Even keen Classicists might have given Ovid’s Heroides a miss before now: they’re hardly his best-loved work, and outside of the trusty Penguin Classics, they have often escaped notice. The arch mischief of the Ars Amatoria, with its advice on where best to press thighs with a pretty girl (the races) and its metropolitan scorn for provincial manners, seems more modern; while Ted Hughes’ peerless Tales from Ovid are entirely taken from the dark and shifting world of the Metamorphoses.
So Clare Pollard was right to think she’d lighted upon an excellent scheme when she decided the Heroides was in need of an update. These letters from Greek heroines to their absent menfolk feel astonishingly contemporary, and unlike anything else in the world of Latin poetry. Ovid’s Heroines (Pollard’s sensible translation of the title) have been abandoned and are desperate to make their voices heard. So we have Phaedra writing to her cold-hearted stepson Hippolytus, Medea to her faithless Jason, Briseis to the perma-sulking Achilles.
The letters are written in the first person, so they could almost be theatrical monologues. Given that virtually every Roman writer whose work survives was male, we rarely get any chance to consider things from a woman’s perspective. And Ovid gives us that chance with these passionate, witty, sometimes heart-broken poems. He is acutely sensitive to the little-spoken truth that waiting for someone you love to return from dangerous exploits can be far more traumatic than being the one in danger.
So Penelope writes to Ulysses, who has spent ten years besieging Troy and another ten years trying to get home to Ithaca. ‘Anyway, you’ve razed Troy, but what does it matter/ to me it’s been levelled?’ Her interest in the Trojan War is non-existent once her husband has survived it. She just wants him home before the suitors (men who have descended upon the palace to try and marry her, now her husband has been gone so long they presume him dead) demolish everything and kill her son.
Phaedra, trying so hard to be a good wife to Theseus when she’s cruelly afflicted with an overpowering lust for the priggish Hippolytus, is beautifully rendered. ‘Please read this to the end,’ she asks, brightly. ‘Even letters from enemies are read!’ Desperate to show how normal and wholesome she is, the truth shines through her pretence. ‘You won’t believe it by the way: I have a new distraction!’ She boasts about her newfound fondness for hunting before having to admit that she has only taken up this hobby because it’s how Hippolytus spends all his time. Far from distracting herself from thoughts of him, she’s actually mimicking his behaviour.
And those of us who dated the occasional boy before the existence of the mobile phone will feel our hearts go out to poor Phyllis, waiting and waiting for Theseus’ son Demophoon to return to her as he has sworn to do. ‘I deceived myself to defend you./ I cursed weather for wracking your sails;/ Theseus for holding you back… When sky and sea were still, I told myself:/ ‘He’s on his way,’ concocted obstacles.’ Phyllis eventually runs out of excuses for her missing love and kills herself. She turns into an almond tree, and when Demophoon finally returns (their story always reminds me of An Affair to Remember, but with more people turning into trees), grief-stricken, he hugs the tree. Only then does it produce flowers.
Pollard is a confident translator. She’s borrowed inspiration from the Ted Hughes Metamorphoses, and gone for free verse. If she occasionally veers slightly too far towards bathos, that’s preferable to stuffy pomposity: at one point, Hypsipyle describes herself to Jason as ‘inops’ — without resource — which I think I still prefer to Pollard’s undeniably succinct, ‘bag lady’.
The high point is probably the letter from Dido to Aeneas. Ovid had Book 4 of Virgil’s Aeneid to inspire him and it shows. Dido is one of the most tragic figures in all ancient poetry. Her first husband, Sychaeus, was murdered by her brother, and then the gods conspire to have her fall in love with Aeneas. When he leaves her too, she commits suicide so she can be with Sychaeus in the afterlife. Even in what is ostensibly a letter to Aeneas, she reveals her true affections, ‘I come, Sychaeus, your wife is coming/and is sorry she has been so slow.’
Critics of Ovid’s Heroides have often disliked his habit of spinning a Greek princess into a Roman matron. But this rather misses the jokes that Ovid is making. When Oenone, a mountain nymph in love with Paris, talks about scratching off her make-up in fury at seeing him with Helen, Ovid hasn’t forgotten that nymphs don’t wear make-up. He’s deliberately humanising her: mortal women wear make-up precisely to try and appear more like beautiful nymphs. But Helen is so lovely that even a nymph thinks she might need a bit of slap to compete.
Ovid would eventually die in exile, having been booted out of Rome for what he described as ‘carmen et error’ — a poem and a mistake. And these letters serve to remind us that he, of all Latin love poets, understood the plight of the person left behind, the one waiting for a messenger to bring news. He knew that even bad news was less excruciating than no news. And this breezy, witty translation should give new readers the chance to share this understanding.