Solidarity leader Lech Walesa, shaken by yesterday's police attack on demonstrators who were blocked along with him from laying a wreath at a Gdansk monument, said today that the militiamen acted "like animals."

It was a characteristically outspoken statement by the stocky electrician with the trademark mustache whom Polish authorities have failed to subdue or silence after three years of trying. They have been years of fame that have left him feeling somewhat equivocal about his own role and occasionally introspective.

"We keep thinking about the reaction of those people in uniform," said the man who won the Nobel Peace Prize last year for stressing nonviolence in the advancement of workers' rights. "Next year we'll have to consider the kinds of arguments being used to make those people behave so much like animals. Thank God society is reasonable and controls itself. I wonder how it is possible to turn a man into such a beast."

Deprived by a military crackdown of the independent union he led, Walesa retains much of the recognition he had as chairman of the now-outlawed Solidarity movement. As the main unifying figure for a fragmented political opposition, responsibility falls periodically on him to issue the statement or make the gesture to sum up the national sense of suffering and defiance under undemocratic rule.

December is a particularly demanding month in this regard, marking the anniversaries of martial law in 1981 and the killing in 1970 by police of workers here rioting against food price increases. A towering steel monument to those who died was the one Walesa and 3,000 supporters tried to reach yesterday. Today, a misdemeanor court in Gdansk sentenced Walesa's former deputy, Andrzej Gwiazda, and two others to three months in prison for taking part.

Walesa was back at his daily job early this morning as an average-paid worker -- he earns about $115 monthly, plus another $115 in food and family allowances -- repairing cranes, forklifts and trolleys at the sprawling Lenin Shipyard where Solidarity began.

Appearing impervious to the headlines that Walesa generates abroad, the government maintains the fiction that he is a regular private citizen. Receipt of the Nobel Prize a year ago reinforced Walesa's commitment to peaceful protest tactics and refreshed his drive. Friends also say it boosted his awareness of an international audience and a sense of responsibility to it.

He sometimes moans about the demands the western media place on him to comment on Polish events. "I can't scratch myself in peace," he griped recently. But at quieter times of the year he thanks reporters and visitors from abroad for remembering him and for putting up with the police identity checks that invariably come with dropping by Walesa's apartment.

The strain of being a public figure has made Walesa consider giving up politics altogether. He no longer looks the part he did four years ago of the lean, determined underdog in the ill-fitting suit. At 41, he is overweight and better dressed, and he has developed a duodenal ulcer.

"I'd like to try other avenues," he said in an interview yesterday before attempting to march to the monument. "I've had enough of this. Many things aren't fun anymore. I'd like to be a normal person, unnoticed by others. You can't push your life only in one direction."

Several times already this year Walesa has offered to retire from the limelight if it would facilitate new talks between the government and credible representatives of society. But colleagues point out that Walesa has been threatening to quit since he led the strike at the shipyard in August 1980 that won the right to form Eastern Europe's first independent union.

On the surface, Walesa still appears to thrive on public contact. Outside the rectory at St. Brigit's Church yesterday, he signed autographs and posed for pictures with youths from Szczecin, clearly enjoying the scene.

Signaling his own ambivalence about bowing out, Walesa said he would not want to withdraw until he has corrected "many things in a way that would satisfy the majority."

Except for an occasional derisive article, the state-controlled Polish media ignore Walesa. Authorities quickly dropped a major attempt to discredit him as a money-grubber and megalomaniac once the Nobel award was announced.

In tacit acknowledgement of Walesa's surviving authority, however, Polish radio broadcast a call by him to remain calm after the October slaying by secret police of the Rev. Jerzy Popieluszko, a Warsaw priest who was close to the Solidarity movement. His appeal, and that of Cardinal Jozef Glemp, the Polish primate, contributed to defusing tensions.

Authorities insist that neither Walesa nor those who advised or served with him in Solidarity will ever again be partners in negotiations with the government.

