Is it possible to read Herbert in the same way? Darkness was certainly pouring into Herbert's poetry, and possibly into his life, around the time when most of the poems from "Elegy" were composed, but it was present in his verse from the beginning, especially in his early poems, in which he bid farewell to the ghosts of his friends fallen during the war. The English volume opens with one such poem, called "Three Poems By Heart," which originally appeared in "Chord of Light." The first of its three movements is a search for a person, or rather for a language, in which the memory of that person can be extracted from among horrifying images of wartime destruction:
I can't find the title
of a memory about you
with a hand torn from darkness
I step on fragments of faces
soft friendly profiles
frozen into a hard contour.
The second part of the poem speaks of the self-reproach of survivors who know that "our hands won't transmit the shape of your hands / we squander them touching ordinary things." In the third movement a contrast appears between various images of life before the conflagration,
the children on our street
scourge of cats
a Poet's statue was in the park
And the unbearable reality of what followed:
the children on our street
had a difficult death
pigeons fell lightly
like shot down air
In the last lines we see the city that "flies to a high star / where a distant fire is burning / like a page of the Iliad." (In Polish the final image is more subtle and ambiguous: the fire "has a distant smell / like a page from the Iliad.") The starkly dispassionate language and the apparent stoic resolution of the poem (yes, it all has happened before) have an unmistakably ironic purpose. How can one reconcile heroic hexameters with the "difficult death" of a child?
Herbert, the worshiper of classical symmetry of form and inner poise, makes his appearance in the poem "Architecture,',' in which "movement meets stillness a line meets a shout / trembling uncertainty simple clarity." But the poem "Oaks" sets a different tone. It starts like a romantic paean to the perfection of nature, but soon changes into a vehement attack on nature's apparent disregard of suffering: "this Nietzschean spirit on a dune so quiet / it might comfort the suffering of Keats's nightingale." Nature seems to be ruled by "a watery-eyed god with the face of an accountant / a demiurge of infamous statistical tables / who plays dice that always come out in his favor." Herbert's voice is growing more personal, his irony more astringent. His stoicism seems to falter in the face of very human, and very elemental, fear, as in "Prayer of the Old Men," that ends on a mournful, pleading note:
but don't allow us
to be devoured
by the insatiable darkness of your altars
say just one thing
that we will return later
Even the most "public" poem in this volume, "Mass for the Imprisoned," which, like "Report from the Besieged City" was inspired by the imposition of martial law in Poland in 1981, has an unusual melancholy and resigned tone. It is built almost exclusively of images of degraded landscapes ("clay pit," "burned-down sawmill," "peeling walls") and of human helplessness ("idle hands," "awkward elbows and knees," "mouths open in sleep," a priest struggling to "tie and untie the knot"). There is no trace of the imperious contempt of the poem "The Power of Taste," or the granite invulnerability of "The Envoy of Mr. Cogito." As we learn at the poem's end, the conspiracy will continue, but this time its only accompaniment will be "the dignified silence of bells / the obstinate barking of keys."
The book closes with a long poem that lends its title to the whole volume. "Elegy for the Departure of Pen, Ink and Lamp" is a lament for the three objects presented here both as companions of studious childhood and symbols of the three ideas most often associated with "the Herbertian" vision: the critical mind, a "gentle volcano" of imagination and "a spirit stubbornly battling" the darker demons of the soul. The tone of the poem is cryptic, and the nature of the personal catastrophe that seems to lie at its center is hidden from our view. We learn only that the departure of the objects was caused by an unspecified "betrayal" on the part of the speaker and that it leaves him feeling guilty and powerless. The last words of the poem, and of the book ("and that it will be / dark"), sound like a door slammed shut.