Zbigniew Herbert


Reconstruction of a Poet

Translated by Magdalena Czajkowska

A play for radio. Passages in brackets are for production purposes, not to be heard in final recording.


(always begins in the same way, like a record played not from the very beginning and subsequently interrupted.)

(These finds have revolutionised our knowledge of the early evolution of epic poetry in Greece.) Fragments excavated (from an archive room) at the lower levels (of the temple) of Artemis at Miletus have…

break in recording, which then resumes

…Discovered at the beginning of the twentieth century by Evans, the site was not fully investigated at the time. The discoverer was confused by a considerable layer of rock-hard rubble under which he did not expect to find anything. We have, however, considered the later evidence, dating from the Persian wars. I have in mind here Apollodorus of Dioros, and particularly Oeutiphron the Elder, a second-rate historian, but seemingly reliable, who (describes in some detail a temple of Artemis)

drip of water from tap
takes over from speech
fade and up speech

(The importance of these finds has surpassed) all our expectations and they have made a decisive contribution to historical knowledge. At the level called by us the third city, we discovered the oldest known writings of the Homeric poets, without any doubt fragments of the Iliad and at least two centuries older than the final, official edition in which this poem has come down to us. A similar expedition co-operating with ours made further discoveries on the island of Milo. These too were written but of a different kind, and though worthless from the artistic point of view (I shall deal with them in more detail later) they were important in confirming our thesis that the main centre of artistic activity was in Asia Minor which (was politically subject to it at the time).

dripping tap again takes
over, then fade, and
speech resumes

…Who was this Anonym? We only know that he was a Greek, but from the fragments we can reconstruct his personality. First of all, he was a man at the peak of his career, well-to-do (as we may infer from some invaluable references to the goldsmith’s art) a strong personality, impressively calm and self-controlled, a man without hysteria, his style of expression free from that use of hyperbole which so unfortunately disfigures much of the modern art of our own time. Above all we must insist we have here a writer who does not raise his voice – a man of order in emotions as in speech. Even the cruelties of war he viewed with the cool gaze of a true epic poet. A lofty sobriety and dignified sense of awe informs these simple and sublime fragments. From his great fund of living experience the poet was able to develop a wide range of themes. These can be arranged in seven groups as follows:
One: War
Two: Myth and genealogy
Three: Love
Four: Pastoral life including a valuable reference to sheep farming
Five: Metallurgy (bronze, copper, iron)
Six: Everyday life
Seven: Miscellaneous

water drips from the tap

…and a fragment like this, for example, indicates the intensity of Anonym’s poetical imagination:

‘The silent-footed Hermes hurries to Gorgo’s bed
Whose snores belly the tent’s canvas roof,
Into the sleepy ear he whispers, Gorgo, join forces
With white-bearded Gyneus, son of Nicos, who
Held Lemnos, rich in wheat. His elder brother
It was, strong-armed Atachos,
Who sailing through the Hellespont drew Apollo’s wrath
For taking by force Briseis, who bore Castor
A cause of evils…’

the noise of broken glass

HOMER. (Shouting) Enough! I’ll hear no more of this travesty. First it was Virgil, then the translators, philologists, archaeologists, now this… Nothing is left of me but a textbook of mythology and an exercise in style analysis.
I am forty five. I live in Miletus. I have a wife, a son, a house and garden. I’m very fond of Miletus. A lively town. No more noise than is needed for the life of the every day, a healthy climate, a rich and avid public.
At first I was a seaman. But I had an accident, had a fall on deck and lost my eyesight. The doctors said it was shock, that it would pass. But I’m still not quite recovered. Being unfit for work at sea, I took a job in the docks as a watchman. Always had a good voice. Strong as a storm at sea. My friends pressed me to give a recital. I gave one – it was a success. I changed my job. The work is lighter, more interesting.
I should be happy if it weren’t for my eyes. The doctors make me stay in the dark for long periods and avoid the sun. My wife shuts me up at home. I have to run away. It makes me look ridiculous.
I can’t break off now at the peak of my success. In a few years time, I shall be able to retire. I shall buy a large hotel in the centre of the town. Full of life and noise – from the cellars where they roll the wine casks to the whispers of lovers in the cheap rooms under the attic. Then I shall take care of my sight. I shall look at the world as it comes to me through half-closed eyes… I should also like to work on the theory of epic poetry. I think I’ve done a thing or two in this field…
To my predecessors, epic poetry was a flat land. In monotonous voice they drummed out the battles, the parades, the destroyed cities, the fire. Everything was seen from a distance and thus appeared very flat. I went right into the middle. Out of the epic I made a mountain, a heavy mass rising from the ground to the sky and reaching the gods. My predecessors controlled feeling by controlling the tone of voice. An absurd operation and a lie against nature. I discovered a human need to shout. As long as fear lives in a man, he has to shout.
It is noon now. The town is white with heat. Everything is covered with a quiet dust, but underneath there is a shout.
WOMAN’S VOICE. Where are you off to, Homer?
HOMER. I’m going out.
WOMAN’S VOICE. But you know what the doctor…
HOMER. I know, I know.
WOMAN’S VOICE. They were hurting you again yesterday.
HOMER. I feel much better to-day.
WOMAN’S VOICE. Don’t go to the market square.
HOMER. I promise.
WOMAN’S VOICE. And do avoid the sunlight. Look after your father, Elpenor.


