“I wish you a difficult life. Only this is worthy of an artist”, Herbert informed a group of young actors in 1995. He spoke from experience. The poet acclaimed in Western circles for his balance and restraint led a tempestuous existence even by Polish standards. Alcohol, physical and mental illness, financial instability, endless peregrinations both at home and abroad – these combined with the volatile history of wartime and postwar Poland to produce both a remarkably difficult life and a remarkable body of work.
“Suffering does not ennoble us”, Herbert remarks in a letter of 1995, three years before he died. His last decade does not make for easy reading. Heavy drinking, prolonged bouts of mental illness and intense physical pain left their mark on his personal life and writing. “Lord, I give thanks to You for syringes with needles thick and hair-thin”, he prays in a heart-breaking lyric, translated by Valles; “thank you for the drip, saline solutions, tubes and above all for sleeping pills with names like Roman nymphs.”