Ovid’s Heroines

An English translation of the Heroides—the collection of 15 imagined love letters from mythological women to their erstwhile or departed lovers, written around 20 BCE by the ancient Roman poet Ovid—might in the first instance appear to be a publisher’s gamble. After all, the epistolary genre reached its peak in the eighteenth century; love letters are now achingly old-fashioned in a world of instant communication; and classics is hardly a subject taught widely, leaving the ancient world inaccessible to many. And yet, Ovid’s Heroines by Clare Pollard spectacularly trumps these odds: here, in a winning combination, poetic love letters become compelling, classics becomes contemporary, and mythology becomes exciting.

Within the academic sphere, much effort has been made to champion the relevance of the classics, and all the more so now that universities face cuts and challenges to their role. These interventions range from scholarly enquiries such as Charles Martindale’s Classics and the Uses of Reception (2006), the catchily-titled study by Cambridge don, Simon Goldhill, Love, Sex and Tragedy: Why Classics Matters (2005); to the more frivolous phrase book, Latin Can be Fun (1997). Beyond the institution, innovative translations have brought classical epic to the bedside tables and bookshelves of a wider range of readers. These include Christopher Logue’s extracts from Homer’s Iliad: War Music (1987), and Ted Hughes’ selection of stories from Ovid’s MetamorphosesTales from Ovid (1997). However, other works of Latin literature and drama possibly remain little read outside particular circles. While the Loeb classical library has produced a superb range of parallel texts of Greek and Roman literature, the translations can be somewhat dated, the presentation scholarly, and the books beautiful but expensive—an investment for students but perhaps less appealing to the “common reader”.

Once a highly influential and significant text, Ovid’s Heroides has more recently been overshadowed by the cultural presence of his Metamorphoses. During the Renaissance and early modern period, the Heroides, which features imagined letters from figures such as Medea, Phaedra, Hermione, Penelope, and Dido, played a formative role in discourses about love and the genre of the love letter. Poets such as Dryden and Pope produced popular and successful translations and imitations, and the sentimental and passionate expression of these letters was hugely influential on the epistolary novels published in France and England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In recent times, however, it has been Ovid’sMetamorphoses that has generated a wealth of imitations and revisions: in addition to Hughes’ Tales from Ovid, Philip Terry’s edited collection, Ovid Metamorphosed(2000), includes rewritings of episodes from the Metamorphoses by A. S. Byatt, Marina Warner, and Margaret Atwood, to name but a few; and Ali Smith’s novella Girl Meets Boy (2007) revisits Ovid’s tale of Iphis and Ianthe. While theHeroides has not been entirely neglected, recent translations, such as the verse translations by Harold Isbell (1990) and Daryl Hine (1991), cluster towards the academic end of the spectrum.

Pollard is, therefore, the first female poet to turn her hand to Ovid’s ancient letters and the first to write in free verse, as well as being the first author to publish a version of the work with a poetry-specific press: Bloodaxe Books. Bloodaxe is renowned for its attention to emerging voices from around the world, its focus on women’s writing, and its politically-minded, sometimes controversial, publication choices. Pollard first made her name at the age of 19 with the publication of theThe Heavy-Petting Zoo (Bloodaxe, 1998), described by the publishers as “an insider’s in-your-face portrayal of the tarnished lives of today’s bright young things”; this was swiftly followed by an Eric Gregory award in 2000. Pollard has also co-translated work by the Somali poet Caasha Luul Mohamad Yusuf as part of a project set-up by The Poetry Translation Centre, in which poets, regardless of their foreign language knowledge, work together with linguists to translate poetry from around the world. And, as Pollard tells us in the introduction to her translation of Ovid, her “state school in Bolton [did] not teach the classics”: with little formal knowledge of Latin, she worked from cribs, dictionaries, and existing translations to produce her version of the Heroides, transforming it into Ovid’s Heroines.

The result is a startling range of voices that are sexy, complex, terrifying, and pitiful. They are both ancient and modern, and all negotiate a tension between affected theatricality and poignant sincerity. The Heroines is riddled with self-conscious references to the letter-writing process—references which have, since Ovid, become firmly established as topoi of the epistolary genre. The women draw attention to the letter as physical object: as Briseis writes, “the smears are tears”. They comment on the difficulty of writing: Hypermesta laments that “I’d write more, but the chains hurt my wrists, / and fear has taken my strength”. They create urgency by “writing up to the moment”, as Deianira exclaims, and by referring to the currency of events: “But why do I go on? As I write news arrives”. Underlying the whole collection is the inescapable fact that these letters would never—not even fictionally—reach their addressees: they are the frustrated outpourings of women who are, for reasons geographic and social, “stuck, stuck, stuck”, as Pollard puts it.