ELPENOR. We’re being disobedient again.
HOMER. Too bad. It’s just that I can’t bear it in the house any longer.
HOMER. When the noon comes, the silence is unbearable. I can hear the wasps swarming in the attic. Gives me gooseflesh.
ELPENOR. You have peace. You can write poems.
HOMER. I don’t think about poems then.
ELPENOR. Oh! What do you think about?
HOMER. About the market square. As if it were the sea. To be entered up to the neck.
ELPENOR. Do you like the market square as much as that?
HOMER. There is nothing more beautiful. Pancakes with onions smell better than marble. And I’d give an Ionian capital for a cabbage any day.
ELPENOR. What’s so beautiful about it?
HOMER. Everything, silly. The colour, the smell, the noise. Every single sound of life: beggars mumbling, girls giggling squeezed in the crowd, the shouting of cask boys and the lowing of cattle tied by the horns. To all this a poet comes and the fight begins.
HOMER. Yes. I have to outshout them. To deafen them, to take away their voice, swallow it and give it out again.
ELPENOR. That must cause you a lot of pain.
HOMER. Yes, and joy too. Then I am as full as the world.
ELPENOR. That’s what I dislike most, when towards the end you raise your voice and begin to shout.
ELPENOR. It’s as if you were afraid and were shouting for help. Is this when you are afraid?
HOMER. No, this is when I fight.
ELPENOR. With whom?
HOMER. With fear.

voices in the market square

Well here we are. Let’s begin.
ELPENOR. Citizens! The poet Homer, well known on the mainland and the islands, has yielded to your insistent demand. Despite great pressure of work, he has decided to give a recital. For the first time he will perform the description of the seventh battle of Troy. This work was finished only this morning and has never been performed before. Part of the collection will be set aside for religious purposes: the purchase of glass eyes for the statue of Hera.

to the background of swelling music

The dawn breaks. A rosy rain falls on the sky’s tin-roof.
First rustle in the bay, a bird strangled in sleep.
Pale mists rise from the swamps, unbearably silent, dead.
Already in skin tents, against which rubs the wind,
Metal is heard against metal and voices
Bring new day, a full day, unfolded from the night,
As from its shawl a crying babe drinks the magnificent air.
Agamemnon first is ready, checks battle arrays, exhorts.
Peleus, Architeles, Castor, Eunomus and Pandar,
The hooves, lash of whips, calls, creaking carts
Wake the Trojans, and the gates open with a bang.
A regiment of foot and one of horse clenched as in a handclasp
Stand waiting in milky mist, like trees viewed from afar.
Agamemnon draws his sword. He cools it in the air,
Then with a great swing warms it, catches it on the sun,
So that a hiss sounds out – a muffled cry responds.
They move, a powerful noise as of a giant’s sandal
Moving on cobbles, stone against stone at first,
Metal against metal and leather, magnificent noise of tools.
But the men stand numb, still, fettered by speed and thought
Of Erebus’ dead waters –
Eunomus close beside Ajax. Ajax exhorts him:
(Mindful of the dream and the omen – the broken column of smoke)
‘Take care, dear, to avoid the Trojan archer Demetrus’
A javelin snaps his speech. The charioteer of Ajax falls.
His cry is short, as if the torn reins were dragged
By madly galloping horses. Fear shared by animals and men,
Hair standing on end, sweat and shaking of knees.
So, to overcome the fear, a huge shield of shouts
Is raised up by the Greeks. The battle is beautiful and great.
The clamour, as pleasing to the gods as the sacrificial meat,
Grows up and up and reaches their divine ears
Pink with dreams of pleasure, so gods descend to earth.
Thus the poem begins. What else is an epic,
But a colossal knot of men, metal and gods
Entwined, convulsed with a red flame at the top
Conveying the fear, this flame, this flame, this…

suddenly a pause

ELPENOR. I’m with you, Father.
HOMER. We’re going home.
ELPENOR. What has happened, Father?
HOMER. Lead me home.
ELPENOR. But you must finish. Everybody’s waiting for it.
HOMER. Home.

they leave the hum of the crowd – a pause

Walk slowly, Elpenor. Something’s happened to my eyes.
ELPENOR. Do they hurt you?


