My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I have two translations of Ovid’s Heroides. This is the second one I bought and the first one I read. There’s no drama, it was just that I found the second copy at a great bookstore in Saratoga Springs (Lyrical Ballad) and since I’d been reading so much Greek and Latin lately, I wanted to read this piece of Ovid right away. My first copy was on my to-read bookshelf by my bed at home. Anyway, my state of mind, a need for a book to read and a fantastic cover called out to me. So, out came a few dollars and into my purse the book went.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading Harold Cannon’s translation. I enjoyed his introduction and noted his advice that “Pace is everything in reading Ovid; he should be swallowed whole and digested afterward” (p. 10). I’d read a translation of the Metamorphoses awhile back and reflecting on it now, Cannon is spot on. As I read the Heroides, his rule stayed true.
I also loved his introduction to each letter, which set the stage. Sometimes I knew the story, other times I didn’t. No matter, I still learned something new and fun with each letter’s introduction and I couldn’t wait to read the translated letter to a mythical love.
I had several favorites letters. Oenone’s to Paris (V) was excellent. Hypsipyle’s to Jason was amazing for how she tore into him for not returning to her and their child after he secured the golden fleece. “Perhaps you wanted to return to me / But found yourself denied by winds and sea; / And yet no wind prevents a letter due– / That much, at least, I have deserved from you” (VI.5-8, p. 47). Dido tears into Aeneas regarding how he left Dido now and his wife earlier at Troy. Aeneas only brought out his father and son. Dido writes “Before we met, you were a liar too; / I’m not the first to be deceived by you. / Where is the mother of the son you own? / Her husband left her, and she died alone” (VII.81-84, p. 55).
I liked Hermione to Orestes’s (VIII) letter. Ariadne to Theseus is also good in how she calls out his cold heart after he abandoned her: “Like rock or adamant the heart you own; / Its hardness would outdo the hardest stone” (X.109-110, p. 74). Medea’s anger comes out clearly when she says to Jason: “I saved him for another’s warm embrace; / She had the prize, although I ran the race” (XII.173-174, p. 87).
The two exchanges between Leander and Hero were amazing. I thoroughly enjoyed the backstory and the connection with the Bride of Abydos, from Byron, and the mention of the Hellespont. That ties into Pliny the Elder’s Natural History when he discusses the distance between Sestos and Abydos, where Hero and Leander lived. The distance, if you are interested, is seven stadia (Pliny 4.18). The letter from Leander to Hero was also great for me because I love when astronomy is mixed in with the poetry: “It’s summer now; how will I find the seas / Plagued by Arcturus, Goat, and Pleiades?” (XVIII.187-188)!
Interestingly, the one letter that originally drew me to the Heroides, Penelope’s to Odysseus, wasn’t my favorite. It was good but not great for me.
Finally, one interesting comment. When I first started reading his translation, I scribbled a small note that said “Heroic couplets never work.” A day later, I scribbled underneath that note “except when they do.”