Selections from Ovid’s Heroides in English Verse
Prof. Gary Williams
Penelope Ad Ulixes
Upon my bed I send this message forth:
Although no word of yours reach us, come back
In ashes lies; Old Priam is no more.
O would that wretched
Beneath the tossing waves, and I not left
To shiver on a cold and empty couch;
Nor had I grown embittered at long days,
Wherein I weave upon a tired loom.
Fears not so real as fancied plague my thoughts;
My love is harried with the stings of fright.
I picture you torn by the Trojan steel,
And ghost-pale turn when Hector’s name I hear.
When tales of death reach me of Antilochus,
Or of Menoetius’ son, slain bearing arms
Not his, I cry; for clever tricks could not
Save these. They told to me the awful tale
Of Tlepolemus, of his death, of how
He stained the Lydian spear with gushing blood;
Likewise I saw you, and my fears redoubled.
Whichever of the Graecian host happened
To fall, eyes darkening and throat sliced through,
My heart, for loving you so terribly
Would shiver as if frozen with cruel ice.
But then the god of maidens cheered my heart;
And you, I hope, come safe to port of rest.
The princes of this war to peaceful homes
Return, and incense from reverent altars burns
To heaven. The holy temples of the gods
Grow rich with spoils of sacked
Danaan wives heap thanks on thanks to god
For their unwounded husbands, and each man
Sings to his children tales of war, and shrifts
And shy maidens hear out his song in silence,
And his wife enraptured hangs on every word.
The warrior traces on the trenching-board
A map of
And with his finger, wet with unmixed wine
He scrawls the battlements of
Here Sigeum, here Simois lies;
Old Priam’s tower rises prominent.
Here strains Achilles on the battlefield,
With you beside, the while the frightened steeds
Weave a furrow with Hector’s trailing corpse.
I know this much, for to inquire I sent
Telemachus, and Nestor answered all,
Which news your son brought back to me in kind.
He told of Rhesus and of Dolon slain,
The one in sleep, the other by your guile.
I own you dared much in your deeds, but why
Must it befall that you neglect your own?
It was your courage led you in the camp
Of Thracian lords, in the slaughter of the same,
With but a single comrade at your side.
But were you careful first to think of me?
Until I heard of you victorious,
By Rhesus’ stolen horses carried back
In safety through the lines to Graecian tents,
My heart in terror leapt within my throat.
Of what is all this reaped glory worth,
While you, dear above all, are absent yet?
Perhaps for other ladies
It still stands in my thoughts and in my fears.
Her new inhabitant with captive oxen
Plows in the fields where his crops thrive, where once
From it half buried bones of fallen men
Are by the plow hooks here and there exhumed,
And on the ruined ramparts mosses grow.
You are far off in this your triumph, why
I do not know; what cruelty keeps you
In foreign lands? Whoever to this shore
His vessel steers, him I importune
With inquiries of you till he should go
His way. I give him letters writ to you, should
He chance upon you on the open sea.
When I had asked news from rich Neleus’ son,
No certain word of your fate came to me;
I sent to
What land is become your home, O husband mine,
And in whose bed do you take pleasant rest?
I would the Apollonian walls unbreached
Yet stood, alas, and all my foolish prayers
For victory had died within my mouth.
Then had I known where you partook of brawls,
The size and scope of the war, and what to fear.
My anguish, were this so, would be no worse
Than other wives’. But what I fret upon,
I know not; and tormented thus, I cringe
As from all evils. The brood expanse wherein
My fright and cares subsist admits of much.
I brood upon the dangers of the sea
And of the land, and which delays your journey.
But while I worry, foolish as I am,
I ask if it be by your own desire
You are detained. Is it not possible
That you grow wanton in your wanderings?
Perhaps you speak me for a rustic dame,
A lady unaccomplished at the loom.
Please, let me be mistaken, and this charge
Hold no more weight than does the passing breeze,
And that you do not linger by your will!
Icarius, my father, thinks it foolish
That I should wait upon a widow’s bed,
And bids me leave it. However he should scold,
Let it be known that I am yours; thy wife
Penelope shall ever be. They soften him,
My shows of precious faith, and then in turn
His harsh demands decrease in forcefulness.
Still worse, a throng of prowd and preening men
Hold sway in this your house sans courtesy.
Our very vitals, all your stored wealth
Are set upon and piecemeal eaten up.
I grieve to say how these- Antinoos,
Eurymachus and the barbaric Madon,
Polybus and Pisande, how with hands
Of greed they wax fat on those riches won
By your dear blood and your longsuffering.
