Virgil Revisited

The Aeneid

by Virgil, translated from the Latin by David Ferry
University of Chicago Press, 416 pp., $35.00

One of the most magical passages in the Aeneid occurs when the hero, in search of the golden bough that will allow him entrance to the Underworld, is shown the way by two doves, emblems of his mother, Venus. In David Ferry’s new translation, the moment unfolds as follows:

He stood there where he was and watched to see
What signs he might be given by how they went,
Alighting to feed a little, then flying a little,
Alighting a little again to feed on the grass,
Then flying a little way, and alighting again,
Then flying a little again, feeding and flying,
Keeping themselves just far enough ahead
So that they can be seen by him who follows….

With all translations of the Aeneid into English, extra words are needed to convey the meaning of the more condensed Latin; this passage in Virgil’s text takes only four lines. But it is what Ferry accomplishes—his delighted attention to the movement of the doves, teasing the reader forward, and again forward, along with Aeneas; and his confidence, as a poet, in this instance to take an even more expansive liberty while keeping the diction pure and plain—that makes this new translation such a marvel throughout.

Vatican Palace/Scala/Art Resource
Virgil; detail from Raphael’s The Parnassus, circa 1511

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.

For centuries, schoolboys and girls “construed” Virgil into English. My own Latin education, which came too late to stick, required me to construe some lines from the Aeneid before a frowning, and then sarcastic, doorkeeper to a graduate program in literature. He seemed to regard my poor performance as no better than could be expected, and passed me on with a sigh. My point is that I am no scholar, and like the vast majority of readers I gratefully apprehend the likes of Virgil and Ovid through their English translators. In the twentieth century, the notable poets who devoted themselves to the task of translation were Rolfe Humphries (whose Metamorphoses remains my favorite) and Robert Fitzgerald, whose Aeneid (as his translations of Homer’s epics do) offers a fluid blank verse beauty somewhat absent in the more straightforward, unmetered version by Robert Fagles.

The poet lions Robert Lowell and W.H. Auden, while quite different in many ways, did have in common a classical education and a…

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