Book Review : Polish Poet Takes a Tour Through European Heritage

Times Book Critic

Barbarian in the Garden by Zbigniew Herbert, translated from the Polish by Michael March and Jaroslaw Anders (Carcanet: $14.95)

With Zbigniew Herbert, we are the regular summer residents, sprawled indolently across the beach, when a first-time inlander comes pounding down the sand and splashes in with a whoop of discovery that makes us regard the sea as if we too had never seen it before.

He is one of Poland’s foremost poets. In the late 1950s, the fits and starts of post-Stalinism allowed him, clutching his father’s 1909 Academic Touring Guide, to make his first trip to France and Italy.

“Barbarian in the Garden” is his title for this collection of essays, written 25 years ago and published now in a translation that catches every bit of the original excitement. As this uncaged Pole hurls himself about Siena, laments the eclipse of Provencal civilization, confronts the cave paintings at Lascaux, wilts in the stupefying heat of noon before the cathedral at Orvieto and re-argues the proscription on the Knights Templar by Philip the Fair, we realize how aptly he has chosen his title.

Porous and Malleable Goth

Herbert is clearly no Vandal or Hun. He is one of the porous and malleable Goths, whose overrunning of Rome ended with themselves overrun. It was as if their hunger was not so much to possess as to be possessed by the tired Greco-Roman civilization; and their hunger made it new, until eventually it made them old.


After the deep-freeze of Eastern Europe in the ‘50s, Herbert encounters the Mediterranean with the transfiguring shock traditionally experienced by travelers from the north. It is the shock--Goethe felt it, and so did Shelley--of finding that the history of Western culture is his own.

He will concentrate on the principal object of each visit, but his eye leaves nothing unremarked. Visiting Lascaux, he tells us just what it is like to eat a French omelette, and digresses briefly on truffles--whose smell, he perversely decides, is like mignonette.

Then, facing the paintings, his most essential avidity comes out: to imagine how people in all time have lived and transcended themselves. Cro-Magnon man positioned himself along the annual migration trails of the game hordes; this annual migration was the same kind of fertile miracle, he writes, as the yearly flooding of the Nile was to the Egyptians.

In Orvieto he compares the paintings of Luca Signorelli in the cathedral with those of his master, Piero Della Francesca. In Arezzo, Piero “enscribed a transparent world permeated with light. Signorelli prefers sharp accents, chiaroscuro, and volume to the space of sifted planes. The light comes from the outside. Objects and men are vessels of darkness.”

It splendidly distinguishes the gnarled Signorelli. And even more splendidly, he describes Italy’s high noon: “The shades are drawn; the town is asleep. The slow breathing of stones rises and sinks under the plaster. Cats sleep on low walls. When touched, they open their eyes, their narrow pupils marking the tranquil noon like the hands of a stopped watch.”

He invades Siena, following his prescription for exploring: straight for three blocks, then left for another three, then right, in a kind of sickle pattern that eventually reaps the town. He recounts the bloody history of the place, meditates on the relation of beauty and suffering. He is stunned by the Duccios in the Museo dell’Opere, and takes up Sienese purity against Florentine lavishness.

But he is our traveler too. After too much concentration, he flees the museum, cursing art and sunshine, both literal and figurative, and seeks refuge in a restaurant. Lunch time is Italy’s shade. By fleeing he has missed the extraordinary Matteo de Giovanni on the top floor. Herbert is not a Baedeker, he is our sunstruck brother; capable of an ecstatic phrase one moment, a sardonic one the next.

The Siena Pinturicchios, he writes, “remain in perfect condition through the neglect of restorers.”

Through his inspired wandering we see the clouds of his need. He is fascinated by lost causes. At Arles he considers the Provencal state that never found permanent political expression, even though its culture and language at one time led Europe. Dante, it is said, planned at one point to write “The Divine Comedy” in Occitan. “But this ‘eternal preface’ (not only to Italy but also to Spain) shared the fate of all lands lying on the crossroads. It was too weak to resist its neighbors.”

It is the Polish traveler, seeking companionship and instruction for the harsh fate of his own country. He takes up the cause of the Templars, crushed by King Philip, who accused them of perverting religion and engaging in unspeakable practices. Historians have debated the actual meaning of Templar rites but Herbert, detailing the tortures used to get the confessions, writes: “The defense set forth a more modest task: examination of the tools.”

Examination of the tools. Human civilization is an endless wonder to the Polish poet, but human oppression is dreadfully simple. The simplicities are never far from his mind as he nourishes himself with the splendors of our past; his hunger restores them to us.