Classics, Reviews

David Ferry’s The Aeneid: “perhaps, almost—the thing itself”

Poet David Ferry has long been known as one of the foremost translators of classical literature from the Latin. And with much-praised translations of Virgil’s Eclogues and Georgics among his expansive oeuvre of translated works, his specific talent for channeling the world’s most revered Roman poet has been well documented. Now, at nearly twice the age of the author when The Aeneid was first drafted, the nonagenarian poet has now completed his translations of Virgil’s major works. And as April Bernard (also an accomplished poet in her own right and currently a Professor of English at Skidmore) writes for the New York Review of Books, Ferry’s Aeneid has captured the essence of Virgil’s original like no other English edition available today:

Ferry’s previous outings with Virgil, in his matchless Eclogues and Georgics, had already convinced me that he has some sort of uncanny connection to the great poet. Especially when reading the Eclogues, one hears a new-old voice, as if Virgil had miraculously learned English and decided it might do as well as Latin. This kind of translation almost needs a new name, to distinguish it from all the other worthy efforts to bring the ancient poets to life: it is an iteration, another version, but also—perhaps, almost—the thing itself.

She goes on to comment on Ferry’s stylistic choices for his translation and their particular suitability to Virgil’s epic:

A marvel throughout. . . . Ferry’s blank verse is as understatedly traditional, and unflashy, as his diction. The whole accumulates into a stately, inevitable force. . . . The advantages of Ferry’s version seem obvious to me: regularity of meter, clarity of image, simplicity of language, understatement of the horrific. Throughout, Ferry maintains a coolness even amid the most terrible drama. It is as if he were writing not in our still-Romantic (even if post-Romantic) personal vein, but altogether in another mode: a classical, fatalistic one, to be sure, but also one in which emotion and achievement matter communally.

You can read the rest of April Bernard’s review at the New York Review of Books website but for a little  illustrative example of the “inevitable force” of Ferry’s writing the following is a passage selected by the translator himself from the introduction – according to Ferry the opening lines “[define] for us how we are to experience the telling of this heartbreaking scene; … [but also] … the definitive declaration of how to read the whole continuing enterprise of the poem, the accounting of what men have done and what has been done to them and what they must do to mourn, here and in every episode of the work.”

Aurora rose, spreading her pitying light,
And with it bringing back to sight the labors
Of sad mortality, what men have done,
And what has been done to them; and what they must do
To mourn. King Tarchon and Father Aeneas, together
Upon the curving shore, caused there to be
Wooden funeral pyres constructed, and to which
The bodies of their dead were brought and placed there,
In accordance with the customs of their countries.
The black pitch smoke of the burning of the bodies
Arose up high and darkened the sky above.
Three times in shining armor the grieving warriors
Circled the burning pyres, three times on horseback,
Ululating, weeping, as they rode.
You could see how teardrops glistened on their armor.
The clamor of their sorrowing voices and
The dolorous clang of trumpets rose together
As they threw into the melancholy fires
Spoils that had been stripped from the Latins, helmets,
And decorated swords, bridles of horses,
And glowing chariot wheels, and with them, also,
Shields and weapons of their own familiar
Comrades, which had failed to keep them alive.
Bodies of beasts were thrown into the fire,
Cattle, and bristle- backed swine, brought from surrounding
Fields to be sacrificed to the god of death.

And all along the shore the soldiers watched
The burning of the bodies of their friends,
And could not be turned away until the dewy
Night changed all the sky and the stars came out.
Over there, where the Latins were, things were
As miserable as this. Innumerable
Scattered funeral pyres; many bodies
Hastily buried in hastily dug- up earth,
And many others, picked up from where they fell
When they were slain, and carried back to the fields
Which they had plowed and tilled before the fighting,
Or back into the city where they came from;
Others were indiscriminately burned,
Unnamed, and so without ceremony or honor.
The light of the burning fires was everywhere.
On the third day when the light of day came back
To show the hapless scene, they leveled out
What was left of the pyres and separated what
Was left of the bones, now cold and among cold ashes,
And covered over the ashes and the bones.

– From David Ferry’s The Aeneid