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Ovid, Heroides XVII

Introduction and Synopsis


Helen to Paris

If only it had been allowed to me, Paris, not to have read what I have read;
I might have retained a measure of honor as before.
Now that your letter has outraged my eyes,
The glory of not replying seems trifling.
You have dared, foreigner, violating the sacred rites of hospitality,
To tamper with the lawful faith of a wife.
No doubt it was for this purpose that the Taenarian shores received you
Into its port, borne across the windy waves,
And, though you came from a different people,
Our palace did not hold its doors closed to you.
Is injury the payment for such great service?
You who entered this way, were you guest or enemy?

I do not doubt that, even though it is just, this complaint of mine
Will be called rustic in your judgment.
Let me be rustic indeed, so long as I am not forgetful of honor,
And so long as the course of my life is without stain.
If I do not feign a frowning face,
Nor sit grimly with harsh brows,
Nevertheless my reputation is clear, and I have thus far played without sin,
And no adulterer has praise from me.
I am more astonished at your confidence in the undertaking,
And what reason has given you hope of my bed.
Is it because the Neptunian hero bore me away by force,
And that, stolen once, I seem worthy to be also stolen a second time?
The fault would have been mine if I had been seduced;
Since I was stolen, what was there for me except to be unwilling?
Nevertheless he did not carry off from his deed the fruit that he sought;
I returned having suffered nothing besides fear.
The shameless one took kisses from me, struggling, and only a few;
He has nothing beyond that of mine.
Wickedness like yours would not have been content with this;
May the gods be better!  He was not like you.
He gave me back untouched, and moderation diminished his crime,
And it is plain that the youth repented of his deed.
Did Theseus repent so that Paris could follow him,
Lest my name should not be on people's lips?
Nevertheless I am not angry--who is incensed against a lover?--
If only what you display is not a false love.
For I doubt that also, not that confidence is lacking,
Or that my beauty is not well known to me,
But because credulity usually brings harm to girls,
And your words are said to be untrustworthy.

But others sin, and a chaste married woman is rare.
Who keeps my name from being among the rare ones?
As for my mother, who seems to you to be an appropriate example, 
By which you think you can turn me as well,
This is an error, since my mother was led into dalliance by a false appearance;
The adulterer was hidden by feathers.
But I, if I sin, could not be ignorant; no error
Would obscure the crime which was committed.
She erred well, and her fault was redeemed by its author;
With what Jove will I be called happy in my sin?

You boast of your birth, and your ancestors, and your royal name;
This house is illustrious enough with its nobility.
Not to speak of Jupiter, the ancestor of my father-in-law, and all
The glory of Tantalus' son Pelops, and of Tyndareus,
Leda gives me Jove as a father, deceived by the swan,
The false bird which she caressed in her lap.
Go now, and tell me all about the origin of the Phrygian people,
And about Priam and his Laomedon!
These I respect; but the fifth from you, who is your great glory,
He is the first from my name.
I suppose the scepters of your land are powerful,
But nevertheless I do not believe these of ours are any less than they are.
If indeed this place is outdone in wealth and number of men,
Yet assuredly your land is barbarous.

Indeed, your letter promises gifts so rich
That they could move the goddesses themselves.
But if I now wished to cross the boundaries of modesty,
You yourself would have been a better cause for sin.
Either I will maintain my reputation forever without a stain,
Or I will follow you rather than your gifts.
While I do not reject them, gifts are always most welcome
When the giver makes them precious.
It is much more that you love me, that I am the cause of your labors,
That your hope has come across such broad waters.

I also note, wicked one, what you do now when the table is set,
Even though I try to pretend otherwise--
When you just look at me, wanton one, with your shameless eyes,
Whose insistent gaze my eyes can hardly bear,
And you just sigh, just take the cup closest to me,
And you also drink from that part where I had drunk.
Ah, how many times have I noted the hidden signs 
Given by your fingers and by your almost speaking brows!
And often I have feared lest my husband should see it,
And I have blushed at the signs that were not well enough concealed.
Often with a faint murmur, or with none at all, I have said:
"He is ashamed of nothing!"  And this utterance of mine was not false.
Also on the circle of the table, beneath my name I have read,
Letters drawn out with wine which said, "I love."
Nevertheless I denied belief, signifying with my eyes,
Ah me!  Now I have learned that one is able to speak in this manner.
These are the flatteries by which, if I had been inclined to sin,
I would have been turned; by these my heart could have been seized.
You also have, I confess, rare beauty, and a girl could
Wish to fall under your embraces.
But let another woman be happy without sin,
Rather than have my honor fall to a foreigner's love.
Only learn from example to be able to do without beauty,
It is virtue to abstain from pleasures.
How many young men do you believe desire what you desire?
Are they wise, or does Paris alone have eyes?
You see no more than they do, but your daring is more rash;
You do not have more judgment, but too much self-assurance.

