This is a sumptuous volume, a delight for those interested both in the survival of Latin as a literary language and in the Renaissance reception of Ovid’s heroine letters. Mark Alexander Boyd (1563-1601), Scottish poet, expatriate in the south of France, and combatant in the Wars of Religion, here receives a lavish monument to his work in Latin verse composition.
Four elegiac poems out of a larger collection of fifteen are collected here: the letters of Atalanta to Meleager, of Eurydice to Orpheus, of Philomela to Tereus, and of Venus to Adonis; the poems date to 1590-1592, and were among those printed in a 1637 collection of so-called deliciae of Scottish poets.1 Each of these heroides has some hundred lines, for which Ritter offers an average of a hundred pages of philological notes to supplement her text and prose translation; there is also an especially rich introduction and bibliography, and a brief but densely packed section of “interpretation” of each of the four verse epistles. The bibliography is supplemented by a listing of Latin poetic (and some prose) works of Renaissance humanists that is of inestimably useful value.
Ritter’s volume is the thirteenth in an important series of works edited by Marc Laureys and Karl Neuhausen, the Noctes Neo-Latinae; the first was the Hans-Ludwig Oertel’s 2001 edition of the Aeneissupplemente of Jan van Forest and Simonet de Villeneuve. The aim of the series is to provide texts, translations, and commentaries of understudied Renaissance and Baroque Latin texts, as well as the occasional monograph study.
A temptation in reviews of editions of Renaissance Latin poetic works is to make more or less subjective comment on the perceived quality of the verse. Sir David Dalrymple, Ritter reminds us, did not think much of Boyd’s youthful heroine games; “puerile, flimsy, and incorrect” was his verdict on these works, and there has been little sympathy for Boyd’s work among the few who have bothered to read him in the centuries since that brief and damning dismissal.
But the image that develops through a reading of both Boyd’s heroides and Ritter’s commentary thereon is of a collection that, in a sense, offers a veritable summation of the classical (especially Roman) world, a collection of female voices that ultimately provide commentary on the birth of the Roman imperial order under Augustus. The Atalanta letter is a fitting opening to such a collection, in which Boyd shows a subtle and nuanced understanding of the epic tradition, with the importance of the Meleager story to Homer (the embassy to Achilles), Ovid (where it marks the midpoint of the Metamorphoses, and Virgil too (where the Turnus and Camilla narrative provided Ovid with much material for his treatment of the troubled huntress).2 Boyd’s collection is a commentary on not only the Ovidian heroine letters, but also the Metamorphoses; ultimately Boyd’s Heroides is a work inspired by Ovid’s depiction of Atalanta, that underappreciated figure whose appearance and reappearance in the Metamorphoses help to craft the poet’s response to his epic predecessor Virgil. Far from the puerile and flimsy collection of Dalrymple’s estimation, Boyd’s heroine song is a sensitive and richly textured study in intertextuality, where not only the fifteen Ovidian heroines are recalled, but also the fifteen books of his mythological epic and so much of the tradition to which Ovid and, now, Boyd offer response.3 The Eurydice epistle, fittingly the sixth in Boyd’s collection, offers commentary on the midpoint of Virgil’s Aeneid, while we reach the center of Boyd’s collection in the letter of Lavinia to Turnus, in a letter that offers intertextual links to the Atalantan midpoint of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The Eurydice epistle is replete with tree and flower imagery that crafts an intriguing response both to Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Virgil’s Georgics; Ritter’s notes are especially helpful on the botanical tradition in Latin poetry.
The commentary is dense with references that both look back to the classical tradition Boyd is reimagining, then, and to contemporary and later works in the literary, visual, and musical arts, as well as to medieval and earlier renaissance material. The notes often offer gems of useful histories of the development of Latin vocabulary (a useful index is provided of the Latin words that are given extensive discussion in the commentary). And Ritter’s introduction devotes special attention to the question of why Boyd composed the heroine letters he did, and why certain of his Ovidian models were omitted. Extensive and illustrated biographical material situates Boyd in the turbulent history of the Wars of Religion in which he took part as an active player; there is also an especially detailed section that demonstrates the technical aspects of Boyd’s imitation of Ovid. The bibliography on the Augustan poets whose parallels pepper the commentary is well handled; working through Ritter’s note is an exercise in reviewing key elements of recent work on Ovid and Propertius in particular. And while poetic works understandably provide the largest repertoire of parallel passages, the prose tradition is not ignored; Ciceronian echoes in Boyd’s poems are amply documented.
Ritter’s edition of four of fifteen of Boyd’s heroides is clearly a work of love and devotion to an author unknown to most classicists and even many Renaissance scholars. The editor is to be congratulated for bringing these almost lost poems to a wide readership, and for presenting them with both erudition and the same charm that infuses both the Ovidian inspirations and their Scottish responses.
1. Other heroines in the collection include Lavinia to Turnus, Julia to Augustus, Octavia to Antony, and Sophonisba to Masinissa; the historical personages loosely correspond to the pseudo-Ovidian epistle of Sappho.
2. The inclusion of the Lavinia letter to Turnus (and no Dido to Aeneas, or indeed Lavinia to Aeneas) also supports such a reading of Boyd’s collection, as does the collection’s close with the Venus and Adonis letter that recalls how Ovid’s Venus uses the story of Atalanta and Hippomenes as a cautionary tale to Adonis in Metamorphoses 10.
3. Ritter’s commentary also offers extensive citation of the Propertian influences on Boyd; one imagines the poet was also strongly influenced by the importance of the Atalanta-Mythos to the opening of the Cynthian Monobiblos.