Introducing David Ferry
at the Launch of his Translation of Virgil’s Aeneid
By George Kalogeris
Poetry Center, Suffolk University
November 6, 2017
It’s a great day for American literature, and a great day for the Poetry
Center—maybe our greatest poetry day, in this sacred Suffolk house that Fred Marchant built. Thank you dear Fred. And
thank you Ken Greenberg. We’re here to celebrate David Ferry’s translation of Virgil’s Aeneid. Or, more accurately,
this magnificent epic poem by David Ferry. David Ferry’s American poem that he got from listening to Vigil’s Roman poem,
and from listening to Wordsworth and Robert Frost, and from knowing so well the pastoral tradition that so much of Virgil’s
poetry gave rise to. It’s also something he picked up as a gift from his brotherly friend in the craft, the late Richard
Wilbur. Song replying to song, as Horace sang in his matchless Odes that David Ferry translated. And now the Aeneid.
Over the past nine years, and during each semester, I’ve taught a one credit
poetry seminar with David, and always using his translations of various classical texts. In a number of those classes, and as
David was in the process of creating his Aeneid, he would bring some of his working passages into our class. He was
very interested in hearing how the students responded to his lines, eager to know if his iambic language was alive to their
eager for poetry ears. David would be the first to say that our Suffolk students have played a role in helping him to hear
his own Virgilian lines. And that, too, is part of the legacy of our Poetry Center.
The greatness of David Ferry’s version of the Aeneid can be characterized
primarily by three things: his mastery of the iambic pentameter line, his utterly lucid, plain spoken American vernacular, and his deep understanding of repetition as a form of musical refrain. Refrain as the lyrical equivalent of lachrymae rerum: “the tears of things” that are always mournfully and glitteringly there afresh, there on everything the poem touches, like morning dew. Most importantly, David has given us the fullness of Virgil’s voice. Not the “official Virgil” as patron of Maecenas and toddy to Augustus and the Roman Empire, and not the pious priestly Virgil that Pound denigrated in favor of Homer’s more visceral Grecian fire. (That Virgil could never have been the one Dante heard, Dante who said he had his Virgil by heart.) David Ferry has given us his Virgil, a Virgil whose ever resourceful narrative verse is as intimately alive and as sonorous as Wordsworth’s Prelude, his depictions of Jove and Juno are set-pieces right out of Restoration Comedy; and Shakespeare and Frost and Whitman are there too, everywhere in these lines that have so much to say about our human bodies, and just how much of that the versified line can embody, page after epic page. Beautiful bodies slaughtered on a battlefield and suicidal lovers setting their beds on fire. Bodies whose spirits go down into the underworld and, after they have been purified, get recycled back into bodies, newborn bodies that then must drink the waters of Lethe that dooms them to forget the fateful things that makes them bodies.
In the underworld an awestruck Aeneas says to his father’s shade:
O father, is it
Thinkable that any spirits want to go back
From this to the upper world and once again
Into the prison, of bodies? Why do these
Poor things long so to go back to the light up there?
(Book VI, lines 977-81)
And then Anchises goes on to tell his son, one of the fellow sufferers, “the whole truth.” Tells him about “the spirit that lives and breathes” through all things and all creatures, tells him that there’s an “intelligence that moves through all there is.” Tells him the truth about the body, and that its encoded fiery essence, its DNA, is made to return to the “blindness that imprisons it” but also to delight; and also, alas, to grief. Tells him the whole truth about being a body, one of the poor things, but also one of the everlasting things. The glittering tears of things.
And day by day the body having to get through its day.
Listen to this broken-hearted tongue-tied speech between Aeneas and Andromache, Hector’s widow so stunned by grief in the aftermath of Troy she thinks the figure of Aeneas might be a shade come up from the underworld:
Is it? Are you?
Can you be real? O goddess-born, are you?
A messenger sent to me? Are you? Alive?
Or if the light of being alive is gone,
Where is my Hector? Where is it that he is?
(Book III, lines 447-51)
(To which Aeneas replies)
I live, and I make my way, though life, through all
Extremities…but do not doubt it, what
You see is what you really see . . . oh!. . . What
Has become of you since such a husband was lost?
(Book III, lines 457-60)
And that fragmentary, caught in the throat language is the wounded piecemeal fortitude of refugees,
as the Trojans are refugees, boat people on their way to some America of the Roman imagination. And then
there’s the eloquence of utter extrangement, the stark privation and pitiful tenderness we're privy to
in these sublime lines of Juturna,
a minor goddess who realizes that her beloved brother Turnus is destined to die:
Can his sister do to save her Turnus now?
What is there left to keep him in the light?
What can I do against these portents? You
Boding obscene birds, I hear, I hear
The death in the beating of your wings, I hear
The message high-hearted Jupiter is sending.
O do not frighten me so in what I hear,
I hear the sound of it. To be a goddess,
Is this what Jupiter’s bargain was, to give me
Immortality in return for my lost
Virginity so that I am unable to die,
So I must live forever not able to go
Down to the shades in the company of my brother?
Is there no deepest place down there for one
Who cannot die to go down there to die?
(Book XII, lines 1173-88)
“Unspeakable is the story of woe,” Aeneas says, and yet the poem keeps speaking it, in the measured yet horrified tones of passages like this description of a fallen charioteer:
Down flat on his back and dragged along by his horses
And empty chariot, still holding the reins,
And bumping along the ground by the neck and hair,
And his spear reversed, trailing, trundling along,
Inscribing in the dirt his wretched story.
(Book I, lines 648-52)
The spear scribbling along in the dust like an exercise in unspeakable penmanship.
So formidable the task of founding Rome, Virgil sings.
And so much pleasure in the joy of reading this poem, as we hear the joy of Virgil’s poem reading David back to himself.
And one more thing. Alexander Pope was the great translator of Homer’s Iliad, and John Dryden, in the previous
generation, was the great translator of Virgil’s Aeneid. In Doctor Johnson’s Lives of the Poets there’s a lovely passage in which the young Pope writes a letter to one of his schoolboy friends, saying that he looked into the window of a London pub and saw Dryden, the great John Dryden, having his lunch. Only what he means is: “I just saw Virgil.” And there he is, David Ferry.