The Georgics of Virgil: Bilingual Edition

The Georgics of Virgil: Bilingual Edition. A translation and introduction by David Ferry. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2005; 202 pages; $30


John Dryden called Virgil's Georgics, written between 37 and 30 BCE, "the best poem by the best poet." The poem, newly translated by the poet and translator David Ferry, is one of the great songs, maybe the greatest we have, of human accomplishment in difficult -- and beautiful -- circumstances, and in the context of all we share in nature. The Georgics celebrates the crops, trees, and animals, and, above all, the human beings who care for them. It takes the form of teaching about this care: the tilling of fields, the tending of vines, the raising of the cattle and the bees. There's joy in the detail of Virgil's descriptions of work well done, and ecstatic joy in his praise of the very life of things, and passionate commiseration too, because of the vulnerability of men and all other creatures, with all they have to contend with: storms, and plagues, and wars, and all mischance.


The News & Observer (Raleigh, North Carolina): The Georgics abounds in lyrical praise of the rural life, marveling at the wonder of the skies and the bounty of the fields, while lamenting the loss of the Golden Age. But it also abounds in passages about disease and plague, about drought, flood, fire and war, and it insists upon the ceaseless harsh labor of plowman and herdsman. The first and third books end with visions of disaster horrifying in detail. Virgil is no sentimentalist; his picture is balanced.

Los Angeles Times: In his illuminating introduction, Ferry points out the many echoes of The Georgics in English and American poetry -- in Milton's "Lycidas" and "Paradise Lost," in Spenser, in Shakespeare's songs, in James Thomson, in Keats, and especially in the works of Wordsworth, Frost, and William Carlos Williams, all of whom wrote in what Ferry calls the tradition of the pastoral of hard work.

The Georgics are Virgil's tale of the fall of man from perpetual ease, from a time when wine flowed in the streams to the sweaty and painful reality of hard work. Its title, from the Greek, roughly means "the working of the earth," akin to Hesiod's "Works and Days," and it tells how the god Jupiter has given man the signs of the coming storms and trouble, which is the world's lot since Jupiter overthrew his father, Saturn.

The New York Sun: Mr. Ferry's is either tender or grand. He writes of "the little tendrils/ of the young vines," and, borrowing from Prospero, of the bees' "little lives." But he can also make you catch your breath at his grand style: "The high gate of the dark kingdom of Dis."

Mr. Ferry's individual pentameters...are always euphonious, often singable, and sometimes magnificent -- truly worthy of the best poet's best poem. In the architecture of his verse paragraphs...he fashions great wholes. We thrill to hear once more the great monologues of Shakespeare, the organ peal of Milton, Wordsworth's pensiveness, Yeats's "syntax of passionate speech," or the Yankee cunning of the deliberately humble Frost.


David Ferry is the author of Of No Country I Know: New and Selected Poems and Translations (Phoenix Poets Series). He is the translator of Gilgamesh(1992), The Odes of Horace (1998), The Eclogues of Virgil (1999), and The Epistles of Horace (2001), winner of the Landon Translation Prize, all published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.


Translator and poet David Ferry provides a helpful glossary at the end of his translation of The Georgics. In this glossary a reader may learn that "Orpheus is the son of Apollo and the Muse Calliope. The greatest of singers and musicians playing the lyre Apollo had given him. When Eurydicé died, his music persuaded the gods of the Underworld to permit him to bring her back to life as long as he did not turn to look at her on the journey back. Virgil may have invented in this poem Orpheus's turning back to look at her, thus losing her forever." On the summer afternoon I telephoned Mr. Ferry, he was at home in Cambridge, in the house where Margaret Fuller lived for nine months before she went to work on Brook Farm. I read to Mr. Ferry five of my favorite lines from his translation of Virgil's The Georgics. These lines refer to Orpheus's turning back to look at Eurydicé:

And saying this, like smoke

Disintegrating into air she was

Dispersed away and vanished from his eyes

And never saw him again, and he was left

Clutching at shadows, with so much still to say.

"That is a grand moment in the poem," I said.

I wondered if Mr. Ferry could read that passage to me in Latin. He was not sure that he could. He allowed as how he had "no confidence in reading Latin aloud. I did get a lot of practice with a friend who knows how to read the Latin better than I do. A segment of this [Ferry's translation of the Georgics] was in The Atlantic in January. I carefully practiced doing the Latin that is on their website and that one I have confidence in. But I don't know, I don't know if I can say the Latin that you read just now."