I wish that your swift ship had come then,
When a thousand men sought my virginity.
If I had seen you, you would have been the first of the thousand;
My husband himself would give pardon to my judgment.
You come too late, to joys already taken and held;
Your hope was slow; what you seek, another has.
Nevertheless, granted that I wished to be your bride at Troy,
Menelaus does not hold me against my will.
Cease, I beg you, to tear at my soft heart with your words,
And do not hurt me, whom you say you love;
But allow me to keep the fate that fortune has assigned,
And do not hold, to my shame, the prize of my honor.

But Venus has promised this, and in the deep vales of Ida
Three goddesses showed themselves naked to you.
And while one would give you a kingdom, and another glory in war,
"The daughter of Tyndareus," the third one said, "will be your wife."
Truly, I can hardly believe that heavenly bodies
Were submitted to your judgment of their beauty.
If this were true, certainly the other part is fiction,
In which I am said to have been given as prize for your judgment.
I do not have so much confidence in my body, that I should believe
Myself to be the greatest gift the goddess could call forth,
My beauty is content to be approved by the eyes of men;
Venus as the one who praises me will cause envy of me.
But I refute nothing; I also favor this praise.
For why should the voice deny what the mind desires to be true?
Do not become inflamed that I am too reluctant to believe you;
Faith is usually slow in great things.

My first pleasure, then, is to have pleased Venus;
The next, that I seemed the greatest prize to you,
And that you preferred the offerings of neither Pallas nor Juno
Over the charms of Helen that you had heard of.
Therefore I am courage, I am a noble kingdom to you?
I should be made of iron, if I did not love such a heart.
I am not made of iron, believe me; but I fight against loving
One, whom I scarcely believe can be mine.
Why should I try to plough up the watery sea-shore with the curved plow,
And pursue a hope that the place itself denies?
I am unskilled at the theft of love, and I have never--
The gods are my witnesses--played tricks on my faithful husband.
Even now, when I commit my words to the silent page,
My letter performs a novel service.
Happy are those who have experience; I, ignorant of things,
Suspect the road of sin to be difficult.

Fear itself is an evil; even now I am confused, and think
All eyes are on my face.
Nor do I think this is false; I hear the evil murmurs of the people,
And Aethra has brought back certain voices to me.
But you pretend, unless you prefer to stop.
Yet why should you stop?  You are able to pretend.
Play, but covertly; greater, but not the greatest, 
Liberty is given us because Menelaus is absent.
He is indeed on a journey far away, his affairs compelling him to it;
He had great and just cause for his sudden journey;
Or so it seemed to me.  I, when he was in doubt about whether to go,
Said, "Go, and return as soon as possible."
Glad at the omen, he gave me a kiss and said, "You have the care
Of our affairs and house, and of our Trojan guest."
I could hardly hold back laughter, and while I struggled to restrain it,
I could say nothing beyond "It shall be."

Indeed, he has spread his sails for Crete with following winds;
But do not think on that account that all is allowed.
My husband is away in such a fashion that he guards me while he is gone;
Or did you not know that kings have long hands?
My beauty is also a burden; for the more constantly I am praised
By your mouths, the more justly he fears.
The same glory that delights me, as it now is, is an injury to me, 
And it would be better if I had cheated fame.
And do not wonder that he is gone, leaving me here behind with you;
He trusts in my character and way of life.
He fears on account of my face; he trusts on account of my life.
My virtue makes him fearless; my beauty makes him fear.

