What the Swedes Read
A Reader Makes His Way Through One Book by Each Nobel Laureate
by Daniel Handler
- LAUREATE: Odysseus Elytis (Greece, 1979)
- BOOK READ: The Sovereign Sun, translated by Kimon Friar
Before diving into the poetry of Odysseus Elytis, let us talk, you and I, about Hesperus. Hesperus, a.k.a. Hesperos, pops up in Elytis’s work, and it’s been a few years since I cracked open my Edith Hamilton, so I was a little fuzzy on this figure from Greek mythology. I did a little digging and, as many people do when they do a little digging, fell into a hole. Turns out Hesperus is the Evening Star. It turns out the Evening Star is Venus, and Venus, even I remember, is the Roman counterpart to the Greeks’ Aphrodite. It turns out Hesperus is the son of the dawn goddess, Eos, a.k.a. Aurora, though he’s not the kid Eos had with Astraeus. That guy is Phosphorus, although, funny story, the phrase “Hesperus is Phosphorus” is a classic illustration of the apparently well-known philosophical gambit Frege’s Puzzle, which is about the semantics of proper names. None of this rang a bell, because it turns out that I had been confusing Hesperus and Hephaestus—speaking of the semantics of proper names—and they’re totally different guys, Hephaestus, a.k.a. Vulcan, being the Greek god who does a lot of blacksmithing and is often pictured wandering around with tongs. Hesperus, meanwhile, doesn’t get a lot of mythological glory. Digging further via Hyginus’s Fabulae, a long, myth-packed tome I’d always meant to check out, I found that Hesperus’s claim to fame appears to be that his daughter threw herself into the ocean when her husband died, and the gods changed them both into halcyon birds (a.k.a. kingfishers) and, long story short, that’s where we got the phrase “halcyon days.” So when I read the following lines of Elytis’s poem “I Know the Night No Longer”—
I know the night no longer, the
terrible anonymity of death
A fleet of stars moors in the haven
of my heart
O Hesperos, sentinel, that you may
shine by the side
Of a skyblue breeze on an island…
We hope you enjoy this excerpt.
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