"In 1981, we asked these people every day for dialogue and reconciliation," said a high-ranking official who bargained with Walesa. "They answered: 'we aren't interested.' Our answer now is: in politics, everyone has to pay for his mistakes."

Walesa realizes he is not likely to reassume his old role. Nonetheless, the duties of being an opposition leader cause him to maintain a sizable staff of volunteers who fluctuate in number from 10 to 20 persons. They help him field questions from the press, handle contacts with the West and attend to requests from fellow Solidarity activists around the country.

On important matters, Walesa still turns for advice to those who counseled him during the 1980-81 Solidarity period -- particularly, medieval historian Bronislaw Geremek and Roman Catholic publicist Tadeusz Mazowiecki. He relies as well on a broad network of other contacts. Now and then he will confer with Glemp at meetings that, when they happen, are political events for both men.

Formal statements issued in Walesa's name are often the product of several drafts, mixing suggestions from several aides and colleagues. A statement last week, for instance, marking the third anniversary of the declaration of martial law, was composed by several people, then read by Walesa on Dec. 10 to an audience of about 120 academics, scientists, professionals and artists gathered in a chapel at Gdansk's St. Nicholas Church.

Criticisms from the group helped Walesa hone a final version, released to the foreign press Dec. 13. It said attempts at absolute rule stood no chance and urged political and economic reforms.

A senior government official, speaking disparagingly about Walesa, suggested recently that the famous unionist was incapable of writing his own statements. Offended by the remark, which the official repeated to other journalists, Walesa challenged any number of government officials to debate him. "I will be by myself on the other side of the table," he said. "If I am so mediocre, I think the fight will be equal."

He conceded that he feels inadequate in some specialized fields, in view of his working-class background, but declared: "My conceptions and ideals are so simple and clear that my victory is assured."

Friends say that Walesa has become more thoughtful and deliberate in recent months in what he says publicly and how he says it. As leader of Solidarity, his popularity rested in large part on his folksiness, which played well to workers. He spoke with a genuineness -- and a sometimes mangled grammar -- that was refreshing for Poles accustomed to the turgid, artificial language of communist officialdom.

But he no longer is permitted to address crowds. To get his message across, Walesa must rely instead on published declarations.

"Now he acts more cautiously and weighs his words more carefully," said Janusz Onyszkiewicz, former national spokesman of Solidarity. "It took him some time after martial law to realize the way he projects his image is necessarily different now. It's not the same if people have to read what he has to say rather than hear it directly from him."

Walesa's political instincts, especially his flair for the dramatic gesture, still serve him well. On May 1 this year, he drew the delight of many Poles by sneaking into an official parade in Gdansk long enough to flash a two-fingered, V-for-Victory salute at a stand of stunned authorities.

The amnesty last summer of some of Walesa's former top deputies and advisers who had been in prison since military rule was imposed in 1981, was seen as possibly eclipsing Walesa's own authority. But this has not happened. Instead, those released -- Gwiazda of Gdansk, Marian Jurczyk of Szczecin and Wladyslaw Frasyniuk of Wroclaw, among others -- have deferred to Walesa in the interest of avoiding a new leadership fight in opposition ranks that would please only the government.

Since Solidarity was banned, the focus of opposition activity has shifted from street protests to consciousness-raising meetings and creation of a network of underground political and social structures. "There is a lot of work going on in the country -- training, programming, creative work," Walesa explained. "Sometimes we even have to slow things down; they develop too quickly. Many consultations are going on."

Since his release from 11 months' internment in November 1982, Walesa has pressed several themes repeatedly: dialogue between the communist authorities and legitimate representatives of society, reform of Poland's overly bureaucratized and bankrupt economy, and competitive trade unions in place of the current rule allowing only one per factory.

Walesa says officials, to make the economy work, will give in and permit independent unions again, if only at local levels. "The main thing is to draw into activity those people who are apathetic," he said. "Pluralism will ensure that they join in. The guarantee for a more effective economic system lies in getting more people involved."