Come nearer, my son, and look into my eyes. What do you see?
ELPENOR. Myself in the middle. And trees, and the town.
HOMER. And I do not see it. Nothing. Nothing.
ELPENOR. You see only a mist. Just like the last time it happened.
HOMER. I do not even see the mist. Nothing.


ELPENOR. You are tired, father. A white glare comes from the stones.
HOMER. White, you say?
ELPENOR. Yes. Is that strange?
HOMER. No, it’s normal. Strange is what I have now in front of my eyes. It isn’t even blackness. It’s the colour of emptiness.


I just don’t understand what has happened. What do you think?
ELPENOR. You must go home and rest.
HOMER. After all, I haven’t gone blind.


When I sang of the death of the charioteer, I could see quite well. I noticed how Sepharus left a sheep with its throat cut, wiped the blood off his hands and moved towards us. In that moment I had them all in my power. I was happy.
ELPENOR. You know what, Father. Shut your eyes. I shall lead you. You’ll rest better if you keep your eyes shut.
HOMER. Yes. You’re right. It is soothing.
ELPENOR. There, you see.
HOMER. It’s so silly to have your eyes open and not see anything.


Do you think if I open my eyes I shall see?
ELPENOR. Most certainly. But don’t do it just now. There’s no hurry.
HOMER.No. There’s no hurry.
ELPENOR. Perhaps you’d like to sit down?
HOMER. With pleasure, but let’s get out of town. The walls close above me like water.


ELPENOR. You sang beautifully.
HOMER. That’s from fear. From this very morning I have been haunted by fear. I wanted to kill it with a shout.
ELPENOR. You killed it with poetry.
HOMER. Poetry is a shout. Do you know what remains of a poem when you remove the clamour?
HOMER. Nothing.


It can’t stay like this, do you think?
ELPENOR. It will certainly pass. Don’t you feel better?
HOMER. Much better. But I would prefer not to open my eyes just yet.
ELPENOR. Certainly.
HOMER. Let’s sit here. Where are we?
ELPENOR. By Pan’s fountain.
HOMER. Of course, I can hear it. It’s only two steps from home.
ELPENOR. There’s no reason to hurry.
HOMER. You’re right, my son. Let’s not hurry.


When my eyes are closed I feel reassured. But I shall have to open them in the end.
ELPENOR. We’ll give it a try just before we get home.
HOMER. All right.
ELPENOR. What are you doing, Father?
HOMER. I am feeling my face. Everything’s in its right place. My eyes are in their place, too. It’s a horrible feeling, when something most intricately yours suddenly leaves you.
ELPENOR. It’s pleasant here.
HOMER. Yes, it’s pleasant. Cool. Calm.
ELPENOR. Lie down on the bench. I’ll cover your face with my cloak.
HOMER. You look after me as Antigone looked after Oedipus. Only Oedipus was really blind. Say something, Elpenor.
ELPENOR. When we buy a hotel, you won’t have to go out. The sun’s bad for you.
HOMER. It really is bad for me.
ELPENOR. The hotel will stand among the trees. In the shade.
HOMER. We shall have to call it something.
ELPENOR. ‘At the Sign of the Snoring Merchant’. This should attract merchants and thieves.
HOMER. Or ‘Beneath the Eye of Zeus’. This should attract pilgrims and moderate atheists.
ELPENOR. We shall have many servants.
HOMER. And good wine. Only we two shall have the key to the cellar.


ELPENOR. Let’s go Father.
HOMER. All right, let’s go. It’s not very far, is it?
ELPENOR. Just round the corner.
HOMER. I can tell by the gravel. I can now see with my feet.
ELPENOR. Well, we’ve arrived home. Our home, father. Look – now.
HOMER. a cry
PROFESSOR. …eece. As I indicated above, the other discovery is not really of any great significance. Beside Anonyn of Miletus, Anonym of Milo is a dwarf beside a giant.

water drips from a tap

…unimportant and common topics. Anonym does not shrink from devoting a poem to a tamarisk, a common plant, prolific and useless.

