Mr. Cogito’s Eschatological Premonitions


Until this year, Zbigniew Herbert was hardly known, if at all, by English-speaking readers. An excellent selection of his Selected Poems, translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Peter Dale Scott in 1968 and reprinted in 1986, was almost impossible to find. We can be grateful that Ecco Press has brought out a long-overdue edition of Herbert’s Collected Poems, which include the Milosz-Scott translations with new translations by Alissa Valles. Herbert, who won the T.S. Eliot Prize in 1995, is a titan of not only Polish poetry, but of twentieth-century European poetry. His celebrated alter ego, Mr. Cogito, ranks as the one of the most original characters in modern poetry. Mr Cogito first appeared in 1974 and Herbert added poems by or about him in every book until his last in 1998.

The name of the alter ego derives from Descartes’ famous line: “Cogito ergo sum.” (“I think, therefore, I am.”) Mr. Cogito is ironic, droll, humble, self-deprecating, stubborn, valiant and philosophical. Many of the Mr. Cogito poems treat grand philosophical and metaphysical themes with a down-to-earth, no-nonsense attitude that is at once hilarious and profound; such poems include, among others, “Mr. Cogito Reflects on Suffering,” “Mr. Cogito on Virtue,” “Mr. Cogito and Pure Thought,” “Mr. Cogito’s Reflections on Redemption,” “Mr. Cogito and the Imagination,” and “Mr. Cogito Tells of the Temptation of Spinoza.”

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