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, who imitated several of the letters in his own poetry, and Alexander Pope, who wrote one of his finest poems, “Eloisa to Abelard,” in imitation of the verse epistles.
Ovid’s “Canace to Macareus” is one of the finest short dramatic poems in classic literature. As it opens, Canace is telling her brother and lover Macareus that she has been ordered by their father, Aeolus, to kill herself as punishment for having had a child by her brother. She tells in close detail how she had become pregnant by Macareus, how her sympathetic nurse had tried unsuccessfully to induce an abortion, and finally how the newborn baby had betrayed itself by crying as the nurse was trying to carry it past Aeolus, wrapped in a bundle of sticks. Aeolus, the household tyrant, paradoxically able to control the four winds but not his own passion, is the inflexible villain of Canace’s letter. Ovid succeeds in getting his readers to sympathize with the incestuous couple and to question any sort of inflexible legal or moral code.
A poet can, however, say only so much on the theme of rejected love. Ovid sometimes seems bored with his subject matter, especially when he takes his material from another poet. When he borrows Dido from Vergil, for example, his poem becomes only a good, but obvious, imitation; and Ovid’s “Dido to Aeneas” adds almost no new detail to Vergil’s story in the Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.).
Although many of the letters seem sentimental or mawkish to later perception, Ovid’s power as a storyteller and dramatist is obvious, and many of the characters he depicts seem “true” or “real.” Some of the unforgettable scenes and figures in the Heroides include the indulgent nurse and the petty tyrant Aeolus in “Canace to Macareus”; Ariadne lying on the rocks of her island watching Theseus’s sails disappear in the distance; and Paris flirting with Helen at the table of her husband, Menelaus. The realism in the Heroides is psychological: What Ovid’s characters think and do seems natural even in later times. Ovid also writes sympathetically about the social outcast and the mentally sick; he shows understanding for Dido and Medea, both close to insane, and for the...
(The entire section is 1,672 words.)