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Ovid's Heroines?

October 4, 2016

 

                                                                 Ovid’s Heroines?

 

This week I wanted to write about Ovid’s Heroides or Heroines. These are a series of poems written over two thousand years ago in a woman’s voice. I’ve been reading Clare Pollard’s modern translation preferring it to the Penguin classic. Ovid told us the stories of Ulysses, Achilles, Jason and many others from their lovers’ perspective. While the men were off fighting and adventuring the women were left behind, some threatened to kill themselves, some tried to seduce their stepsons (well Phaedra did) some cursed their lovers for choosing other wives. They were disempowered, angry and heartbroken. They were not Heroines in their own right, they were not strong women doing great things for their country or their people but were instead the cast-offs of heroes. 

 

I found Ovid’s last poem particularly offensive - an historical dramatic monologue from Sappho’s perspective. Sappho was a lyrical poet born in 613 BC and was thought to have written nine books of poetry. She is a heroine in her own right. She has a type of poetic meter named for her; she has left a legacy of beautiful fragments of love poetry; and the love for women by women is given her name. Ovid’s poem however is a plea to Phaon (a boatman) to love her and if he won’t then she too will have to kill herself: 

“but if you want to get far away from me, though there’s no reason to run away from me, write to let me know my loss, so I might find my fate in water.”

Not you too Sappho!

 

The point of reading Heroides was to feel inspired about women and heroines who’s brave actions left a legacy for women today. Sadly, Ovid was no help. Our herstory/history is filled with amazing women, real women - Cleopatra, Joan of Arc, Mary Wollstonecraft, Florence Nightingale, Marie Curie, Amelia Earhart, Rosa Parks, Malala Yousafzi are but a few. 

 

Emily Davison is a personal heroine of mine.  She is a woman who died in the quest for the right to vote. No one thinks that she meant to die, she had a return train ticket in her pocket. She was passionate and died while attempting an outrageous stunt - all in the cause of women’s suffrage. I think of her every time I vote. It is such a reasonable idea that we should be allowed to vote. One hundred years ago it was a long drawn out battle. British women (over the age of thirty who were householders) finally got the vote in 1918.  My poetry is never going to be as beautiful as Ovid’s but here is my tribute to a genuine heroine.

 

Buffeted through crowds

Here I am

trackside

around me gentlemen whicker in top hats

ladies whinny in their bonnets

bookkeepers bray numbers and horse names

And soon

my race will come.

In my pocket 

sits the flag!

Green, White, Violet: Give Women Votes

and today

the King’s horse will cross the line

flying the message of suffrage

Count me

Know my opinion

Tell me it matters

 

Buffeted through history

Here we are

trackside

and jockeys are comets

of colour blurring past

on brush strokes of brown.

Heart beat and hoof beat is all

as I step out and face the charge

they surge

thundering towards me

crack of polo stick on ball?

my body tumbles

I am a sycamore seed spinning

through sky, turf, hooves

the horses have passed

and the flag?

the flag is 

still

in 

my

hands.

Count me

Know my opinion

Tell me it matters.

 

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