Poet, essayist and playwright, Zbigniew Herbert was born on October 29, 1924, in Lwów, (formerly in Poland, now in present day Lviv, Ukraine) and died on July 28, 1998, in Warsaw, Poland.
He spent the first twenty years of his life, including the period of German occupation, in Lwów, the multicultural city of his birth. He studied Economics at the Krakow Business School (Krakowska Akademia Handlowa) and law at Torun’s Nicolaus Copernicus University (Uniwersytet Mikołaja Kopernika). He also studied philosophy. He settled in Warsaw in 1951, from where he travelled to many Western European countries for stays which were often of many years’ duration. His first essay appeared in 1948, whilst his first poetic works appeared in 1951, though he considered the 1956 publication of a volume titled “String of Light” (Struna Światła) as his poetic debut.
His work is rooted in the traditions and symbols of Mediterranean Civilisation, as well as in the European Christian culture that grew from it; the starting point for his deliberations on moral issues as well as on the spiritual condition of contemporary man. Volumes: “String of Light” (Struna Światła), 1956; “Hermes, Dog and Star” (Hermes, pies i gwiazda), 1957; “Study of an Object” (Studium przedmiotu), 1961; “Inscription” (Napis), 1969; “Mr Cogito” (Pan Cogito), 1974; “Report from a Besieged City” (Raport z oblężonego miasta), 1983; “Departure Elegy” (Elegia na odejście), 1990; “Rovigo”, 1992; “Storm Epilogue” (Epilog burzy), 1998, and collected essays: “Barbarian in the Garden” (Barbarzyńca w ogrodzie), 1962; “Still Life with Bridle” (Martwa natura z wędzidłem), 1993; “Labyrinth on the Seashore” (Labirynt nad morzem), 2000; “King of Ants” (Król mrówek), 2001, number among the most important Polish literary achievements of the second half of the twentieth century. Herbert also wrote drama works for the stage and radio, including: “Cave of Philosophers” (Jaskinia filozofów), 1956; “The Other Room” (Drugi pokój), 1958; “Reconstruction of a Poet” (Rekonstrukcja poety), 1960; Lalek, 1961, and “Letters from Our Readers” (Listy naszych czytelników), 1972.
Translated into 35 languages, his writings brought him numerous prestigious awards, including: The Kościelski Foundation Prize (Nagroda Fundacji im. Kościelskich), Geneva, in 1964; The Jurzykowski Millennium Prize in 1965; The Kultura Foundation Prize (Nagroda Fundacji Kultury) in 1997, The International Nicolaus-Lenau Prize (Internationaler Nikolaus-Lanau Preis) in 1965, The Gottfried-von-Herder Prize (Gottfried-con-Herder Preis) in 1973, The Petrarca Prize (Petrarca Preis) in 1979, The Bruno Schulz Prize in 1988, The Jerusalem Prize for the Freedom of the Individual in Society in 1991, The T.S. Eliot Award for Creative Writing in 1995… He was posthumously awarded The Order of the White Eagle (Order Orła Białego), whilst the Polish Parliament (Sejm), declared 2008 “Zbigniew Herbert Year,” which led to the organisation of many events inspired by his work throughout Poland and abroad.
Zbigniew Herbert is however best known in world literature thanks to his poetic alter-ego, Mr Cogito (Pan Cogito).