To the Shade of Zbigniew Herbert

Heaney addresses the memory of a Polish poet he respected greatly for his ‘exemplary ethical and artistic integrity, his noble profile, solidarity with the victims of history and poetic and thereby political strength’; he became a bastion of resistance during turbulent periods of Polish occupation by the Russians.

Active within the Polish Solidarity movement (one of those), of hyperborean giant status caught in the Polish ‘cold’ (from the back of the north wind), touched by creative talent (Apollo favoured), a poetic mouthpiece and spiritual strength when times were dark (the winter season), a popular (among your people) voice-in-waiting when his poetry was forbidden by the authorities (herald whenever he’d departed), when freedom of speech was repressed (the land was silent) and better times seemed distant (summer’s promise thwarted).

His poetry a gift from Apollo (learnt the lyre from him) gladly seized and nurtured (kept it tuned).

  • Zbigniew Herbert (1924-98): Polish poet, essayist and editor born in Lvov; opponent of communism resigning from the Polish Writers’ Union in 1951; unable to publish his poetry in Poland until a ‘thaw’ in 1956; later a supporter of the opposition Solidarity movement;
  • shade: phantom, apparition from the other side of death;
  • back of the north wind: place of cold weather as was Poland in the post WWII; Hyperborea was a mythical place where giants lived;
  • Apollo: son of Zeus and Leto; important deity of classical mythology; god of many things including sun, light, music, poetry and the arts;
  • herald: announcer, portent, promiser;
  • thwart: foil, frustrate, check;
  • lyre: u-shaped musical instrument with strings attached to a cross bar known in classical mythology
  • tune: adjust to the correct pitch;


  • sextet in 3 sentences; line length 12 syllables, final line 10; 4 enjambed line;
  • posthumous address ‘you’;
  • assonant echoes: ‘you…whom…to…you…tuned’/ ‘north…your…thwarted’/ ‘silent…lyre’/ ‘’favoured…remained’/ ‘ those…Apollo…going;
  • alliterative chains [w] ‘one…wind…whom’…would…winter…whenever; velar [k/g]’ aspirant [h]; alveolar [t/d]; nasals [m/n];


  • Heaney is a meticulous craftsman using combinations of vowel and consonant to form a poem that is something to be listened to.
  • the music of the poem: twelveen assonant strands are woven into the text; Heaney places them grouped within specific areas to create internal rhymes , or reprises them at intervals or threads them through the text;
  • syllables without highlight are largely the unstressed sound as in common,  little [ə]

  • alliterative effects allow pulses or beats, soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies; this is sonic engineering of the first order;
  • a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;

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