In the Heroides or Letters of the Heroines, the Roman poet Ovid composed a series of dramatic letters in elegiac verse, alternating lines of dactylic hexameter and dactylic pentameter. “Elegy,” writes one of Ovid’s heroines, “is the weeping strain,” and indeed the mood of most of these letters is that of sadness. Most of the heroines have been rejected by famous heroes: Dido by Aeneas, Ariadne by Theseus, Hypsipyle by Jason, Oenone by Paris. Some are apprehensive of coming death either for themselves or for their lovers; Canace, Dejanira, Sappho, and Dido are about to commit suicide. Medea is about to kill the new wife of Jason and her own two children.
Almost all of the heroines are in hopeless, pitiful situations, caught at a turning point in their lives. However, in these turning points there is conflict, both internal and among several people, a reminder that Ovid was also a dramatist, though his play Medea (probably before 8 b.c.e.) is no longer extant. The letters are the ancestors of the familiar dramatic monologues of Robert Browning and also of the interior monologue as it was used by James Joyce and Fyodor Dostoevski, for in their writing the heroines reveal their inmost thoughts. Moreover, what the heroine says usually sets the scene for the reader: Through reminiscence, she tells the events of the past that led up to her present woe. Sometimes Ovid transports the reader directly into the mind of the heroine, as she shifts rapidly from one association to another, or from a past memory to the present. In telling the different stories dramatically, Ovid remains in the background, almost out of sight.
The Heroides have inspired different generations of English poets, from Geoffrey Chaucer, who felt deep sympathy for Canace, and his contemporary John Gower to John Donne,...
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