Ovid wrote Heroides over 2000 years ago, and in the succeeding millennia attitudes towards this remarkable text have veered from reverence to disdain. Once his most celebrated work, recent critics have held it in less high regard. This series of letters from the women of Greek and Roman myth to their absent lovers has been dismissed as “the wearisome complaint of the reft maiden” (Brooks Otis), whilst Alexander Pope criticised Ovid for Romanizing his Greeks, and purists have picked out inaccuracies aplenty (Oenone, the nymph, referencing make up is one example).
Like Clare Pollard, I did not study the Classics during my state school education and thus I am unable to comment on Ovid’s adherence to The Rules, nor can I spot a Romanized Greek when I see one. I enjoy poetry because I enjoy people. I value hearing the ideas, experiences and emotions of others artfully evoked in words, and I found Heroines enthralling. Pollard’s translation is a self-declared “poet’s version, written for pleasure.” She reveals in her Introduction that, for her, the merit of the work lies partly in the astounding empathy of this man, born in 43 BC, and his placement of love above all else.
The collection is vital, relevant, and – crucially – accessible. The heroines sparkle, and Pollard’s occasional use of some thoroughly modern language allows for sharp humour. Consider Oenone, in her letter to Paris, as she expresses contempt for her rival: “Beneath her elegance, Helen’s just/
a slag with a thing for strangers.”
Such disgust, thinly veiling bitter jealousy (towards the woman whose legendary beauty sparked the Trojan War, no less), could come just as easily from today’s inebriated friend as from a great, ancient work.
Of course, these poems are ultimately tragic – the anguished words of women left behind, often in situations of great sorrow or danger. Canace describes her father’s discovery, and cruel murder, of the son she had borne secretly to her brother. In a letter to her late husband, Dido agonises in her guilt at having fallen in love again. Ariadne wakes on a remote island to find that her lover, Theseus, and his crew have set sail. Writing a letter contemplating her inevitable, lonely death, she asks: “Shall no one finger shut my eyes?”
Pollard’s choice of free verse rather than adherence to Ovid’s strict elegiac couplets allows her to convey an array of emotions fluidly. These are three dimensional characters, and the contemporary style particularly suits the internal conflict of the heartbroken heroine. ‘Medea to Jason’ perfectly captures the angst and self-doubt of the tirelessly churning mind of the jilted:
Words like these – and more – and your hand clutching my hand
moved my naïve heart.
I even saw tears – or were they part of your lie?
Penelope’s letter to Ulysses scorns his continuing absence despite the Trojan War having already ended. Her derision for his machismo heroism betrays Ovid’s sense of the importance of love over all, and her sarcastic tone brings her fantastical character briskly to life for the modern reader:
I sent our son to find you – he got the story:
how you, full of your daring – not caring about us –
stole into the Trojan camp at night
and just two of you slaughtered hundreds.
Sounds typically cautious and thoughtful.
A text like this creates for us a real connection with those who lived thousands of years before, and in such a different world. The pain of an unanswered text message is surely equalled by that of a letter seemingly delivered into the ether. Pollard’s appreciation of this, and her skill in conveying the relevance of Ovid’s text, makes Heroines a joy with the potential to enchant even the most daunted newcomer to the Classics.