May 1958 − April 1960: First Journey to the West

In May 1958, with a hundred dollar stipend from the Ministry of Culture, Herbert travelled to Paris via Vienna. He got acquainted with the milieu of the Paris based «Kultura» [Polish for “Culture”, sometimes referred to as “Kultura Paryska”], amongst others befriended Czesław Miłosz, Józef Czapski, Konstanty A. Jeleński, and then began his travels through France, visiting Romanesque and Gothic cathedrals. Another new Paris acquaintance, Raymonde van Elsen, helped with existential matters, allowing Herbert to concentrate on making prolific notes and sketches of architectural and art objects. Sketches always played an important part in his literary output.

He visited England from January to March 1959, where he befriended Magdalena and Zbigniew Czajkowski. June and July were taken up by Italy, where amongst others he attended the Festival dei Due Mondi [Festival of Two Worlds] in Spoleto. He made notes and plans to write a work on his fascination with Mediterranean culture, spending a lot of time in Paris at the Bibliotheque Sainte-Genevieve, researching studies on architecture and art. It is then that Karl Dedecius befriended Herbert, and thereafter for many years became the main translator of his works into German, whilst together with Suhrkamp Verlag they became his ‘guardians’ on the German publishing market.

Herbert returned to Poland towards the end of April 1960.

I found quarters near the cathedral. On the Île Saint-Louis. After a few days, having taken advantage of the reduced fares on Sundays, I went to Chartres. Here my fate as a lover of everything Gothic was sealed. From that moment I used every opportunity to realise my insane plan of visiting all the French cathedrals. Naturally the project remains uncompleted, but I managed to see the most important ones: Senlis, Tours, Noyon, Laon, Lyon, Châlon-sur-Marne, Reims Rouen, Beauvais, Amiens, Bourges. After these excursions, I returned to Paris as if from a mountain expedition and dug into books at the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève. Naively I first searched for a formula that would explain the Gothic in its totality, the thing that is at once its construction, symbolism, and metaphysics. But prudent scholars would not provide unequivocal answers.

(Excerpt from Kamień z katedry [A Stone From The Cathedral], an essay from the tome Barbarzyńca w ogrodzie [Barbarian In The Garden])

April 1960 − July 1963: In Poland and short stays abroad

He worked with great intensity on a tome of essays “Barbarzyńca w ogrodzie” [Barbarian in the Garden], the effects of which were quickly apparent. Though several essays appeared in periodicals, a book edition published by Spółdzielnia Wydawnicza Czytelnik [Reader Publishing Co-operative] appeared by December 1962.
In May 1961 Herbert received the Nagroda Pierścienia [Ring Prize] at once designated as Książe Słowa [Prince of the Written Word] conferred by the Radę Naczelną Związku Studentów Polskich [Central Council of the Polish Student’s Union], in recognition of his contribution to Poetry.

Studium przedmiotu [Study of the Object] a tome of poetry appeared in July 1961.

Herbert’s dramatic works were staged for the first time in 1961: (Rekonstrukcja poety, [Reconstruction of a Poet], Jaskinia filozofów [Philosophers Cave] and Drugi pokój [Second Room]), that the poet himself described as “sztuki na głosy” [drama for voices].

In October 1961 he visited Prague at the invitation of the local Writers Union.

Participated in many Authors’ Evenings organized in many cities throughout Poland.

I am presently writing a book of reportages from Italy and France My sketch about Orvieto, who you introduced me to, has appeared in the «Tygodnik Powszechny». I am beginning to miss Siena, Poitiers, Oxford and Montgeron. Jesus, Jesus, what will the future bring. Disarray and surrealism, the hallmarks of our countries daily existence, bloom and flourish, and are probably the most difficult to bear because of it. The atmosphere is such that all creative endeavours are drowned in a sea of incorrigibility. How much better things were in the past, how much easier it was to write. Now the devils have gone to the dogs, aged, and if they still oppress they do so devoid of demonism.

(Excerpt from a letter to Czesław Miłosz, June 8 1960)

I am sitting by lake Serwy in a charming village called Sucha Rezczka [Dried Rivulet]. The weather is inauspicious, Dahlia’s weeping on the headland.
I have travelled the area a little in search of signs of the 1863 insurgents. I have plans to write a booklet, for this was a glorious time, and a very Polish episode. (…) People here are nice, as you oft find in the East, dreamy, feeble. Reminds me of my parts.

(Excerpt from a letter to Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, August 23 1962)

July 1963 − November 1964: second sojourn in the West

Longing to travel, Herbert visited Great Britain in the summer of 1963. He went to many places (mainly in Scotland), in the footsteps of the “Romans beyond Rome”, drew, made notes and noted ideas for future poems. In London he befriended the milieu of polish poets associated with the «Kontynenty» [Continents] periodical, as well as English poets (amongst others Ted Hughe, Sylvia Plath’s former husband).

