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the Complete Review
the complete review - poetry

Elegy for the Departure

Zbigniew Herbert

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To purchase Elegy for the Departure

Title: Elegy for the Departure
Author: Zbigniew Herbert
Genre: Poetry
Written: 1956-90 (Eng.:1999)
Length: 132 pages
Original in: Polish
Availability: Elegy for the Departure - US
Elegy for the Departure - UK
Elegy for the Departure - Canada
Elégie pour le départ - France
  • and other poems
  • Translated by John and Bogdana Carpenter
  • Four sections:
    • I - from Chord of Light (Struna swiatla, 1956), ZH's first poetry collection.
    • II - from Hermes, Dog and Star (Hermes, pies i gwiazda, 1957) and Study of the Object (Studium przedmiotu, 1961), ZH's second and third collections.
    • III - prose poems, written 1957 - 1969.
    • IV - Elegy for the Departure (Elegia na odejscie, 1990) in its entirety.
  • According to the translator's note, none of the translations in this selection have appeared in book form before.

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Our Assessment:

B+ : an uneven selection, but worthwhile for the splendid last poems alone.

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Boston Globe A- 18/4/1999 Jonathan Aaron
Cambridge Quarterly . (4/2001) Jerzy Jarniewicz
The NY Times Book Rev. B+ 4/4/1999 Richard Eder
Partisan Review . (4/1999) Nicole Krauss

  Review Consensus:

  Varied lot, but the last section excellent.

  From the Reviews:
  • "Some of the short prose pieces in Part 3, written in the 1960's, seem facile, even whimsical. Here and in several of the earlier poems it is as if Herbert's cutting instrument were incising a substance softer than his customary granite. (.....) The last section, written in the later years, contains some of Herbert's most spacious work, a welling up of vitality and variety." - Richard Eder, The New York Times

  • "(...) a sort of anthology that offers the reader a tantalizing view of the poetry Herbert produced in more than half a century of writing (...) its chief value is that it contains his 1990 collection, Elegy for the Departure." - Jonathan Aaron, Boston Globe

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       It is an odd idea, sticking together pieces from an author's first three poetry collections, tossing in some two dozen "prose poems," and then tacking on a complete volume of the poet's late poems (written some three decades after the first ones). Such is the fate of dead, foreign poets. Zbigniew Herbert is one of the greater (recently) dead foreign poets, and fortunately he can handle a bit of manhandling.
       The offerings at hand are decidedly uneven. The early poems vary in quality, certainly suggesting his talents, but not always making as much of them as he later would. Certain of these poems are, however, powerful: the Furnished Room, with its three suitcases, the pictures -- of Vesuvius and of a Dutch interior -- like talismans, or About Troy, where "the poet struggles with his own shadow" in the silence, crying "like a bird in the void."
       The prose poems impressed us least. Certain of the ideas appeal, but the succinct presentation fails to convince -- whether because of the translation or the original we can not judge.
       It is the last section, Elegy for the Departure, that makes this a truly important collection. It is an older man writing here, and some of the best poems are reflections on age, hope, and future. In Wagon a hundred year old Emperor Hirohito, "with a face like an ancient book," struggles to compose a poem. The poet Herbert's concern at this scene is "what will be the fate / of traditional poetry". Leo (Lev) Tolstoy figures in another poem, and the concluding poem is an Elegy for the Departure of Pen Ink and Lamp, an elegy not only for the tools of his trade, but an acknowledgement that "I have / very little left", and that in the future "it will be / dark".
       Mr. Cogito also makes two appearances -- one in the brilliant The Adventures of Mr. Cogito with Music.
       There are also the more overtly political poems, such as the marvelous Transformations of Livy, showing how that author can no longer be read in the same way as he had been by previous generations. And in the Holub-like The Nepenthe Family Herbert describes "the scandal of nature," the lack of innocence of the world of plants.
       Written in a simple, direct style, without punctuation, Herbert's poems are fairly accessible and often -- especially the last ones -- profound and moving. This collection is not a complete success, and we agree with the critics who call and clamour for a true, comprehensive collected edition of the master's work, but this volume is worthwhile for the last section alone.

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Elegy for the Departure: Reviews: Zbigniew Herbert:
  • Other books by Zbigniew Herbert under review: Other books of interest under review:
    • See Index of Poetry under review

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    About the Author:

           Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert (1924-1998) was born in Lwow. He earned degrees from the University of Krakow, the University of Warsaw, and the Nicholas Copernicus University of Torun. He began publishing his poetry in 1956, though he continued to have difficulties getting much of it published in his native Poland. One of the foremost modern European poets, he has been extensively translated.

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