Thursday, February 15, 2024

Daryl Hine's Ovid's Heroines - I, who could a dragon hypnotize

An anti-Valentine’s Day book now, Ovid’s Heroides (25-16 BCE, somewhere in there), a collection of fictional letters in verse written by mythical heroines to their no-good boyfriends and husbands.  Many end in suicide.  Dido castigating Aeneas, Phaedra mourning Hippolytus, spurned Sappho jumping off a cliff.

Although strictly speaking written as letters, many of the poems edge close to monologues and interiority, thus their large influence on the European novel and the English play.  Short, punchy, and I believe fairly easy, every Latin student would have spent some time with the Heroides.  A number of older translations are student editions, trots; I have only read Ovid’s Heroines (1991) by Daryl Hine, which is poetry by a poet.

Here is miserable Medea, who mostly tears into unfaithful, ungrateful Jason, but sounds like she is talking to herself here:

My magic arts are gone, enchantment fails,

Not even mighty Hecate avails.

Daylight I loathe, I lie awake all night,

Uncomforted by sleep however slight,

And I, who could a dragon hypnotize,

Cannot induce myself to close my eyes

With drugs that proved so potent otherwise.  (p. 25)

She has not murdered her own children yet, but in a Shakespearian touch seems to come up with the idea by overhearing herself – “My anger has enormities in store, / Which I’ll pursue” (27).

Hine puts the poems in “chronological” order, much like Metamorphoses – quote marks because the chronology is a fiction – so the book moves from Hypermnestra not murdering her new husband, a story we would have read in Aeschylus if the sequels to The Suppliants had survived through many other stories we know from Greek plays, including a Homeric section, Helen and Paris flirting and Penelope begging Ulysses to come home:

Think of your father’s peaceable demise

If only you were here to close his eyes.

But me, a girl the day you sailed away,

You’d find a crone if you returned today.  (107)

Ovid ends with Roman stories (Dido and Aeneas – he is so often in competition with the older Virgil) and Greek romances, most notably the two letters between Hero and Leander, I believe the first telling of the complete story.

See, Christopher Marlowe appears again, with another story of horny teenagers, this time based on poems Ovid likely write when he was himself a teenager:

                                                How often I’ve caressed

Your clothes, left on the beach when you undressed

To swim the Hellespont!  (“Hero to Leander,” 125)

Poor Hero.

The waves, subsiding, promise calm to come,

And soon you’ll find your route less wearisome.  (131)

I guess it is not really the complete story, since the reader has to know how it ends.

Heroides sometimes feels like a practice run for the more sophisticated and complex Metamorphoses.  But its form is new and its little touches a pleasure.  The psychology is pretty good for a teenager.  The verse – well, I will have to learn Latin to judge that.  Hine’s version is a lot of fun.

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