The presence of the poet’s mischievous voice behind his female avatars underpins this self-consciousness, and Pollard has masterfully rendered the puns so typical of Ovid’s writing. Phaedra addresses her step-son with almost pedantic syntax: “I wish you well, though lack such wellness, lacking you”. Penelope, complaining of Ulysses’ absence as he journeys home from defeated Troy, pithily writes: “I remain as I was while it remained— / alone”. Such theatricality points us to a further, generic hybridity. As Pollard comments in the introduction, these letters also read as a collection of dramatic monologues—and all the more self-consciously so when their writers, such as Phaedra or Medea, happen to be tragic heroines. Ovid has playfully converted theatrical speeches into love letters, capturing the changes of heart, moments of self-realisation, and struggle that characterise the tragic monologue. Phaedra tries to persuade Hippolytus, her step-son, to run away with her:
Often, beneath oak, did Venus
and her Adonis press grass.
Let us too be like them –
a forest without passion is just trees
At the same time she abhors her own desires: “I’m not ashamed to kneel. I beg… / God! Where is my pride, where are my words?”. And true to her tragic character, Medea rages against Jason:
Where this rage leads, I will follow.
Perhaps I will repent,
but I repent caring for you.
Never willing to conform, Ovid has also sometimes deliberately played down the “typical” characteristics of his mythological heroines. Instead of patiently waiting for Ulysses in unwavering faithfulness, stalling her suitors by declaring herself unavailable until she has finished weaving her father-in-law’s shroud—an operation she delays by unravelling her day’s work at night—as Homer would have it, Ovid’s Penelope waits impatiently for Ulysses’ return. This is brilliantly captured by Pollard. The letter opens with a blunt “Dear Ulysses / you’re late”. And she continues, “but, honestly, Troy wasn’t worth it”. References to the shroud only come through in bitter musings: “you might be saying how provincial I am: /Domestic goddess; good with wool”.

Yet despite this playful self-consciousness, the poignancy and horror of some of these women’s situations are not lost. Instead, with a sympathetic touch, Pollard conveys the powerless pain driving many of the letters. Laodamia’s young love Protesilaus has gone off to fight the Trojan war and she is afraid of the prophecy that the first to set foot on Trojan land will be killed—needless to say, this is the fate that awaits her lover. This dramatic irony adds a heart-wrenching tenderness to her distracted thoughts: “But what am I doing? Do I call you back? / It is unlucky – I wish you calm seas, caressing gales…” Her attempts at bravery are tempered by a desperate anxiety: “My loving heart sends a hello. I hope you’re healthy. / I hope this reaches my husband”.

The most striking hybridity, however, comes from the mixture of ancient and modern that these voices convey. With great skill, Pollard has mingled her voice—modern, female, at times blunt—with Ovid’s. But it’s worth remembering that, as Hughes points out in his introduction to Tales from Ovid, “Ovid too is an adaptor”. The women Ovid presents were ancient, mythic, and legendary by the time of his writing: transforming their words into playful Latin verse was itself a modernising gesture. The great success of Pollard’s translation is her whole-hearted embrace of this Ovidian characteristic. Modern turns of phrase chime unexpectedly with ancient similes and images. Deianira’s letter to Hercules is perhaps the most compelling example of this. Having heard tales of Hercules’ cross-dressing, she writes:
You wove women’s’ ribbons through your hair!
And modelling the Lydian belt,
like Miss Playful. You’re sick, sick.
Her anxieties and frustrations are conveyed in distinctly contemporary terms: “Perhaps you’ll dump me, Deianira” and “Deianira, you bitch—why not kill yourself?” In a cruelly humorous twist, Pollard turns Deianira’s paranoid fears of others’ opinions into headlines: “Hercules Horror: Wicked Wife Still Lives”. But the “ancientness” is not lost when, early in the letter, she writes: “Prophecies in entrails, day dreams, omens— / they all stir my stress”.

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