His father died on November 1, but he learned about it later, as his family did not want to upset his journey plans.

He arrived in Paris in December 1963 to be awarded the Kościelski Prize, which greatly improved his financial position; though, essayist and critic Konstanty A. Jeleński associated with the Kongres Wolności Kultury [Cultural Freedom Congress] proved to be his major benefactor. It was during this stay that the author of Barbarzyńcy w ogrodzie [Barbarians in the Garden] met Witold Gombrowicz (arranged by Olga Scherer).

Benefiting from a reasonably stable financial situation enabled him to visit Italy (July-August 1964), from where he departed on his first voyage to Greece (September-October 1964). The fruits of that expedition, in due course enriched by further study of Greek literature, were essays that make up the main body of a tome published after the author’s death Labirynt nad morzem [Labyrinth On The Sea], as well as Diariusz Grecki [Greek Diary].

I have no plans for the moment; am temporarily living with Jan Darowski (…). At the end of the week I will be moving to Zbigniew Czajkowski at 40. Crowshott Avenue, Stanmore, Middlesex. I intend to go to France in September, though everything depends on the visa and other nightmares.
Above all else I would like to thaw out. London serves me well. There’s a drizzle and a red-headed woman is hanging linen in the front garden.

(Excerpt from a letter to Czesław Miłosz, July 16 1963)

I am once again roving around Europe. Spent six weeks in Italy, mainly on Sicily in search of signs of an odd Norman kingdom, as well as between the Tiber and Arno ex re Etruscans. The town of Volterra, cold, dark and windy, situated amongst bare hills, with a huge hospital for the insane, and a similar prison, made the greatest impression. I walked the trattorias by night and visited graves during the day. Drinking my solitary wine with you.
I will be writing about this, for generous Americans have endowed me well, though I must confess that the profession of guardian of old stones is beginning to weigh heavily upon me.
“A white-winged sea-swimmer” [poet alludes to Odprawa posłów greckich (The Dismissal of the Greek Envoys) by Jan Kochanowski] will soon take me from Brindisi to Piraeus. I only got a visa for five days (Franco refused me), because the king doesn’t like communists. I am not surprised. Poor Zygmunt Kubiak – classical philologist was extradited by the Hellenic UB (Equivalent of Polish Urząd Bezpieczeństwa [Security Service]) within two days of his arrival at the foot of the Acropolis.
To tell you the truth I am somewhat afraid of facing the “Greek miracle.” I am not sure whether it isn’t better to inhabit countries in one’s imagination. And that condition, alien to my nature, of being a tourist who skims on the surface of a reality, not unlike a drop of water on a windowpane. If only women in Italy were easier and one could, if only for a moment, put down roots.
To Paris (if they extend my visa in Athens) I would return at the beginning of October, probably around the sixth. Somewhere around the second I will leave for my beloved Habsburg Vienna (where I am due to talk to the krauts) the road then leads to my inconceivable fatherland.

(Excerpt from a letter to Czesław Miłosz, September 6 1964)

November 1964 − October 1965: In Poland

Summer 1964-1965 turned out to be a watershed with regard to the world’s perception of Herbert’s creativity: A Selection of his poems were published in German, translated by Karl Dedecius (Geichte, Frankfurt-am-Main, Suhrkamp Verlag), whilst the selection of his essays titled Barbarzyńcy w ogrodzie [Barbarians in the Garden] translated by Walter Tiel (Ein Barbar in einen Garten, Frankfurt-am-Main, Suhrkamp Verlag), published in the Spring of 1965, was widely commented in the German press. A selection of his poems also appeared that year in Swedish, translated by Erik Lindegren and Erik Mesterton (I stridsvagnens spar, Stockholm, Bonniers), as well as a selection of 18 poems translated into English by Czesław Miłosz in an anthology of “Post-war Polish Poetry” (New York, Doubleday).

In September 1965 he became Manager of the Foreign Poetry Department in the editorial office of «Poezja» [Poetry Journal] (he resigned the position in 1968 as a sign of solidarity following the dismissal of Artur Międzyrzecki) as well as Literary Manager of the Juliusz Osterwa State Theatre in Gorzów Wielkopolski, run by the married couple Irena and Tadeusz Byrski.

I am sitting in Kazimierz Dolny trying to think something up about the Etruscans. As a matter of fact I am not quite sure whether they existed at all.

(Excerpt from a letter to Jerzy Turowicz, April 1965)

October 1965 − August 1971: Third Sojourn in the West

On October 25, 1965, Herbert received the prestigious Österreichischer Staatpreis für Europäische Literatur [Austrian State Prize for European Literature] and the Internationaler Nikolaus-Lenau-Preis [The International Lenau Prize] in Vienna, for outstanding achievements in lyricism. He remained in Vienna until April 1966, worked intensively (amongst others on the famous poem Dlaczego klasycy [Why the Classics], as well as on the first outlines of the Pan Cogito [Mr Cogito] series), and visited museums. The German press designated him for the Nobel Prize (years later, in a conversation with Mark Oramus he admitted that he himself had been the source of that rumour in order to promote his publishing efforts in the West).