Your bondsmen Irus and Melanthius
Lead in your flocks to feed the dining hall,
And shame on shame is added to your plight.
We three are helpless against this insolence,
A wife without a husband, an old man
And our young son, our own Telemachus.
The same was nearly lost to their device,
When he to Pylos sailed against their will.
I pray the gods shall grant that he survive
To close our eyes in death, when we are gone.
As matters stand, three servants yet remain
Faithful to us, your aged nurse, and two
That tend our herds. But your father Laertes
Is of the age as does not show great strength
With sword or spear- but let a braver age
Soon find our son Telemachus- let it come.
I would there was a man to sew his strength,
But there is none, not one, to rid our halls
Of these despicable rapacious men.
Come back to me, my haven and my home!
There is a son awaits you, that through his youth
Has grown in knowledge of our ancestral works;
Look to Laertes, that you may close his eyes;
They cannot long look open against fate.
And I, that was a girl when last we touched,
Shall withered be, unless you soon return.
Ariadne Ad Theseo
O thou less civil than the savage beasts,
Not one of these could have abused me so.
These words you read I send you from the shore
Of my abandonment, the very beach
Whence you were born away by rapid sails.
Confederate with you in my betrayal
Was treasonous sleep, whose dark persuasion
I had not any strength to strive against.
It was the season where the early frost
Coats lightly the cool ground, and hidden birds
Within their leafy enclosure stir with song;
I was but half awake and half asleep,
When languidly I turned upon my side
And reached my hand to clasp you close to me,
But nothing found. My empty hand drew back,
And I a second time reached out for you,
Searching our bed with both my frantic arms,
But of you it was empty. Fear like a blade
Tore through my peaceful rest. Afrighted I rose;
At once I struck my breast with heavy blows
And wildly tore my sleep-disheveled hair.
The moon came out; by its faint light I sought
Along the shores far as my eyes could see,
But the shore provided me no sign of you.
All order in my search fled as the wind,
While I ran hither and thither, reason gone,
My girl’s feet slipping in the deepened sand.
My cries of “Theseus” filled the wide shore,
Your name resounded in the hollow rocks.
Each time I cried to you, so did the place
Cry to itself, as though it felt my hurt,
And so called out that I be not alone.
There is a mountain on the isle, on whose peaks
Grows scattered foliage; from the mount’s face
There juts a cliffside carved by crashing waves;
My strength returning, I climbed up the rocks
Till I could see across the sea’s expanse;
Standing against the cold, uncivil winds
I saw your sails, far out at sea, filled with
The same. I told myself my eyes had lied,
But all was as I saw, and I grew cold.
I felt half of my spirit exit me.
My sorrow stayed with me many an hour,
And made my to cry out, and rouse my voice
To its loudest pitch: “Where are you, Theseus,
Whither do you fly in your evil haste?
Turn back! Retrace your way, your vessel lacks
One of her numbered souls!” Thus shouted I.
When my voice grew hoarse with wailing, I smote myself
To mix dark bruises in my argument.
Perhaps you could not hear, but must have seen
Me wave to you across that latitude
And hang my maiden’s veil upon a tree
That you oblivious, might remember me.
You did not see, and the horizon stole
You from my eyes, thereafter filled with tears.
Till then my eyes had been sealed by their pain.
In no other way could those lights serve me
Than to shed tears after your stolen sails.
I wandered lonely, my hair about my shoulders,
As though I were a maenad roused for revel;
Elsewise I sat upon the freezing rocks,
Myself as cold as any one of these,
And stared out over the unshining sea.
Sometimes I sit upon the couch that held us,
That shall no longer see us thus again.
I trace the outline of your body there
Where once the sheets were warm about your limbs.
Nought else of you remains. Then I recline
Upon the bed where my tears fall profuse
And it beseech, saying, “We pressed you as
A pair, render both back! Why did not two
Arise, when two together lay in love?
Where is my vanished half, O faithless bed?”
Where shall I take myself? What shall I do?
I see no man, no woman, and no beast.
This isle remote is vacant of all life,
Imprisoned by the broad surrounding sea,
In which no sail nor prow adventures near.
And did I find a company, a fleet
And favoring winds, where might I take myself?
I am an outcast from my father’s lands.
