David Ferry’s translation of the Aeneid is an argument that the poem is not tragic, but elegiac; it is impelled by a forward urgency, to found Rome but to overcome the pain of death, suffering, and destruction as only the founding and glory of Rome can, but it is also ensnared in the refusal to let go of loss, to mourn proleptically, before the fatal blow is struck, and to strike the fatal blow out of desire for vengeance and compensation for what cannot return. All of that is no doubt in the original, of which I’ve only read portions and badly, but Ferry’s translation helped me see it, as other translations have not.
Ferry helped me see how Virgil’s poem addresses the anger of the Iliad, apprehending its terrible appeal, and extending it, a tenacious anger that strengthens and is strengthened by the fixed grasp of sorrow; it helped me see also how it converts Odysseus’ nostalgia, the pained yearning for a point of origin, into Aeneas’ painful yearning for a new point of origin, which is also a refusal to release himself from the loss of his home. Mourning, anger, and yearning nurture one another, each both desperate to move on, and incapable of imagining what moving on will involve. The Aeneid is elegiac rather than tragic because moving on is not only possible and desirable, but right–because there remains much to do, much to accomplish; the world is not wasted, the individual is not helplessly isolated.
How does Ferry bring this out? Why is Ferry the right poet?
In part because of the characteristic that has long been present in Ferry’s poem, and that he pushed to a beautiful extreme in his latest, and possibly greatest, collection Bewilderment: a movement in the lines that propels itself back upon words, as if caught by fascination, by compulsion; the pull back to those words becomes, in the syntax of lines, an occasion to move forward, but the words resist the urgency to move on to other thoughts. I have written elsewhere on the phenomenon, but here is an example, a poem titled “Scrim”:
I sit here in a shelter behind the words
Of what I’m writing, looking out as if
Through a dim curtain of rain, that keeps in here.
The words are like a scrim upon a page,
Obscuring what might be there beyond the scrim.
I can dimly see there’s something or someone there.
But I can’t tell if it’s God, or one of his angels,
Or the past, or future, or who it is I love,
My mother or father lost, or my lost sister,
Or my wife lost when I was too late to get there,
I only know that there’s something, or somebody, there.
Tell me your name. How was it that I knew you?
In lyric, Ferry’s returns can suggest the disorientation of the speaker, the sense that the speaker is feeling the way forward in the dark, but also clinging for safety. Sustaining the conventions of epic, and sustained by those conventions, the returns ennoble and are ennobled, magnifying grief, pain, and the irresistible compulsions to move forward; they dislodge the natural and easy patterns of spoken English, and if the result is not exactly elevation, it is an occasion alien grandeur, emerging from within the verse. The movement of the poetry seems to respond to the returns in what Ferry, in a remarkable note on the meter of his translation, calls metrical “events.” But the returns are powerful, and more accessible to criticism, in their semantic consequence. From the close of Book Nine:
And then at last Turnus was able to fall,
In all his armor, into the flowing river.
It carried him away on its yellow waves
And, as it carried him gently along, it washed him
Of all the signs of blood and wounds and brought him
Jubilant to the company of his comrades.
The verse itself is unwilling to abandon “him,” it is captivated by Turnus, and itself tends to him, as he is carried to his comrades; the pity for the proud, violent champion is not that of the comrades, but of the poem the sorrows over who Turnus must be and what Turnus must do.
Here, from Book Ten, Aeneas looks on at the death of Mezentius’ son, by his own hand:
But truly when the son of Anchises saw
The face, the features of the face, so pale
With the paleness of his dying, he groaned, and with
Mournful pity he stretched out his right hand
As he thought of his own father and his own
Filial pious love that was so like this,
And he said to Lausus’ body, “What can Aeneas
Give, O wretched boy, worthy of deeds
Like these that you have done? What is it that
Pious Aeneas can do but send your armor,
That you so delighted to wear, home with your body,
To be with the shades and ashes of your people,
And perhaps it will solace you that they can say,
‘He met his death by the hand of the great Aeneas.'”
And then he scornfully called upon the comrades
Of Lausus to venture nearer, and, himself,
He lifted up the body from the ground,
Where the blood has soiled and clotted its beautiful hair.
By attending to the returns of language, I remain silent on the force of lines like the last in the passage–but I’ll say here that Ferry’s translation elevates in the manner of Wordsworth, the poet on whom Ferry has, long ago, written so well; it is the plain high style, not affecting simplicity but effecting in its simplicity: is it the word “where” or “the” or “its” or “soiled” (so close to “ground”) or the generous honesty of “beautiful”? Or perhaps the preposition “up,” a verbal gesture so characteristic of Wordsworth (from “Michael”: “And never lifted up a single stone”–the subject of some of Christopher Ricks’ most penetrating and yet baffled criticism)?
There is, though, even in that line, a return of sort: “soiled” to “ground.” Not the words themselves, but their semantic fields, orbiting the same system, pull the poem back. To earth he returns, even as Aeneas lifts him up; to earth the poem returns, to the mortality that awaits all, even as Aeneas resists its gravity.