At the turn of May-April 1966 he departed on a short trip to Italy (Bologna), then via Vienna to Germany (Frankfurt-Stuttgart-Cologne-Berlin-Hamburg), and then in mid-June travelled to France, where he settled in the Parisian suburb of Antony, and befriended Aleksander Wat. July 1966 found him in Provence and August in Bretagne. He wrote little during those long months – French doctors diagnosed the onset of a bipolar disorder; friend and poet Andreé Frenaud proved a great help at that time.

Recovered, he resumed his travels in the Spring of 1967. June in Provence (including meetings with the Miłosz family), then England (June-August 1967), where he participated in a poetry festival organized by The Poetry Book Society. On his way to events commemorating the hundredth anniversary of Baudelaire’s death (Journées Baudelaire [Baudelaire Days], Namur–Brussels October 10-13 1967) Herbert stayed a week in the Netherlands.

Dutch paintings gave rise to yet another of Herbert’s great fascinations whose crowning achievement was the publication of a tome of essays and apocrypha’s Martwa natura z wędzidłem [Still Life With a Bridle], that he wrote in Germany in the second half of the 1970s.

After The Netherlands he travelled to Germany for a series of authors’ meetings (including Cologne, Frankfurt-am-Main, Hamburg). Berlin followed in December, then Paris to wed Katarzyna Dzieduszycka (at the Polish Consulate on March 28, 1968), followed by an extended stay with his wife in Berlin, thanks to an annual grant from the Deutsche Akademische Austauschdienst [The German Academic Exchange Service], where they stayed with Klaus and Elizabeth Alschener.

Herbert flew to the US in mid-June 1968 at the invitation of the New York-based Lincoln Poetry Centre, took part in a Poetry Festival, followed by an Authors’ Meeting, travelled through California with Czesław Miłosz then, on his own, visited amongst others New Mexico, The Grand Canyon, Santa Fe, and New Orleans.

In June 1968 he became a member-correspondent of the Munich based Bayerische Akademie der Schönen Künste [Bavarian Academy of Fine Arts].

1968 was an important year for Herbert, in the English speaking world, with the publication in the USA and England of a selection of his poems, translated by Czesław Miłosz and Peter Dale Scott (“Selected Poems”, Harmondsworth, Penguin Books).

Health problems followed his return to Berlin in August 1968. Composer Krzysztof Penderecki proposed the writing of librettos for his operas, though commissioning such works on demand proved impossible (managed to collaborate on only one work: an introduction in the programme of the first performance of Diabły z Loudun [The Devils of Loudun], Hamburg State Opera, June 20, 1969).


Went to Poland for Easter 1969, to deal with passport and visa matters. Was interrogated by the Służba Bezpieczeństwa (SB) [Secret Police] at the Metropol Hotel in Warsaw.

At the beginning of July 1969 Herbert attended the Festival dei Due Mondi [Festival of Two Worlds] for the second time (was there for the first time in 1959). Visited Rome, Assisi, Perugia, Fano, Urbino, Ravenna, Farrara, Venice, Trieste, Birano, Vicenza, Verona and Milan.

The fourth tome of his Collected Poems titled Napis [Inscription] appeared in November 1969 (eight years after the publication of the previous tome titled Studium Przedmiotu [A Study of the Object]).

Once again travelled to Poland in March 1970, to deal with visa and passport matters. Thereafter to Berlin via Vienna. Attended the first edition of the Poetry International Festival in Rotterdam, held from June 17 to 21 (was to attend a further two: in 1976 and 1988), and visited Amsterdam’s museums.

Flew from Berlin to Los Angeles in September 1970 to lecture as visiting professor of Modern European Literature, at California’s State College during the academic years 1970-1971.

During their US stay (the Herbert’s lived in Pasadena) an outline of Pan Cogito [Mr Cogito] was born.

Returned to Europe in June 1971. After a short stay in Amsterdam went to Berlin, and on August 27 on to Warsaw.

The prize award ceremony on the 25 X was very grand. First Chopin was played, and then the senior Austrian writer and chairman of the PEN-Club gave a speech, then the Minister, then me, followed by an actor from the Burgtheatre who read the poems. One of Mozart’s 3 sonatas at the end. Finally a banquet. It all worked out well.
I sat in on the writers’ reunion from the 26 to the 28. My Authors’ Evening at the Auersparg palace took place on the 29, on my birthday.

