I came across a rather good poem by Michael Field (actually a pseudonym for an incestuous aunt-and-niece literary double act) the other day, which begins 'Adown the Lesbian vales'. It's just a bit too long to post in full here, but here's a link.

The poem begins with a quotation from Sappho, and is full to the gunwales with references to Greek mythology. I think I can decode all of these, apart from the last line of the last verse. This is that last verse:

To that pure band alone
I sing of marriage-loves;
As Aphrodite's doves
Glance in the sun their colour comes and goes:
No girls let fall
Their maiden zone
At Hymen's call
Serene as those
Taught by a poet why sweet Hesper glows.

I have at least a rudimentary knowledge of classical literature, but I am not aware of any famous classical poem giving an explanation for the luminosity of the evening star. Is there such a poem? Or is 'a poet' a reference to the authors of this poem?

  • 1
    The evening star is, of course, Venus, goddess of love. Possibly this is all there is to it (although there easily may be a deeper mythological reference).
    – Peter Shor
    Oct 25, 2023 at 17:58

1 Answer 1


The reference is surely to Sappho fragments 104(a) and (b), in David Campbell’s numbering:

104(a) Demetrius, On Style

Sometimes, also, Sappho makes charming use of repetition as in the description of the Evening Star:

Hesperus, bringing everything that shining Dawn scattered, you bring the sheep, you bring the goat, you bring back the child to its mother.

Here the charm lies in the repetition of the word ‘bring’, always with the same reference (i.e. to Hesperus).

(b) Himerius, Orations

You are, I think, an evening star, the fairest of all stars.

This song to Hesperus is Sappho’s.

David A. Campbell, ed. (1982). Greek Lyric, volume 1, p. 131. London: William Heinemann.

So in the context of Sappho fragment 160 “I shall now sing these songs beautifully to delight my companions” quoted at the head of the poem, we can take “those taught by a poet why sweet Hesper glows” to be the companions of Sappho to whom she sang her song of Hesperus, and who, preferring their own sex, were unresponsive to the call of Hymen, the god of marriage.

The difficulty with this interpretation is that the surviving fragments do not explain why Hesperus shines, and indeed if the Greeks had an origin myth for Hesperus then it does not survive. But I think the poet intends us to imagine that if we had the whole of Sappho’s song, and not just the fragments, then we would find in it an aetiology for the evening star.

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