Clare Pollard's ambition to update Ovid's Heroides – letters from Greek heroines to absent menfolk – has succeeded wittily
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's peerless Tales from Ovidare entirely taken from the dark and shifting world of the Metamorphoses.
So Clare Pollard was right to think she'd lighted on 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 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 stepson Hippolytus, Medea to her faithless Jason, Briseis to the perma-sulking Achilles.
The letters are written in the first person, so 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. Ovid gives us that chance with these passionate, witty, sometimes heartbroken 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 10 years besieging Troy and another 10 trying to get home. "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 – who have descended on the palace to try to marry her – demolish everything and kill her son.
Phaedra, trying so hard to be a good wife to Theseus when she's 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!" Although she is desperate to show how 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 mimicking his behaviour.
And those of us who dated before the existence of the mobile phone will feel our hearts go out to poor Phyllis, waiting for Theseus's son Demophoön 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 Demophoön returns (their story always reminds me of the film An Affair to Remember, but with more people turning into vegetation), grief-stricken, he hugs its trunk. Only then does it produce flowers.
Pollard is a confident translator. She's borrowed inspiration from Hughes's Metamorphoses, and gone for free verse. If she occasionally veers too far towards bathos, that's preferable to pomposity: at one point, Hypsipyle describes herself to Jason as inops (without resource, or piteous) 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 Aeneidto 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 kills herself 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 Ovid is making. When Oenone, a mountain nymph in love with Paris, talks about scratching off her makeup in fury at seeing him with Helen, Ovid hasn't forgotten that nymphs don't wear makeup. He's deliberately humanising her: mortal women wear makeup precisely to try to 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 died in exile, booted out of Rome for what he described as carmen et error– a poem and a mistake. These letters remind us that he, of all Latin love poets, understood the plight of the person left behind, waiting for 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.