(Excerpt from a letter to his mother Maria, Vienna, November 5 1965)

Just before leaving I accepted two posts (the first since 1955). One as “dramatist” of course to the Tadeusz Byrski’s in Gorzów Wielkopolski, a rather dire town spun from a steelon grossness and alcohol. It’s a fictitious post; I am basically to be “the one from Warsaw” who strengthens the position of the brave and tireless Tadzio’s. They love you very much, as you know, and we sometimes arrange speech love orgies about you. The Tadzio’s fight hard. Alas I am unable to be with them in Gorzów, but I will help them for as long as I have the strength, and there’s breath in my lungs.
The other post is at the monthly «Poezja» [Poetry Journal] that will come out around the New Year.

(Excerpt from a letter to Czesław Miłosz, Vienna, November 12 1965)

I’ve been visiting Vienna for two weeks now, uniquely in the late evening, on my way to the post office. I do nevertheless have strength, and the work is somehow going forward.
I will most probably go to Paris in May.

(Excerpt from a letter to his mother Maria, Vienna, April 1 1966)

I came back from Germany after a long and exhausting journey. (…) I have worked quite hard recently, completed a sketch about the Acropolis, written a few poems, translated 2 essays and a dozen poems for «Poezja» [Poetry Journal], who’s absent Editor I remain.

(Excerpt from a letter to his mother Maria, December 20 1966)

I stabled for a very short while in La Messuguière, though I managed to see a piece of a land that Aleksander ushered into Polish poetry. There will be a reunion of mathematicians here; what is a man, scarcely able to count syllables, to do. Will drive to Le Lavandou, nearer the sea. Czesław (Miłosz) and I have very warm and sincere memories of you.

(Excerpt from a letter to Ola and Aleksander Wat, Lavandou, France, June 4 1967)

I am presently in Berkley, where I will be reading after tomorrow, and then I will be going to Los Angeles where I will also be playing the fiddle. I am living a bit as if in a dream, and now a great mist is coming in from the Ocean. I would like to be somewhere home, but where is my home. I am enormously tired by this wandering, and yet I would still like to achieve something useful and not fall short of expectations.
Many thanks for the information about the editorial office. I am concurrently sending a letter to professor Jakubowski requesting my name be deleted from the editorial staff list. I believe that I formulated it deftly, all at once adding that my decision was influenced by the departure of close colleagues A.M. T.K. M.G.

(Excerpt from a letter to Artur and Julia Międzyrzecki, July 8 1968)

I saw quite a lot of America. I got to know New York fairly well and liked it, and magnificent California, fair mountains, and the Ocean, and the sequoia (I immediately hit on the idea and came up with a small rhyme). Then there was the Grand Canyon, like 100 thousand cathedrals, only head down. I collected stones and rode a mule down to the wild Colorado river that I would long to sail across with you one day. New Mexico, Santa Fe and New Orleans, that is my favourite American (in fact French) city, finally Washington and a little of New England.
I gave presentations in Los Angeles (8 in all), at the university. They suggested I come there for a year. They sent all the papers, so I think that I will decide to go. I really have to get down to working on my English and preparing something to chat about. It will undoubtedly require great effort but I’ll do everything, at least for now, to not have to return to Gomułkaland.

(Excerpt from a letter to Magdalena and Zbigniew Czajkowski, Berlin, September 4 1968)

I am leaving for Hamburg, Cologne and Frankfurt in a couple of minutes with my lectures. As you can see I am working on Germany, though a heavy constituent. I am to write a sketch for Bondy on Polish-German relations, uff. In the meantime I also have to push other sketches along, and to write a radio drama. As you can see I lead an ignoble existence, in other words that of a writer.

(Excerpt from a letter to Czesław Miłosz, Berlin, June 18 1969)

I will be staying in Berlin until the Spring-summer of next year; then I go beyond the Ocean to Los Angeles earning from chatting about poetry, something I very much dislike, though one cannot live from twanging strings alone – it somehow takes longer to die.
But death besets us, the last year was fateful – Wierzyński, Zawieyski, Hłasko, Gombrowicz. We buried Our Dear Friend a week ago (Mrożek’s wife Mara).

(Excerpt from a letter to Gyorgy Gomori, Berlin, November 18 1969)

I am lecturing on XIX and XX century European drama and poetry. I have quickly become accustomed to the fact that the majority of my students know nothing about Ibsen, Chekhov, or Strindberg, Rimbaud or Rilke. It was a healthy, cold shower for my European bigheadedness. I therefore needed to “start from scratch”, not only with literature, but geography, history, trends social and philosophical… This was not at odds with my beliefs, as I judge – as one contemporary Polish philosopher put it – that “the humanities should reveal the whole of reality, viewed soberly from a perspective of routes that lead towards values that are worth living for.”

(Excerpt from a conversation that appeared in the monthly «Ameryka», 1973)