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Prefatory Note:

 

I am teaching two classes this semester, one an introduction to poetry, one an advanced course called “Poetic Revolutions.”

 

In the “Poetic Revolutions” course several days ago we considered poems by the powerful and important black American poet, Imamu Baraka.  I have an ambivalent relation to the poems we read, which are powerful and angry but which in their rage push into terms and phrases which are deeply insulting to Jews, Italians, the Irish, women and gays.  Anger and insult: it was a harrowing place to be, at least for me.

 

So when I sent the students an email to remind them of the assignment for the next class, a number of late poems by Pablo Neruda  which I had already announced quickly at the end of the class, I wrote “Neruda is, to my mind, the sunniest, most joyful poet we read all semester.  (The poems we will  read are late Neruda; as a poet, he changed a number of times in his life.  Not all his poetry is sunny like this.)  I think you will not only enjoy, but love, his poems.  Well, I hope so.”

 

When I awoke on Thursday morning I had one of those rare days when I did not want to leave the house, did not want to go to work.  The day was cold and grey, I had slept badly, the semester was at the point (not just for me, but students too) when it seemed endless. 

 

But nonetheless I got dressed, had breakfast, and set out for work.  As I walked to my office I thought, ‘If you are feeling down, and doubtless the students are too, why don’t you teach the students in the intro class the joyous poems you announced to your more advanced class?”  Seemed like a good idea to me, and so I did exactly that.  I don’t know if they felt joyous after class, but I certainly did.

 

But by reading Neruda with them I would be skipping a great masterpiece of a poem, Zbigniew Herbert’s “The Envoi of Mr. Cogito.”  And I didn’t like the idea of skipping over the poem.  So I informed the students, at the start of class that although we would be reading Pablo Neruda, I would send them an email about Herbert’s wonderful poem. 

 

I wrote that email, and sent it out, and here it is.

 

[As for the Neruda poems, on a lemon, on tomatoes, on a pair of socks, on a suit, I will send them out to you also.  No reason in grey November you too shouldn’t read joyous poems, poems which celebrate the things that surround us and which bring us so much delight, pleasure, joy.  One of them will be familiar to those who have been receiving these emails from the start, since I wrote about Neruda’s “Ode to Tomatoes” a few years ago.  That email can be retrieved at http://list.uvm.edu/cgi-bin/wa?A2=ind0911&L=POETR Y&F=&S=&P=1368 ]

 

[And yes, the first poem I sent out, “Five Men,” was also by Herbert.  It can be found at: http://list.uvm.edu/cgi-bin/wa?A2=ind0906&L=POETRY&F=&S=&P=698 ]

 

The Envoi of Mr. Cogito

Zbigniew Herbert

Translated By Bogdana Carpenter and John Carpenter

 

Go where those others went to the dark boundary   

for the golden fleece of nothingness your last prize

 

go upright among those who are on their knees

among those with their backs turned and those toppled in the dust

 

you were saved not in order to live

you have little time you must give testimony

 

be courageous when the mind deceives you be courageous   

in the final account only this is important

 

and let your helpless Anger be like the sea

whenever you hear the voice of the insulted and beaten

 

let your sister Scorn not leave you

for the informers executioners cowards—they will win

they will go to your funeral and with relief will throw a lump of earth   

the woodborer will write your smoothed-over biography

 

and do not forgive truly it is not in your power   

to forgive in the name of those betrayed at dawn

 

beware however of unnecessary pride

keep looking at your clown’s face in the mirror   

repeat: I was called—weren’t there better ones than I

 

beware of dryness of heart love the morning spring   

the bird with an unknown name the winter oak

 

light on a wall the splendour of the sky   

they don’t need your warm breath

they are there to say: no one will console you

 

be vigilant—when the light on the mountains gives the sign—arise and go   

as long as blood turns in the breast your dark star

 

repeat old incantations of humanity fables and legends   

because this is how you will attain the good you will not attain   

repeat great words repeat them stubbornly

like those crossing the desert who perished in the sand

 

and they will reward you with what they have at hand   

with the whip of laughter with murder on a garbage heap

 

go because only in this way will you be admitted to the company of cold skulls

to the company of your ancestors: Gilgamesh Hector Roland

the defenders of the kingdom without limit and the city of ashes

 

Be faithful Go

 

 

 

It is not good practice to begin an essay with a dictionary definition, but I will violate that general rule in order to tell you what an ‘envoi” is.  Webster’s defines it thusly: “the usually explanatory or commendatory concluding remarks to a poem, essay, or book; especially a short final stanza of a ballad serving as a summary or dedication.”  Clearly, what we have in “The Envoi of Mr. Cogito” is not a concluding stanza.  Instead, we are meant to see this poem as the last in the long series of Mr.Cogito poems that Zbigniew Herbert wrote over more than three decades.  (Surprisingly, then, we discover that this was the first of the Mr. Cogito poems to be published.  The summary is actually prologue, defining the stance Mr. Cogito would be taking toward the world.)

