Blessay 15: The Poles and their Hamlet

ELEGY OF FORTINBRAS by Zbigniew Herbert

Now that we’re alone we can talk prince man to man
though you lie on the stairs and see no more than a dead ant
nothing but black sun with broken rays
I could never think of your hands without smiling
and now that they lie on the stone like fallen nests
they are as a defenseless as before The end is exactly this
The hands lie apart The sword lies apart The head apart
and the knight’s feet in soft slippers

You will have a soldier’s funeral without having been a soldier
the only ritual I am acquainted with a little
There will be no candles no singing only canon-fuses and
bursts
crepe dragged on the pavement helmets boots artillery horses
drums drums I know nothing exquisite
those will be my manoeuveres before I start to rule
one has to take the city by the neck and shake it a bit

Anyhow you had to perish Hamlet you were not for life
you believed in crystal notions not in human clay
always twitching as if asleep you hunted chimeras
wolfishly you crunched the air only to vomit
you knew no human thing you did not know even how to
breathe

Now you have peace Hamlet you accomplished what you
had to
and you have peace The rest is not silence but belongs to me
you chose the easier part an elegant thrust
but what is heroic death compared with eternal watching
with a cold apple in one’s hand on a narrow chair
with a view of the ant-hill and the clock’s dial

Adieu prince I have tasks a sewer project
and a decree on prostitutes and beggars
I must also elaborate a better system of prisons
since as you justly said Denmark is a prison
I go to my affairs This night is born
a star named Hamlet We shall never meet
what I shall leave will not be worth a tragedy

It is not for us to greet each other or bid farewell we live on
archipelagos
and that water, these words what can they do what can they
do prince

(translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Peter Dale Scott)

How could a poet make such piercing observations of Hamlet – by way of Fortinbras? Then shake them up, in the modern post-war world, to make it all explode inside my head? It must have had something to do with my vicarious, teenage Polish experiences. For in the sixties, I was excited by Wajda’s great war film trilogy. And especially its final film Ashes and Diamonds (1958) The great actor Zbiegniew Cybulski, dying from his machine gun wounds, caught inside those whiter than white sheets was a tragic, heroic and thrilling image. He hovered over my reading of Herbert’s poem as a parallel elegy for another anti-hero, destroyed prince and court-resistance fighter.

I wonder if Shakespeare’s Hamlet came to represent, for that fifties/early sixties young generation of Poles, a symbol of reaction against Communist repression? The Polish critic Jan Kott certainly influenced an RSC production where Hamlet is a Polish student who upsets the authorities by going abroad to study. And Wojiech Has’s film How to be Loved (1963) stars Zbiegniew Cybulski as the young actor, who attacks a Nazi collaborator, and is then hidden in the flat of a female actor during most of the war. Just before his incarceration, he was in rehearsals for Hamlet with his helper, then cast as Ophelia.

Yet Hamlet doesn’t take the central stage in Herbert’s magnificent poem but Fortinbras, the anti-intellectual soldier guy, now restoring order, taking over the show, creating a new regime. Fortinbras is clearing up Hamlet’s mess – all those deaths boy, all those deaths! Yet he’s still able to talk with the prince ‘man to man.’ He describes the positioning of Hamlet’s body on the stone (especially his hands) as being ‘fallen nests’ and speaks of Hamlet’s knight feet in their ‘soft slippers’. It’s as if Fortinbras is saying what did you actually achieve Hamlet, with all your thinking [‘crystal notions’] as you strode about in your material, probably bourgeois self-indulgent, princely comfort? For him Hamlet was too ethereal and out of touch with the reality of ‘human clay’.

Fortinbras is a soldier and man of action. Hamlet wasn’t. Now Fortinbras has to take the city by the neck and shake it a bit. Inferring that Hamlet merely took his own hurt head by the neck: to shake its rightly suspicious contents, so as to eventually cause multiple deaths at court. Whereas the brutally pragmatic Fortinbras is a bureaucrat and communist apparatchik, who will immediately commence working on a sewage project, Denmark’s prostitution problem and a reform of its prisons. Alive Hamlet remarked that Denmark was a prison. Fortinbras almost scornfully reminds the dead Hamlet of that fact by lumping prisons with waste and sexual exploitation

‘The rest is not silence but belongs to me’ is a wonderfully ironic line suggestive of Fortinbras & Co’s banal and mechanistic world order – an authority that will assert its un-silenced power over any sign of ‘self indulgent’, questioning individualism. Yet there is an envy about Hamlet. The troubled prince will effortlessly slip into legend, become iconic and be immortalized. Unlike Fortinbras who will not receive such honours. Fortinbras’s life will never make him a candidate for a great tragic play where he’s rapidly propelled into a fixed celebrity – a distant star in the heavens. For Fortinbras understands that he and Prince Hamlet exist in very different and polarized worlds.
’ We live on archipelagos and that water these words what can they do what can they do prince.’

Zbiegniev Herbert’s Elegy of Fortinbras is a finely compressed reflection on acting and being, bureaucratic mindset versus mental exploration, power structures, class, fame, envy, and the resolute, if clunky approach of the honest ‘philistine’ over the disturbingly free man. It resonates with the Poland of the 1950/60’s and can be adapted, like Hamlet, to any time and any set of conditions. It’s full of ambiguity, lyricism and a deeply felt skepticism. An impassioned shout. A making sense of things, when reason has been sorely tested. A great poem for the Poles, their identity and for all of us.

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