You admonish me, moreover, that the time that has been given should not be lost,
And that we should benefit from the accommodation of a simple husband.
It pleases me, and I am afraid; my will is still not certain;
My heart wavers in doubt.
Both my husband is gone, and you sleep without a wife,
And your beauty seizes me, and mine in turn seizes you;
And the nights are long, and already we join in conversation,
And you--oh miserable me!--are enticing, and we share a single house.
And let me perish, if all things do not invite me to sin;
I do not know why I delay, but for fear itself.
What you wrongly urge, would that you could rightly compel!
My rustic manners should have been driven out by force.
Injury is sometimes profitable even to those who suffer it.
Thus certainly I would have been compelled to be happy.

While it is new, let us rather fight against this love that has begun;
A newly lit flame subsides when sprinkled with a little water.
Love is not certain in a guest; it wanders, like he does,
And when you expect nothing to be stronger, it flees.
Hypsipyle is witness; the Minoan virgin is witness,
Both deceived in their lack of marriage beds.
They say that you also, unfaithful one, have deserted
Your Oenone, loved for many years.
Nor yet do you deny it yourself; and, if you do not know,
It has been my greatest care to inquire into all things about you.
Add to this that, even though you desired to remain constant in love,
You can not; even now your Phrygians are getting the sails ready.
While you speak with me, while you prepare for the hoped-for night,
Already the wind will be there for you, to carry you to your homeland.
In mid-course, you will abandon joys full of newness;
Our love will go away with the winds.

Or shall I follow as you urge and, seeing the much-praised Pergamum,
Be the bride of great Laomedon's grandson?
I do not so despise the cries of winged fame,
That it should fill the earth with my disgrace.
What could Sparta, what could all of Achaia,
What could the peoples of Asia, what could your Troy say of me?
What would Priam feel about me,?  What would Priam's wife feel,
And all your brothers and the Dardanian daughters-in-law?
You also, how can you hope for me to be faithful,
And not be uneasy at your own example?
Whatever stranger enters the port of Ilium
Will be the cause of anxious fears for you.
How often will you yourself say to me in anger, "Adulteress!"
Forgetting that your crime belongs to mine?
You will be at the same time the reprover of my crime and its author.
May the earth, I pray, cover my face before that!

But I shall enjoy the wealth of Ilium and its blessed culture,
And I will bear gifts even beyond those promised.
Indeed, purple and precious cloth will be given to me,
And I shall be rich with a piled-up weight of gold.
Forgive my confession!  Your gifts are not so great;
I do not know how that land would hold me at all.
Who will come to my aid, if I am injured, on Phrygian shores?
Where shall I seek for brothers, where for a parent's aid?
Treacherous Jason promised everything to Medea;
Was she any less driven out of the house of Aeson?
There was no Aeetes to whom the scorned woman might return,
No mother Idiya nor sister Chalciope.
Nothing such as this do I fear, but Medea did not fear either;
Good hope is often deceived in its prophecy.
You will find that, for every ship that is now tossed upon the ocean deep,
The sea was calm as it left port.

The torch also terrifies me, the bloody one which your mother
Was seen to bring forth before the day of your birth.
And I fear the warning of the prophets, who forewarned, they say,
That Ilium would be burned with Pelasgian fire.
And just as Cytherea favors you, because she was victorious and has
A double trophy through your judgment,
So I am afraid that those two who, if your boastfulness is true,
Did not win the case on account of your judging;
Nor do I doubt that, if I followed you, war would be prepared.
Our love--ah me!--would travel through swords.
Did Hippodamia of Atrax force the men of Haemonia
To declare fierce war against the Centaurs?
Do you think that Menelaus and the twin brothers,
And Tyndareus will be slow in righteous anger?

For all your boasting and talk of brave deeds,
That face disagrees with your words.
Your body is more suited for Venus than for Mars.
Let the brave wage wars; let you, Paris, always love!
Order Hector, whom you praise, to fight for you;
Other warfare is fitting for your labors.
These labors, if I were wise and a little bolder,
I would make use of; they will be used by whatever girl is wise.
Or perhaps, putting aside modesty, I shall be wise
And, vanquished by time, shall give my hesitating hand.

I know what you seek, that we speak of these things in person secretly,
What you would try to seize and urge in conversation.
But you hasten too much, and your harvest is still green;
This delay may perchance be friendly to your wish.

Enough--let the letter that knows the secret of my hidden mind
Stop its work along with my weary thumb.
Let us say the rest through my companions Clymene and Aethra,
The two who are my attendants and council.





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Last updated 06/23/2013