David Ferry was born in 1924 in a neighborhood in Orange, New Jersey. "I grew up in Maplewood, New Jersey, and went to high school there. I went to Amherst College. I had great teachers, although I didn't do any Latin or Greek, and I still haven't done any Greek, but I had great teachers in the Amherst English department."

"Did you read a lot as a child?"

"I read spottily. But I got to Amherst and my professors, because they were so great, made me bookish. Then in 1943, after my freshman year, I went in the army. I was mainly in England in a ground crew for the Army Air Force. I came back and finished at Amherst in 1948. I went to Harvard to graduate school. I didn't start writing poems until I went to graduate school."

In 1952 Mr. Ferry began teaching in the English Department at Wellesley College. He taught there until he retired in 1989.

"And since then," he offered, "I've taught an occasional course at Wellesley and in the Creative Writing Program at Boston University, which is a great graduate program, it's terrific."

"Which poet did you fall in love with first? Sometimes people know, sometimes people don't."

"I do know. I did my undergraduate honors thesis on the poetry of Wallace Stevens. The two 20th-century American poets who run deepest for me are Stevens and Frost. Before that, in high school, reading Whitman was a big, big thing."

The Kenyon Review, while Mr. Ferry was in graduate school, published his first poems. We agreed that in the 1950s, being published in The Kenyon Review was "pretty glamorous."

How he came to translating or "rendering" from one language to another, Mr. Ferry said, began in the early 1980s. "My book, Strangers, which came out in the 1980s, had three translations in it. One was one of the odes of Horace.

"Then a friend at Harvard who liked my poems and some other translations of mine that he'd seen, began to give me assignments in Gilgamesh. I don't know any Babylonian but I worked from the word-for-word scholarly text, including my friend's translation of several passages in that poem. He guided me to the other good word-for-word translations and I did this rendering of Gilgamesh and my friend Frank Bidart showed it to Jonathan Galassi at Farrar, Strauss, and he published it.

"I had another friend, a classicist at Boston University, and he liked what I'd done and began to give me assignments, translating some of the odes of Horace. So I did some of those and then I get hooked and I did more. Because I'd done those, I then got into The Epistles of Horace. But meanwhile I got into doing the The Eclogues of Virgil, because pastoral poetry figures so much in English poetry. So I did The Eclogues and I guess I got into The Georgics because I'd done The Eclogues and by then I was not only crazy about Horace, I was crazy about Virgil."

"How do you explain what the word 'georgics' means?"

"It comes from the Latin word that means 'farmer.' The farm. The name 'George' came from 'georgics,' and, in fact, King George III was called 'Farmer George.'"

I had wondered, reading Mr. Ferry's translation, if he were a gardener. He laughed, "No. We have a lot of green leaves in our garden. "There was farming in Virgil's family.

It seems to be agreed that there's a lot of first-hand knowledge about farming in Virgil. But a lot of it also comes from Greek books and Roman manuals about farming and some of the information is erroneous."

The Georgics were written between 37 and 30 BC. I said how I loved reading work written so long ago, that I loved the voice coming into my ear from centuries past. I was grateful, too, I said, that Mr. Ferry's translation was so grounded and specific, that nothing about the poem was "airy fairy."

"I hate 'airy fairy,'" I said, or worse, "'aery-faery' in poems. I hate the overly precious 'beloved raccoon' poems."

"Yes," said Mr. Ferry, "where nothing is corrupted, or where everything is made a metaphor for something allegedly higher. In The Georgics everything is looked at and valued for itself."

The only translation of The Georgics that I'd read, prior to Mr. Ferry's, was John Dryden's, done in the late 1600s. That translation, I confessed to Mr. Ferry, seemed fairly stodgy to me and left me with no desire to re-read the work.

Mr. Ferry noted that Dryden's was the only older translation that he went back to. "And even there," he said, "I only went back to it when I got into trouble and I needed some help about the sense. I didn't go to 20th-century translations because I didn't want to have either the feelings of malicious envy or condescension, depending on whether I thought what I'd done was better or not as good. And I didn't want to get anybody else's voice tangled up in mine.

"The Dryden was no threat in that sense because his voice, as marvelous as it is, is a 17th-century voice. And he was working in heroic couplets and I was working in iambic pentameter. If there's a master poet's voice in the work I'm doing, I have more of Wordsworth and Frost in my ear than anybody else.

"Frost knows that the two meters in English are strict iambic and loose iambic. Mine is loose iambic in the sense that there are more frequent anapestic substitutions than a strict iambic would have. That's the way I write iambic pentameter anyway, but I wasn't trying to imitate the Latin at all, but having the anapestic substitutions pretty often gives effects that, by accident or not, sometimes feel a little more like the Latin. I couldn't have done hexameters, because a six-foot line in English is impossible to manage. It falls over into prose. It does all sorts of things you don't want it to do."