 

You will recall from the first Mr. Cogito poem we looked at in class that Mr. Cogito gets his name from Descartes’s famous statement, Cogito, ergo sum: ‘I think therefore I am.’  He represents the rational; he is, I believe, an everyman, a kind of average person standing in for all of us.  He is an ironic protagonist and sometime narrator, probably not as smart as Herbert himself, but always reasonably perceptive and always honest.  He’s a stand-in, after a fashion, for the poet, simpler but no less wise.

 

In the “Envoi of Mr. Cogito” Herbert speaks to us about how we should act in our contemporary world.  Although in what follows I presume it is Mr. Cogito speaking, it can also be read as Herbert speaking to Mr. Cogito.  No matter, in the end: either way, the poem counsels acting with a courage that approaches heroism.

 

The poem begins with an exhortation to take on the mantle of the hero:

 

Go where those others went to the dark boundary   

for the golden fleece of nothingness your last prize

 

Notice it is a command, the verb in the imperative: Go!   The command is to go beyond the easy and safe, the places of light, and insists that we as readers follow after the hero of myth, Jason, who with his Argonauts set out to capture the Golden Fleece and so prove that he was worthy of wearing the mantle of kingship.  Though for us, the lines tell the reader that for us there is no similar reward: heroism will be its own reward, for in our times there is neither victory not kingship but “nothingness.”

 

The second stanza demands we act heroically, standing upright while others are “on their knees,” worshipping or acting subserviently, to powers we courageous ones will not be acknowledging.  (Let me provide a word of context, which you will want to bear in mind as you read the poem and what it demands of us.  Herbert was writing in Poland, at that time under the subjection of the Soviet Union; it was an authoritarian police state – Herbert was harshly treated, in part for writing poems like this – a situation which would not end until after the popular labor movement Solidarity challenged the communist authorities in 1980.   So when Herbert speaks of people on their knees, he is thinking of the immediate context of submission to communist rule; when he speaks, though, he is speaking as well to the larger condition of modern men and women, all of us – in his view – subject to mass culture, the degradation of values, the erosion of ethical principle.)

 

[You will also recall Herbert’s “A Knocker,” which we studied in an earlier class, in which he defines his limited but essential goal in these hard modern times, which is to see what is true and what is not.  That poem ends,

 

I thump – the board

and it prompts me

with the moralist’s dry poem

yes – yes

no – no        ]

 

Here, then, are the second and third stanzas of “The Envoi of Mr. Cogito”:

 

go upright among those who are on their knees

among those with their backs turned and those toppled in the dust

 

you were saved not in order to live

you have little time you must give testimony

 

The third stanza is, to my mind, the most important in the poem.  Life is about more than survival, the speaker claims: once again, the context in Poland would be the survival of the Nazi occupation, the horrible exterminations of the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Treblinka, the Second World War, the Soviet takeover.  But the larger context is also present, that life, as I just said, is about more than survival.  We survive in other to give witness.  To repeat his line, “you have little time you must give testimony.”   Herbert is defining what for him is one of the central functions of poetry..  His poetry is the poetry of witness.  Much, much of his poetry says, ‘This is what has happened to me and to others in our time, which is a difficult time.  Deaths go unnoticed, alienation is all around, ethics forgotten in an embrace of relativism and government propaganda.  Men have been and are destructive: we must not gloss over, pass by or forget what has happened in our time.’

 

Herbert always presents us with an alternative to death, alienation, relativism, ethical disregard.  Mr. Cogito, the persona of so many of his poems, is not always brilliant or even overly sensitive, but he is someone who struggles to see what is before him and to try to act in good faith as he encounters what he sees.  This whole poem, the “Envoi,” exemplifies this dual role of witnessing and trying to find an ethical way forward. 

 

Which is why he commands us to “be courageous:”

 

be courageous when the mind deceives you be courageous   

in the final account only this is important

 

and let your helpless Anger be like the sea

whenever you hear the voice of the insulted and beaten

 

Resist deception, act with courage: “In the final account only this is important.”  One of the things I most admire in Herbert is his willingness to state, directly, without ornament, basic truths as he sees them.  We tell stories to children exemplifying the worth of being ‘courageous,’ and when people enter the armed forces in wartime we tell them the same thing; but in the endless round of daily life we hardly ever hear those words.  And yet Herbert reminds us that nothing else is important, only honesty and courage, and, in the next stanza, an anger that men can be so unjust and brutal as to beat and insult and put down other men and women. 

