Fifteenth Reflection: Sappho, “You are the herdsman of evening”

You are the herdsman of evening
Sappho (tr. Mary Barnard)

You are the herdsman of evening

Hesperus, you herd
homeward whatever
Dawn’s light dispersed

You herd sheep – herd
goats – herd children
home to their mothers


We’re so used to thinking of Night as separate from familial love that it is hard to see how Day scatters us. Night for us isn’t a herding homeward, but excitement, searching, anxiety. Even for those who do have families they cherish, night means time apart from them. We read alone in rooms, sneak in conversations with others. Night is where our true selves emerge; Day is where we merely present a public face.

But we do feel that public face we present daily is ours, and Night where our desires and incompleteness make themselves most manifest. I’m interested in the implied Day of this fragment. Dawn’s light disperses, allowing for movement, growth, productivity. That much the mention of sheep and goats evidences. The sheep and goats need to return home in order for the cycle to continue, for them to keep being good. Does children scattering during day, returning to mothers at night, work the same way? In one sense, yes, as there is a cycle that must take place for them to grow. They must be nurtured and loved even as they venture out. In another sense, Hesperus governs nothing less than death.