I asked about the influence The Georgics had on poets who came after Virgil.

"One answer is simple: Virgil is in love with creation. He's in love with the plants and the animals. Celebrating natural things is part of that love. But the other part that goes along with that celebration is a strong sense that everything we've got is vulnerable and frail and precious. He sees that in the soil or in the smallest plant. ["Pity," Mr. Ferry writes in his introduction, "is the context for the poem's celebrations; admiration is the context for the poem's commiserations."]

"When [in previous work] I wrote about Wordsworth, I didn't have The Georgics in my head. I'd read C. Day Lewis's translation and when I've gone back to that, I haven't liked it very much. But I can see through that translation how something great was there. Wordsworth of course knew Latin extremely well. In fact, he translated the first four books of the Aeneid. Wonderfully too."

"Culture," Mr. Ferry writes in his introduction, "in the alien world of Jupiter, is always near the fragile beginnings of its making and always near its potential end. Existence itself is fragile in this world, and the more loved because it is so, having to be so carefully and anxiously constructed and maintained by toil and ingenuity and arts. Maybe Virgil was so interested in the skills of agriculture and animal husbandry and viniculture and beekeeping because he came from people who worked at such things, and also because they're beautiful and touching and interesting in themselves. But it also has to be because the ingenuities and arts, still with us and still essential, are always, though present, still back there at the beginning, when we fell and nature became imperfect, and culture had to be constructed. Human culture is always so present and so past, and its future always so uncertain. The poem is haunted by its earliness and lateness. The Georgics is the fundamental poem."

"Shakespeare is full of him," Mr. Ferry said. "For an example in that first Georgics is the passage about the wolves out in the street ["The ululating howls of wolves were heard/Echoing in the streets of high hill-towns"] and so on in these cataclysmic times. Richard III is full of that. And, of course, Antony and Cleopatra .

"What modern poets read him? Stevens must have."

"Stevens must have and Frost very, very deeply read him. There is the Frost poem 'The Investment'? It's one of Frost's greatest poems and it feels very georgic to me in that sense of a small, marginal, endangered farm household making some kind of pleasure out of a piano that they'd bought."

The Georgics' emphasis on creation's fragility also makes the book a political statement," I suggested.

"Yes. I hate to use the word 'relevant,' but that sense that our existence is something we construct and that it's in danger is there. Right now, I think we all feel that way about the situation we're in. I think Wordsworth felt this -- it shows up all over his great The Prelude , which is a very, very georgic poem. It's just marvelous. I don't know, I'm so much under the star of The Georgics right now that practically everything I see looks georgic to me."

The political situation at the time The Georgics were written was volatile. The poem definitely is seated in that situation, Mr. Ferry explained. "It sits in among that and it's very clear from the first Eclogue . The Eclogues ," Mr. Ferry added, "are Virgil's first authenticated work. The very first Eclogue is an extremely political poem about two shepherds, one of whom has been dispossessed of his land by Octavian, who became Augustus, and who was Virgil's patron. After the battle of Philippi when Octavian defeated Brutus and the other assassins of Julius Caesar, he dispossessed a lot of people in order to give their lands to his returning soldiers. And one of these shepherds has been favored by Octavian and the other hasn't. Virgil is in a sense on both sides. For him, as for Horace, Octavian ended the Civil Wars and brought a period of relative stability and what they regarded as 'moral clarification' to the politics of the state. That didn't prevent either Horace or Virgil from having very mixed feelings about the relation of power to people's lives.

"It's at that apocalyptic end of the first Georgics where, it first describes how storms come on and what happened in civil wars and so on that the reader finds this: 'And someday, in those fields the crooked plow/ Of a farmer laboring there will turn up a spear/ Almost eaten away with rust, or his heavy hoe/ Will bump against an empty helmet, and/ He'll wonder at the giant bones in that graveyard.'"

"How did doing this translation change you?"

"We'll wait and see. I just finished. In the poems that I'm working on I usually I can't see any effects. But we'll see. I think that my being so taken with this particular job partly comes from the fact that I'd done Virgil before and the Horace so, I'm crazy about those guys now. But there are affinities with similar poems in my most recent two books of poems, Dwelling Places and No Country I Know , which involve my sense of everything being vulnerable, of a number of situations of marginal people, either in marginal states of mind or marginal circumstance. My feeling about The Georgics is partly explained by the fact, then, that I was already working that side of the street in some of my own poems."

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