 

Scorn those, Mr. Cogito says, who are not ethical or brave, even though in this world we live today in they will end up the winners.  It is not, he insists, about winning (no matter how much the Donald Trumps of the world may tell you it is).  There is something very brave in these lines, which command us to live an ethical life even if there are no rewards, even if we will not be remembered for our courage.

 

let your sister Scorn not leave you

for the informers executioners cowards—they will win

they will go to your funeral and with relief will throw a lump of earth   

the woodborer will write your smoothed-over biography

 

Act heroically and even after death there will be no reward: you will be buried and history will be sanitized so that your heroic resistance will be forgotten. 

 

            Herbert then proceeds to a place where Mr. Cogito even challenges Christianity, a place of the sort the philosopher Niezsche called ‘beyond good and evil, beyond what we too often think (and maybe too easily think) is the source of ethical action.

 

and do not forgive truly it is not in your power   

to forgive in the name of those betrayed at dawn

 

Ouch.  Withhold forgiveness.   Another thing we do not hear, unless it is from the worst among us (the haters, the rabid politicos on the right fringe of our politics – and even these latter try not to say it). Mr. Cogito says, I think rightly and also courageously, that forgiveness for those who harm others is not ours to bestow, since the wrongs committed were not against us.

 

            What follows are warnings, a series of commands to “beware!”  Beware of pride, since you are, like all men and women, more clown than hero even as you strive to be courageous, since to think too much of oneself is to ignore those who are better than we are (and there are always others, and not necessarily others who are educated or famous or even noteworthy) who are better human beings than we.   Don’t retreat from life and its dangers into “dryness” and revulsion of the world.  “Love!” (Do you remember Robert Frost’s poem, “Birches,” where he so wonderfully insists that even with all its sufferings and troubles “Earth’s the right place for love”?).

 

beware however of unnecessary pride

keep looking at your clown’s face in the mirror   

repeat: I was called—weren’t there better ones than I

 

beware of dryness of heart love the morning spring   

the bird with an unknown name the winter oak

 

light on a wall the splendour of the sky   

they don’t need your warm breath

they are there to say: no one will console you

 

‘All the loveliness of the world’ –that phrase comes from a strong but problematic poem I recently taught, “Black Art” by Imamu Baraka, a major African-American poet – doesn’t need us to be lovely.  So Herbert claims, here, for the spring, the bird, the oak, the light, the sky do not need us.  Frost, if you recall, said something rather similar in “The Need to Be Versed in Country Things.”  [I feel I have to intrude, here, to say that not all poets feel this way.  In a great poetic sequence of the twentieth century, the Duino Elegies by Rainer Maria Rilke, Rilke claims exactly the opposite, that the things of this world need us, need us most of all, to bear witness to them and their loveliness.  How can Herbert say one thing and Rilke the opposite?  We always need to remember that poems do not deliver ‘the truth,’ but things that the poet perceives, believes, might be the truth as she or he writes the poem.  But how we see things: we can differ, not only with others, but within ourselves. I think I told you in class, early on, that Robert Frost once said the following words, but on making sure I had the quote right I realized I was wrong in attributing the words to Frost, since it was the Irish poet William Butler Yeats who wrote: “We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.”  We can, and do, disagree with ourselves.  Truth is sometimes, even in our own brains, a very complex matter.  Though I will end with a statement by a character created by the novelist William Faulkner which will disagree profoundly with the last sentence I just wrote.]

 

But back to Mr. Cogito and Zbigniew Herbert.  Since the glorious things of this world do not need us, they do not, cannot, offer us consolation.  All we can do is go forward, and so Mr. Cogito tells us to “be vigilant” for the sign that it is time to move into battle, or into giving testimony, which for him is the contemporary equivalent. 

 

be vigilant—when the light on the mountains gives the sign—arise and go   

as long as blood turns in the breast your dark star

 

repeat old incantations of humanity fables and legends   

because this is how you will attain the good you will not attain   

repeat great words repeat them stubbornly

like those crossing the desert who perished in the sand

 

You, like the mythic heroes of old, must follow “your dark star,” the promptings of your blood, calling you to have the courage to go forward. 

 

            And on this journey forward you will have words, not the words of newspapers or speeches or even books, but “old incantations of humanity fables and legends.”   For courage is required as we move forward, as we face the trials of our own day.  And what do we have to sustain us?  The story of Jason, or of other heroes; sacred words like love and beauty and truth and courage.  We must “repeat great words repeat them stubbornly” even though we will not win.  Winning in our day, facing in whatever form (fascism, communism, monopoly capitalism, the polite policed society) what the novelist Norman Mailer once termed “the murderous liquidations of the state,” does not allow for victory but only consists of perishing in the harsh desert of our days. 

