Zbigniew Herbert died on July 28. I first became familiar with Herbert’s work in 1984, when Leopold Tyrmand invited me to become managing editor of Chronicles. In discussing future candidates for The Ingersoll Prizes, Tyrmand repeatedly brought up Mr. Herbert as a future winner. Although I could not read Polish, Herbert’s verse made a deep impression on me, both for its intellectual seriousness and for its lyricism. When I became executive secretary of The Ingersoll Prizes in 1985, I already had Herbert on my mind as a future winner, but it was not until ten years later that I found a group of jurors who agreed with me.

Mr. Herbert’s health did not, in the end, allow him to come to Chicago, but we paid tribute to him as best we could. I used the occasion to praise Herbert as a poet of civilization in a very uncivilized century:

“The ideological revolutions of this century have been intellectually and morally subversive; they have also done their best to destroy the decent institutions that make everyday life bearable—the free market, the family, religious faith. They deprived more than a billion people of their political liberty and quite literally murdered hundreds of millions of human beings. Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot—so much weak flesh burned in the purifying fire of their powerful ideologies.

“No country suffered a worse fate than Poland, overrun first by the Nazis and then by the communists. Zbigniew Herbert was 15 years old in 1939, when the German tanks rolled into Poland, and he was to spend the war years in the Polish resistance. When the communists took up where the Nazis left off, Mr. Herbert continued his resistance, refusing to collaborate with the literary and intellectual commissars who put themselves in charge of Poland’s cultural institutions.

“But for all the darkness of the times, Herbert’s poetry is anything but defeatist. This is not to say that he is an optimist. I can think of no poet who has so well captured the sense of what it is like to live not only under subjugation but also in a society in which people have forgotten how to fight. In ‘Report From a Besieged City,’ he describes a city under siege, abandoned by its allies, and weakened in its resolve: ‘and if the city falls but a single man escapes / he will carry the city within himself on the roads of exile / he will be the city.’

“Zbigniew Herbert is that man, and the city is not just Poland but, in a larger sense, it is the life of all cities, civilization itself he carries with him. Like T.S. Eliot (in whose name this prize is given), Herbert is devoted to the legends and literature of the ancients. His classicism is explicit in several of his finest poems, and in ‘Why the Classics?’ he pays tribute to the hard-edged realism of Thucydides, who was honest even about his own failure.

“The late Leopold Tyrmand, who lived through the same period, used to tell me that Herbert was unquestionably the greatest Polish writer of the 20th century, and although the two friends parted over a misunderstanding, Tyrmand never ceased to revere Herbert as a man who was—above all things—a faithful and loyal friend who never put either self-interest or ideology above friendship. As a result, one of the greatest poets of our time has lived his life in poverty and obscurity.

“Seamus Heaney (the 1995 winner of the Nobel Prize for literature) called Zbigniew Herbert the next Nobel Prize winner . . . “

Alas it was not to be, but the failure was not Herbert’s but that of the literary drudges who cannot recognize true merit. The Ingersoll Prizes have been described more than once as the sane alternative to the Nobel, and in presenting the T.S. Eliot Award to Zbigniew Herbert, The Ingersoll Foundation lived up to that claim.