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the Complete Review
the complete review - literary essays

The King of the Ants

Zbigniew Herbert

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Title: The King of the Ants
Author: Zbigniew Herbert
Genre: Essays
Written: (Eng.: 1999)
Length: 88 pages
Original in: Polish
Availability: The King of the Ants - US
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  • Mythological Essays
  • Translated by John and Bogdana Carpenter

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Our Assessment:

B- : interesting, thoughtful pieces -- but incidental

See our review for fuller assessment.

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

  From the Reviews:
  • "It is minor Herbert, on the whole, though the poet's wit and moral bite are evident." - Richard Eder, The New York Times Book Review

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:

       This collection offers eleven so-called mythological essays. Based on myth and fact, Herbert weaves imagined tales around his characters, suggesting explanations, offering miniature portraits.
       The characters are often secondary ones from classical myth: Cerberus, "the infernal dog, " "the horrible Thersites," who appears only once in the Iliad, Atlas, whom Herbert calls "an exile from the imagination, an outcast of gods and men." Their obscurity gives Herbert the freedom to shape their stories to his will, and he uses them fairly well.
       There is a veneer of seriousness to Herbert's style, but the mocking tone underneath generally shines through. Nevertheless, these are opinionated and philosophical pieces.
       Sleeping Endymion is acknowledged to be beautiful -- but Herbert can not refrain from equating that with uselessness. Heliodorus, the "execrable poet" --unlicensed, at that -- is also a seller of devotional objects, two professions that "have gone hand in hand for thousands of years." So it goes with the wise asides, often tinged with some sadness.
       These small pieces are not all successful, but the best of them -- an excellent brief retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice story, and the story behind how Cerberus came to guard Hades -- are powerful and memorable. Still, it is a very slim volume, and most of the essays work best as incidental pieces.
       An interesting collection, there is a bit too little to it (more in mass than substance) for our tastes. Worthwhile, but nothing to go out of one's way to read.

       Note: Herbert's Thersites may seem the most obscure of his subjects, but just as he discovered "a wealth of meanings" in Homer's brief mention so did Karel Capek in his 1931 Thersites, a different take on the same character. Herbert was surely familiar with Capek's Apocryphal Stories (of which Thersites is one), first published posthumously in 1945. Though more obvious than Herbert's mythological essays, they are their obvious precursors.

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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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