 

            This is a hard view of contemporary life, and you are not bound to agree with Mr. Cogito and Herbert.  But if we are courageous, as the poem commands us to be, we must consider whether perhaps he is right, whether he is telling us a truth we must acknowledge.  That as Yeats noted in a late poem of his, “good men starve and bad advance,” that our society and our world and sometimes we ourselves reward the crass and the craven and the cowardly, and ignore those who struggle for justice or freedom, or in their daily rounds try to lead lives that are ethical.  Being a ‘good person’ is not as easy as advertisements and television sometimes make it out to be, as if we can live a good life if we only buy a Mercedes or a Ford or a Rolex, or join the local Chamber of Commerce, or give money to the Red Cross or contribute spare cans of food to provide the needy with a meal at Thanksgiving.

 

            Courage.  Mr. Cogito claims that those who shape our modern world will laugh at those with courage and tenacity and ethical standards, and those whom it cannot shape through corrosive humor it will kill and dishonor even in death:

 

and they will reward you with what they have at hand   

with the whip of laughter with murder on a garbage heap

 

            The poem begins with the command to go forward with courage because there is no reward for the good life other than living it.  Those who live well – and well here means not living in grand houses or with fast cars or expensive perfumes, but living ethically, living a moral life – can expect no reward but death. 

 

And, Mr. Cogito tells us just before ending his commands, living ethically and courageously a can shape your life so that, though not celebrated, you are like the great heroes of the past: Gilgamesh (of ancient Mesopotamia, hero of the great Gilgamesh, who protected his people and learned of the reality of death), Hector (of ancient Troy, hero of the great epic the Iliad, who protected his people even though he died at the hands of Achilles) and Roland (of medieval France, hero of the great epic Le Chanson de Roland, who protected his people even though he too died in doing so).

 

go because only in this way will you be admitted to the company of cold skulls

to the company of your ancestors: Gilgamesh Hector Roland

 

 

            All of the three heroes Mr. Cogito cites defend their own civilization, defend humanity with courage and dignity, and thus he calls them “the defenders of the kingdom without limit and the city of ashes”.  Why the city of ashes?  Because over time that is what we all become, hero and “informers executioners cowards” alike.  But only the heroes, among whom we can also be included, are also “defenders of the kingdom without limits,” the defenders of what is good and just and right.

 

            It takes courage, as he begins by telling us, and requires us “to give testimony.”  It requires that we be angry at those who use insults and beatings to put down other human beings.  It requires us withhold forgiveness that is not ours to grant, to avoid undue pride in ourselves, to avoid a rejection of the world and embrace love, to be vigilant and pay attention, to study and take to heart old stories and the words that have always been with us.  In this way, we will not attain any sort of victory – “because this is how you will attain the good you will not attain”—but we can live a good, an ethical life.

 

            The poem ends, “Be faithful Go.”  It commands us to go out into the world, and into the remainder of life, with courage and love and a sensitivity to the old stories and the old words.

 

            Let me end with a three memorable and connected passages by the American novelist William Faulkner, taken from a difficult but wonderful novella called “The Bear.” During the story, Ike (the protagonist) recalls how on a hunt, while in the middle of the Mississippi wilderness, his father  talked to him about poetry, specifically about John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”   That poem famously ends, “‘Beauty is truth, and truth beauty,—that is all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’”  The father says,

 

“He was talking about truth. Truth doesn’t change. Truth is one thing. It covers all things which touch the heart—honor and pride and pity and justice and courage and love. Do you see now?” 

 

At the end of their conversation, the father sums his view up:

 

“Courage, and honor, and pride,” his father said, “and pity, and love of justice and of liberty. They all touch the heart, and what the heart holds to becomes truth, as far as we know the truth. Do you see now?”

 

Later in the novella, as if continuing this conversation, the young man says to his cousin McCaslin:

 

“And I know what you will say now: That if truth is one thing to me and another thing to you, how will we choose which is truth? You don't need to choose.  The heart already knows.”

 

Faulkner’s young man, Ike, is articulating what Mr. Cogito and Herbert tell us about “old incantations of humanity.”  The old stories, and the old words, are true, and we should strive to live by them.  It takes courage and humility.  Living in this way does not hold any promise of success, but living by these old standards is the way, the only way, to “defend the kingdom without limit.”  It is, in Herbert’s telling, the path of heroism in our modern age. 

 

 

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