“Often the test of courage is not to die but to live.”
—Vittorio Alfieri, Oreste (1785)
This volume is the first complete English translation of Zbigniew Herbert’s poetry—a cause for rejoicing. And, although Alissa Valles’s translations are a bit gray, as if sprinkled with fine dust, they are invariably precise and never overstated. While there is more sonorousness in the original Polish, and I like some of the earlier translations by the Milosz-Scott-Carpenter teams, this volume’s completeness weighs heavily in its favor. The notes, chronology, and index help navigation considerably.
Zbigniew Herbert, a Polish poet, died in 1998 of causes attributable to poverty. The T.S. Eliot Award for Creative Writing, which he gratefully received from the Ingersoll Foundation in 1995, brightened his final years somewhat, but it could not undo the circumstances in which he spent his youth and middle age. Poverty shortens lives in ways that are not always traceable. Score one more point for that great Darkness that came from the East.
Years ago, Leopold Tyrmand told me that Herbert should have received the Nobel Prize, and I heartily agreed. But there was no mighty society of friends standing behind him: He never lived near the centers of power and came from an unprestigious...