of Herbert in this poem is immediately countered by a sharply contrasted, merciless warning; his conviction of the unconditional obligation to remain 'faithful' to the heritage of moral values and to retain an 'upright attitude' clashes constantly with his conviction of the equally unconditional inevitability of physical defeat ('company of cold skulls' and 'with murder on a garbage heap'). Thus the poem while emphasizing the ultimate futility of 'upright attitude', it paradoxically leaves intact the strength of the final call 'to be faithful' to the very same attitude.

 From a point of rhetoric, the poem may sound absurd as it encourages only to immediately discourage, points out an obligation only to warn that its fulfillment would mean ridicule, defeat and annihilation. If there is a key to this apparent contradiction, it is hidden in the sentence 'you were saved not in order to live'. Survival and salvation are by no means equal. Even though the latter is undoubtedly more important, this fact does not mean that the question of physical survival can be dismissed or forgotten: on the contrary, those who are aware of danger can be heroic. Thus Mr. Cogito is a solitary hero: the cost of his refusal to surrender is that he must accept the prospect that his isolated attitudes and actions will meet inexorable defeat.

The ending word 'Go' has the ring of a stern command of our valiant forefathers.

If a poem can be termed great in its virginal sense, this is one .

 PS: Please note that the poet had total disregard for Comma, Semi-colon, dash etc and hence you should read and perhaps re-read this poem slowly to grasp its import.


Report from the Besieged City: Zbigniew Herbert (Author), John Carpenter (Translator), Bogdana Carpenter (Translator)

 The poetry of Zbigniew Herbert by Stanislaw Baranczak

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