After his return to Poland at the beginning of January 1992, embittered by the changes in his country, he spoke on numerous occasions about matters political and social – from a position that was staunchly anti communist, mainly on the pages of the «Tygodnik Solidarności» [Solidarity Weekly].
He now had a new Polish publisher Wydawnictwo Dolnośląskie [Lower Silesia Publishers], who reprinted many of his earlier works as well as new ones. The eighth collection of his poems titled Rovigo appeared in 1992, whilst a tome of his sketches and Dutch apocrypha’s Martwa natura z wędzidłem [Still Life with a Bridle], came out in 1993.
Josif Brodski visited him in the Summer of 1993.
On October 7 1994, Herbert left on his last foreign journey at the invitation of the Dutch newspaper «Handelsblad» [General Commerce Paper]. He flew to The Netherlands for a week to see a display of tulips at Amsterdam’s Nieuwe Kerk [New Church].
In an interview titled Pojedynki Pana Cogito [Mr Cogito’s Duels] that Herbert gave to «Tygodnik Solidarność» [Solidarity Weekly] on the eve of his 70th birthday, he repeated his accusations with an even greater intensity than in the interview he gave Jacek Trznadel in 1985. Herbert criticised the politics of The Third Polish Republic, increasingly attacked Czesław Miłosz as well as the milieu of his old friends and oppositionists, whom he accused of a relativistic approach towards Poland’s inglorious post-war history. The interview provoked much controversy. Disputes about the rights and wrongs of Herbert’s arguments continue to this day.
Herbert initiated actions in support of an independent and free Chechnya; he also called for the vindication of Colonel Kukliński.
Suffering from asthma, he continued to draft new poems to the very last, whilst drawings brought back memories of the places, journeys and favourite architectural and artistic works of art. He wrestled with unfinished projects (amongst others the tome of sketches titled Labirynt nad morzem [Labyrinth On The Sea] and Król mrówek [King of Ants]). He only just managed to complete and see for himself the ninth, and last, tome of his poems Epilog burzy [Epilogue to a Storm], and a selection of his poems titled 89 wierszy [89 poems].
The two poets, Zbigniew Herbert and Czesław Miłosz, were reconciled during a telephone conversation in May of 1998.
On July 28, 1998 at four o’clock in the morning Herbert died in Warsaw at the Tuberculosis and Pulmonary Disease Institute on Płocka Street.
He was buried at the old Powązki Cemetery on Friday July 31. Wiesława Szymborska and Czesław Miłosz laid wreaths of red roses on his coffin.
I’ve suffered from this damned asthma for several years now, unable to leave my room, with tubes from the oxygen cylinder in my nose, without which I find breathing hard. Nature treats us brusquely.
(Excerpt from a letter to Stanisław Barańczak, Warsaw, September 13 1996)
Compiled by Henryk Citko from an exhibition catalogue Zbigniew Herbert 1924-1998: portrety i autoportrety z archiwum pisarza, Biblioteka Narodowa [Zbigniew Herbert 1924-1998: Portraits & Self-Portraits from the Author’s Archive, National Library], Warsaw 2008. Iconographic materials come from the Zbigniew Herbert Archive at the National Library.