Zbigniew Herbert’s Poignant Hope

In “Biology Teacher,” Zbigniew Herbert speaks about the unspeakable: the murder of his childhood biology teacher. He is one of a generation of poets attempting to come to terms with survivor guilt after the atrocities committed in their native Poland during its occupation by the Nazis. Herbert addresses a subject of both great generational and personal difficulty with remarkable sensitivity and care. In this poem, just as in another, perhaps more famous poem entitled “Five Men,” Herbert focuses not on the atrocity of killing, but the humanity of those killed.

His poetic tactics follow two lines: detail and syntax. First, the very careful selection of detail draws out an understanding of the victims’ personality and humanity. Second, the syntax allows these unique details to be revealed in interesting ways, building up to poignant observations about the sanctity of life. In “Biology Teacher,” it is Herbert’s boyhood delights at the gross-yet-fascinating subject of biology that tell us so much about the teacher who introduced him to this world. Through careful detail and syntax, we discover what the biology teacher really taught Herbert: a relationship to the natural world involving great care, tenderness, and even respect–punctuated by moments of delight.

The poem begins with the confession “I cannot remember / his face” and proceeds to describe other features of the teacher, including the “dead bow-tie / pinned on.” Even this small detail–the bow-tie being dead, and pinned on, like a butterfly in a collection–tells us about this man’s fascination with biological specimens in life, and foreshadows his own untimely death.

The syntax of the next four stanzas mirrors Herbert’s childhood delight by revealing an unexpected detail at the end. First, the frog touched by the needle contracts violently. Then, we discover that what he is examining and describing as his “ancestor” is, in fact, a paramecium. Third, the dark kernel the teacher brings in is revealed by the word “ergot.” Finally, the longest and perhaps most convoluted revelation:

on his insistence
I became a father
at the age of ten
when after a tense wait
a chestnut sunk in water
released a yellow shoot
and everything around
burst into song

Having built up such great affection for the teacher through the boyhood Herbert’s admiring eyes, he tells us simply that “our biology teacher was killed / by history’s schoolyard bullies.” He borrows the Allies’ wartime rhetoric, that the Nazis were nothing more than thugs, and fuses it with the childhood reference point of schoolyard bullies. This not only serves the same purpose as wartime propaganda–of not dignifying the German army as anything more than thugs–but also brings the Nazis into a child’s view of the world, where one’s worst fear is the schoolyard bullies. These bullies, however, kill.

Finally, Herbert ends by musing about what biology teacher heaven would be like, and then gives the alternative that he might instead reincarnate into the natural world he used to study and love, by becoming a beetle. Here Herbert gives himself the opportunity to demonstrate the gentle fascination for living creatures which he learned from the biology teacher, by imagining treating the reincarnated teacher-turned-beetle with care and respect:

I go up to it
make a bow
and say:
– good day Sir
permit me to assist you –

I transfer him gingerly
and watch him go off
until he has vanished
into his murky professor’s office
at the end of an avenue of leaves

What a remarkable reconciliation. We have come full circle from Herbert not remembering the teacher’s face to this final gesture of imagined tenderness, a survivor’s consolation at the thought that by being kind to insects he could somehow carry on the real teaching of his biology teacher–of respect and compassion for even the smallest of living things. This small, simple kindness set against the unthinkable horrors of Poland’s Nazi occupation, resounds with a universality and an earned sense of poignant hope.