Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Austin Schermerhorn, On Fragment 16 by Sappho (trans. Mary Barnard)

"You are the herdsmen of evening

Hesperus, you herd
homeward whatever
Dawn's light dispersed

You herd sheep--herd
goats--herd children
home to their mothers"

In Sappho’s hymnic fragment, she invokes Hesperus, Greek god who acts as the personification of the ‘Evening Star’, which we now know as the planet Venus. Hesperus is the son of Eos, the personification of the dawn, and half-brother to the Morning Star, Phosphorus.
In a beautiful, evocative manner, Sappho is detailing the effects of twilight; rather than describing the dwindling light itself, she is detailing its consequences, brought through the personification of the Evening Star. Whatever the day had brought, whatever tribulations or exaltations dawn had shown to man, twilight is now herding, collecting the vestiges of the day and ultimately sinking them into darkness once more. With light humans become active in the world, and for better or for worse they live and grow in the light: they venture away from home when Dawn’s light is dispersed. With the cursory, non-descript “whatever” in line 4, Sappho seems less interested in the different spectra of lives and days that humans have, and more interested in the preparation for the after, that which makes us all alike in our end. The arrival of the Evening Star in the half-light seems then to be the beckoning call for a return home (for the children), and a return to safety and enclosure (for the sheep), a signal for sleep and an awaiting of the first hint of morning, for Hesperus’s half-brother Phosphorus (which is also incidentally the planet Venus). This recurrent nature of the planet Venus, which was thought to the Ancient Greeks to be two separate celestial bodies, shows the repetition of the day and also for life in general, that for a while something is shown--gradually light is thrown on the day or on the life of a human, and then soon enough, sometimes too soon, the light dwindles again and the herdsman of evening quietly escorts us home and ushers in the still night. But after the Evening Star, the Morning Star always rises to signal a nearing dawn, so perhaps, if Sappho is suggesting death as well as twilight in this poem, we must only wait to view Hesperus’ half-brother, and thus a new dawn.

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