Zbigniew Herbert (1924 - 1998), poet, essayist, and dramatist for theater and radio, was born in Lwow, and got most of his secondary and university education through the underground courses that had already become a practiced Polish tradition a century before the Nazi takeover.
Serving in the underground Home Army, he later studied art and philosophy and received degrees in economics and law. Though a few poems appeared in 1950, he managed to wait out the Stalinist period of obligatory "socialist realism" before contributing to the highly respected semi-independent weekly, Tygodnik Powszechny, and to domestic and émigré literary monthlies.
Only after the thaw of 1956 was his first book of poems published, and he began traveling widely, with a one-year visiting professorship in Los Angeles in 1970-71. In 1975 he signed a major open letter protesting ominous changes to the Polish Constitution, which led to additional longer sojourns abroad. During the first Solidarity period in 1981 he joined the editorial board of the literary journal Zapis ("Censored"), co-founded in 1976 by Adam Zagajewski and others as a clandestine venue for works banned by the Communist authorities.
Herbert is a metaphysical poet who questions the meaning of existence in the face of totalitarianism, violence, the cynical march of history, and death, but takes - and offers - comfort in the broader context of a history that embraces such reassuring constants as Socrates and Marcus Aurelius. Herbert has a genius for blending pathos with irony, for presenting great metaphors through the poetry of everyday speech.
A writer also of plays, and of many essays on the Mediterranean roots of European culture, Herbert is perhaps most widely associated with his book of poems called Mr. Cogito and subsequent collections that frequently feature this heir of the Enlightenment, a quintessentially critical, rational person, who struggles to address problems of our times only to realize that they do not easily lend themselves to rational solutions. Report from the Besieged City, a collection published clandestinely in 1983, struck an exceptionally deep chord among Poles under martial law following the crackdown on Solidarity. One of its poems, incidentally, The Monster of Mr. Cogito, which evokes an enemy that is foggy, suffocating, ill-defined, and thus hard to fight, was discovered by admirers of Herbert in New York City, in the days following September 11, to have an uncanny relevance, though written 20 years earlier, to invisible terrorists and the pall over Ground Zero.