I told of battles
towers and ships
butchered heroes
and butchering heroes
but I forgot one thing.
I told of a sea storm
collapse of walls
corn on fire
and hills overturned
but I forgot the tamarisk

when he lies
pierced with a spear
the mouth of his wound
closes up
he sees not
the sea
the city
nor friend
he sees
near to his face
a tamarisk

he ascends
to the uppermost
dry twig of the tamarisk
and avoiding
brown and green leaves
tries to
soar into the sky

without wings
without blood
without thought
without –

PROFESSOR. The insignificance of theme goes hand in hand with degeneration of form.

water drips from the tap

HOMER. Oh well, I have to admit it. It was I who wrote about the tamarisk. How did it happen? On the third day after the incident in the market square I left Miletus. Alone. A kind of pilgrimage to a holy place. The island of Milo was that holy place. A well and a temple of Zeus the Miraculous. There were great crowds by the well. According to the instructions of the priests you had to splash yourself with the holy water and say your request aloud. The noise was appalling. ‘Hippias asks that his amputated leg may grow again’. ‘Antyclea begs that she may be able to bear again and that her husband will come back to her’. I shouted the loudest, my voice dark and heavy with tears. ‘Homer demands the return of his eyes’. Three days and no miracle. At night I went to the temple and repeated my prayer. My voice wrapped itself round the column, bit the roof, and fell flat at my feet. I climbed up to the altar and touched the gods’ face. His mouth was shut tight as a clam. He was blind as I was. I felt sorry for him and to cheer him up composed a small ode.

Long I cast into the sky
the thick rope of my shout
to draw you back to earth –
an empty noose came down
now I know
not from blood
not from bones
not even
from flesh of thought

only in great silence
can be felt
the pulse of your existence
endless and elusive
like a wave of light

everything that is not
I pay you homage
touching the body
of your absence.

I did not have much time to attend to the god. More important things were happening. In darkness and in silence my body was ripening. It was like the earth in the spring, full of unforeseeable opportunities. A new tactile covering was growing over my skin. I began to discover myself, to investigate and to describe.

To begin with I shall describe myself
starting from my head
or better still from my leg
to be exact from my left leg

or from my hand
from the little finger of my left hand

my little finger
is warm
slightly bent towards the middle
ending in a nail

it consists of three sections
it grows directly from the palm
if it were separated from it
it would be quite a large worm

it is a special finger
the only left-hand little finger in the world
given to me directly
other left-hand little fingers
are cold abstractions

with mine
we have a common date of birth
a common date of death
and a common loneliness

only my blood
beating out dark tautologies
fastens the distant shores
with the thread of existence.

Very carefully, I began to investigate the world. Everything which I had known about it until then was useless. Like scenery from a different play. I had to perceive everything anew, beginning not with Troy, not with Achilles, but with a sandal, with a buckle of a sandal, with a stone kicked carelessly on a path.

A stone is a creature
of perfection
equal to itself
observing its limits
filled accurately
with stony meaning

with a smell unlike anything else
scares nothing awakens no desires

its zeal and coolness
are right and full of dignity

I feel a great reproach
when I hold it in my hand
and to its noble body
penetrates a false warmth

stones cannot be tamed
they will look at us till the end
with a brilliant steady eye.

I shall never go back to Miletus. That’s where my shout has stayed. It could catch me in some dark alley and kill me.

between the shout of birth
and the shout of death
look intensely at your nails
at a sunset
at a fish tail
and what you will see
do not take to market
do not sell at reduced prices
do not shout

the gods like lovers
like enormous silence

between the clamour of the beginning
and the clamour of the end
be like an untouched lyre
which has no voice
yet has all

This is only the beginning. The beginning is always ridiculous. I am sitting on the lowest step of the Temple of Zeus the Miraculous and I praise a little finger, a tamarisk, stones.
I have neither disciples nor listeners. Everybody is still overawed by the great fire of the epic. But it is dying. Soon there will be nothing but charred remains which will be overwhelmed by grass. I am the grass.
Sometimes I think I may be able with new poems to inspire new people, who will not add metal to metal, shout to shout, fear to fear. But instead, grain to grain, leaf to leaf, feeling to feeling. And word to silence.
PROFESSOR. …eece. The poverty of the poetic world of Anonym of Milo allows us to infer that he had no successors, and that –

Notes on this poem

Reproduced by permission of the Herbert Foundation and the Wylie Agency.