Elsewhere in this span, the returns are more obvious: “face” to “face,” “pale” to “paleness,” the gaze of Aeneas lingering, but also the identity of Lausus, his inescapably being what he is.
Here, I think, is the root of a true innovation in Ferry’s translation, residing often but not only in his returns: his sense for Virgil’s sense of necessity, not only in the course of actions, but in the identity of things, their being caught in the weight of the world, but also in the weight of what they are, where they are, to whom they belong. Hence some of the most densely patterned returns are possessive pronouns: what belongs to what or what belongs to whom (we see a flicker of it in the pronoun “your”–it is not unnatural, never unjustified for the pronoun to appear where it does–but it is striking because it is so easily possible for a poet to avoid the insistence).
That sense of being in oneself is potent here in two words. One: “himself.” The reminder that it is Aeneas who does this action, but also the sense that Aeneas becomes himself as he does it, just as, otherwise, he becomes himself in the final slaughter of Turnus. The other: “this.”
Throughout the poem, Ferry realizes the wonderful power of that word; when I teach high school students, I tell them to avoid it in their writing, not because it is a vitiating word but because its power is more than they can handle. What does it point to? It insists on an immediacy, a proximity, that most contexts cannot justify. When Ferry writes it here, it brings Aeneas into direct contact with the piety and love of Lausus; the vagueness of the word is the price for the intensity of its specificity, which is so great that we cannot make out what it shows, bringing its object so near to our eyes.
The pull of things into themselves, the pull of the poetry into itself, responds to and captures the most profound source of the epic’s elegiac melancholy: the return of things to themselves, to their fated courses and beings, to hardships, to paths that, however glorious, lead to and from losses. The most cosmological presentation of the vision is Book Six, where Anchises reveals to Aeneas the souls waiting to return to the vale of suffering after a thousand years in the shades of the underworld. But that is only one instantiation of the poem’s essential subject matter.
Look, there, there’s Priam pictured on the wall!
Even here they praise his worth and tell our story.
These are the tears of things for what they were
And what has become of them; the story of
The mortality of men strikes to the heart.
And what they are? That would be the mortality of man. Here is Ferry’s translation of the infamously difficult “lacrimae rerum” of Book One. “The tears of things” is right because the pictures are very much things, and those things represent and inspire weeping. But Ferry does not (would not) limit “things” to the pictures alone. To respond to the breadth of “rerum” in Latin, affairs, things, stuff, matters, and the rest, Ferry cannot work within the phrase alone, but instead asks “what” to labor on his behalf, so that the sense of abstraction and concretion, the openness of the Latin “rerum” is transferred onto the openness of “what”–what were the things? the things were what? that word a gap of substance and essence and identity–given equal weight in the line of monosyllables, they are equated rhythmically as well as semantically. The handling of the word “thing” is perhaps another mark of Ferry’s deep reading of Wordsworth (“She seemed a thing that could not feel/The touch of earthly years,” “We see into the life of things” et alia).
For Ferry’s Virgil, the tears of things is “for” both because it is granted to, dedicated to “what they were” and what they will become, and because the tears are on account of what the things were and what they will become; the stuff of the world, the affairs of the world, cries on account what it was and what it will become. The return to “what” registers how inescapable their identity, and the pathos of their identity, is.
And yet the means by which Ferry effects the return never feels tired, never feels predictable; the pathos is variegated, the ways in which we are reminded that things must remain themselves is as various as the things themselves. Some more remarkable instances.
Men do not know what fate has in store for them,
Nor of their exaltation know its end. (10. 681-81)
“For them” turns the phrase back of the men, adding little grammatically, but arcing the line with the stress of a fate that binds men to themselves. The line that follows might read, but does not: “Nor know the end of their exaltation.” That would not drive home “its end,” the exaltation repeated in “it” but the relationship of the end to exaltation, the latter’s possessing the latter so clearly, would also not be enforced, the syntax wrenched into strange shape by the end inherent in exaltation, by the insistence that it is contained therein.
And the pines that reached up toward the stars above. (11.181)
The trees reach up to the heaven above; the height, the gulf between earth and divinity, between mans and gods, cannot but be felt and moved against by even the trees.
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. (11.282-286)
“Ashes” to “ashes” obviously, and “cold to cold”; but less obviously “day” to “day,” the succession of time, constant, inescapable.
Turnus stood there, looking at him,
Stupid, confused, ashamed, in grief, in love,
In consciousness of his own manhood, dismayed.
And after he came to his senses from these shadows,
These images of his being’s situation,
He looked back, out of the burning orbs of his eyes,
At the walls of the Latins’ great city in its distress. (12. 900-906)
“These images of his being’s situation”– the situation that surrounds his being, by chance or fate, but also the situation that belongs to his being, the situation that is of its essence, and internal to it: of stupidity, confusion, shame, grief, love, self-consciousness, and dismay. And so the elegy embraces Turnus, less for what Aeneas does to him than for what he has been, what he is, and for what he will, in the war against the Trojans, become.