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Introduction & Overview of Why The Classics

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Why The Classics Summary & Study Guide Description

Why The Classics Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:

This detailed literature summary also contains For Further Reading on Why The Classics by Zbigniew Herbert.

"Why the Classics" appeared in Zbigniew Herbert's first English translation of his poetry, Selected Poems, published in 1968. As is often the case with poetry, it is not clear exactly when the poem was written, only when it was finally published. Herbert began writing as a teenager, but he was 44 years old when Selected Poems was published; therefore, this poem might have been written at any point during those years. The primary themes of the poem—honor, responsibility, artistic authority, and experiences of the exile—are topical to the post World War II era but might also echo some of the realities of life in an oppressive communist state. Accordingly, this poem reflects many of the concerns that Herbert felt about society, especially a society in which his own culture had been destroyed by invading armies. Herbert has often used classical references and ideals in his work. His reliance upon classical works reveals Herbert's view that classical literature is an effective way to study and learn from the events of the modern world. Herbert was criticized for the inclusion of so much from classical antiquity in his poems. This poem shows one way that he chose to refute this criticism. Herbert's poem also exposes the keen disappointments of someone who thought that modern leaders have not learned from the examples of history.

In "Why the Classics," the author uses irony and models from classical history to point to the failings of modern military leaders he believes do not take responsibility for their own military failures. Using the fourth century b.c. historian and general, Thucydides, as an example, Herbert uses the first section of the poem to establish the ideal model: a leader who willingly accepts responsibility for failure, even when the responsibility for such failure is not clearly determined to have been the leader's fault. In the second section of the poem, Herbert compares this ideal model with the leaders and generals of more recent wars, who have no sense of accountability for the actions of their armies. Instead of accepting responsibility, leaders blame anyone or anything rather than blame themselves. In the third section, Herbert turns to literature and art that fails to relate the truth of injustice and instead wallows in self-pity and superficiality. Taken as a whole, Herbert's poem makes effective use of ancient history as a way to criticize Herbert's own world. Instead of the restraint and honesty of Thucydides, his modern counterpart is alternately arrogant, petty, and without talent.

Herbert believed in the value of classicism, with its emphasis on aesthetics, clarity, symmetry, and long-established forms. Certainly, it is reasonable to assume that Herbert's early life, marked by invasions, war, and loss of his homeland, all contributed to his reliance on classical antiquity in his poems. Classical thought provides not only a paradigm of excellence but also a model that has proved enduring. "Why the Classics" is typical of Herbert's poetry, which often turns to the past for inspiration and lessons to which a modern world might look for guidance.

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Poetry for Students
Why The Classics from Poetry for Students. ©2005-2006 Thomson Gale, a part of the Thomson Corporation. All rights reserved.