Although dame fortune blessed my every step
And Aeolus god of winds made calm the gales
Still I would exile be. O Crete, thou isle
Of a hundred cities, I cannot gaze on you
Again, O island blessed by youthful Jove,
And by my father governed- So dear, alas,
Was he whom I betrayed. But never victor
Would you have come from out the labyrinth
Without the string I gave you as a guide.
You said to me, “I swear to you, by these
Close perils that long as it be granted us
To live, so long am I yours, and you mine.”
Life yet remains to us, but you have left.
Within the barrow dug by your deceit
I bide. It had been better had you slain
Me with the club that killed my monstrous brother,
Whereby you were a free man, and I slain.
Of more than these my sufferings I make record,
Pains such as any so abandoned knows:
Death thousand-figured lingers in my thoughts;
To die means less a trial than delay.
In my imaginings, ferocious wolves
With their remorseless jaws feed on my flesh.
Or is the fearsome lion fostered here,
Or raging tiger native to these shores?
Are sea beasts cast up on this fearful strand?
Who can defend me from the fatal sword,
‘Gainst which my side has no protection?
But death is better than the heavy chain,
The captivity of the spinner’s toil;
Better for me, whose sire is King Minos,
My royal mother daughter to the Sun;
I, who was betrothed you in our mutual vow,
That stands a monument in memory.
I look over the lands, over the sea:
These elements threat me with many ills.
Yet would the sky remain to me, but it
Grows overcast with heaven’s vengeance.
I am one destitute, fit spoil and food
For starved creatures. Or should men arrive
And pitch tents at this place, them I would shun.
Well have I learned from you the fear of men
Unknown to me. I wish this had not passed:
I would my brother Androgeos drew breath,
That Cecrops’ sons had not payed for their sin
With children’s lives; nor that you, Theseus
Had stolen life away from the man-bull;
I would I had not given you the string
That led you back to me, the selfsame thread
That through your fingers glided, guiding you on.
It is no wonder to me that you won
The day, and left the Minotaur dead on
Cretan ground: his horns could not pierce through
A heart so hard. Even without a shield
You took no wound. Of adamantine stone
You were composed, you showed yourself harder
Than any flint. You, evil sleep, why do
You hold me here? I had fared better had
The weight of endless night crushed down on me.
You two as well, O wind and wicked breeze,
Rife in your eagerness to bring me tears!
And your right hand, twice barbarous to bring
Death to me and my brother; evil was
Thy vow, and all the words you offered me.
This and the wind and sleep conspired, three
Allied against me, one girl betrayed by all.
So shall I, near my death, not see the tears
Of her my mother, nor shall anyone’s
Compassionate fingers close my eyes in death?
Must my unhappy soul be sojourner
In far off lands, and shall no friendly hand
Lay sweet oils on me in my death?
Must my bones unburied lie to feed the birds?
Is this indecent grave all that I gain
By duties I have done you? You return,
You journey home, back unto Cecrops’ gate,
Met at your home with pomp and accolade,
Where you shall skillfully unwind the tale
Of the death of the Minotaur, slain by you
In dark and winding passages of stone.
When you speak of these glories, mention me,
By you abandoned on this desert isle.
This is no deed unworthy of your honor.
Your parents cannot be whom you have said,
King Aegeus and Pithean Aethra.
You are no son of theirs. The sea and rocks
Authored your bastardizing, be you sure!
O that the gods saw fit that you had seen me
While you sailed away, that this my sad figure
Had moved you in your will. Now look you forth,
Not with your eyes, but rather in your thoughts
Depict me clinging to this cliffside, where
Dark waters dash themselves. Look on my hair,
Loose flowing, as though I a widow were;
See these my garments, laden with my tears
As from a downpour; I shudder as if I
Were crops blown over by the northern wind.
These leaves I write you tremble with my hand.
I ask not what is owed me, because evil
Deeds already do forbid it. So count
Yourself under no debt for what I did.
But let not punishment for me continue more.
If I had been for you no cause of good
Even then it had been no equal justice
That you should be the author of such hurt.
My hands are tired from the many blows
They have inflicted on my punished flesh,
But still I stretch them to you across the sea,
And show the tragic remnant of my hair
And pray you through the tears wept for your crime:
Turn back your prow, O Theseus, reverse your course!
Though I should die before you come to me,
To you I trust my bones and burial.
- Mackail, J.D. Latin Literature.
. 1915. Scribners, New York
- Ulinowski, Carl. Thoughts on the Heroides of P. Ovidius Naso.
Press. 1972. Harvard University
- Waterleigh, V.S. Female Perspectives in Ovid.
Press. 1984. Universityof Nebraska