The Bitter Smell of Tulips (Still Life with a Bridle [Martwa natura z wędzidłem])


by Zbigniew Herbert (1924 - 1998)

An acclaimed Polish poet portrays the ‘tulipomania’ that seized the Netherlands in the seventeenth century as exemplary of all ‘follies in the sanctuaries of reason’.

Herbert first examines why the Dutch adore flowers, focusing on one painting (today in the Mauritshuis) of ‘emancipated, dominating, rapacious’ blooms. He then traces tulip history, from Persian import to European social psychosis and financial fetish. With light irony, referencing historical ‘proofs’ and ‘theses’, Herbert’s tale of naïve capitalism symbolizes the battle between classicism and barbarism (‘madness’ from the East), political sanity and mania. It ends with an anecdote reminiscent of a Chekhov short story.

Related recommendation: Herbert’s ‘Still Life With a Bridle’ (1993)

Origin: Poland

Themes: History

Genres: Historical

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