Heroides

“Can anything good come from a life
that is lived among the winds?”

Ovid

Ovid’s Heroides are, essentially, a bunch of fictional letters written by the heroines of myth and legend to their errant lovers. So we have Penelope telling Odysseus to hurry home from his adventures; Dido pleading with Aeneas to return; and Hero egging Leander on into his deadly swim in the Hellespont. Basically, the Heroides is exactly like Carol Ann Duffy’s World’s Wife. Except, you know, two thousand years old.

I’ve vaguely wanted to read it for a while, and its inclusion on this term’s reading list (for Historical Background, you see) seemed like the perfect excuse.

Here, in the Penguin edition the poems are translated into English verse (not rhyming verse, though, happily) by Harold Isbell. The translations are perfectly competent, as far as I’m concerned, although there is, as always, that weird feeling that the translator hasn’t quite mastered English properly…but that’s something I find with all translations. It’s probably Cultural Difference, or something.

However, the general Introduction and the introductions to each of the poems are quite a different matter. The Introduction reads like an A-level essay. I’m sorry, but it does. Just stating the obvious over and over again is not sufficient to hold a reader’s interest. Also, I’m annoyed by the fact that Isbell continually sides with the men here: even when the women are obviously just victims of circumstance, they are “despicable”, “pitiful”, “passive”. And even when the men are obviously in the wrong, they are apparently free to go on their merry ways, no problem.

None of this is Ovid’s fault. His poems are vaguely interesting, if not exactly page-turners, and the concept is good. But a plague on all bad commentators! Isbell has done a great disservice to Ovid’s work.

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