nam, quod scriptorum non magna est copia apud me,
…….hoc fit, quod Romae vivimus: illa domus,
illa mihi sedes, illic mea carpitur aetas;
…….huc una ex multis capsula me sequitur.
As for my not having a good supply of authors with me here, that’s because I live at Rome: that is my home, that’s where I’ve settled, there my life is spent; but when I’m up here one small box out of many comes with me.
Catullus 68. 33–36
So Catullus, in a poem apologizing to his friend Manlius, or whatever his name was, for not sending Manlius a poem—and in the process so doing. The Roman poet, a great favorite of David Ferry’s, was off in his native Verona, his library back in Rome, with only one book box following him. Tantalizingly, Catullus omits to identify what was in it. Finding myself, at the risk of sounding grandiose, in a similar plight as I help out following the arrival of a granddaughter in the Berkshires, I offer only this brief tribute. Were I back among my books, I could talk in detail and quote from the many translations that David has produced over the years. He has translated more of the two great Roman poets Virgil and Horace, on whom I have spent most of my professional life, than any other translator I am aware of: all of Virgil—Eclogues, Georgics, and Aeneid — and almost all of Horace; only that poet’s Satires remain, some of them already translated, and I remain hopeful that David will finish those complex and deceptive poems too. I would, to paraphrase Catullus, provide a store of quotations and appreciations from this monumentum aere perennius, if I had them to hand. I would also write about about David’s own poetry, in particular the poems of the great collection Bewilderment, and the ways so many of those poems map onto what was happening at the time, in his life as in the poetry of his translations, and in the wonderful readings that he gave, in my own classes and beyond.
Time to close this praeteritio. I know David will understand the limitations of my gift since he too is a lover of grandchildren. And anyway he does not need me to discuss these translations since he has them fresh in his mind, having beguiled the days, weeks, and months of the pandemic by reading them in the virtual but lively company of his own grandchildren Isaiah and Sebastian, along with the intervening generation that rounds out his beloved family.
I met David Ferry rather late in the game, but we became friends and have made up for lost decades. Sometime in the late 1990s Anne and David had Joan and me over for drinks at Dana Street in Cambridge, along with my Harvard Latinist colleague, the late Wendell Clausen and his wife Margaret. I don’t recall the exact date, but I think David’s translation of The Odes of Horace of 1997 was out by then, since I remember discussing some versions of his Odes with him that I had found particularly memorable. Most of my contact since that time came after he had lost Anne, and after the move first to Brookline, then to Brookhaven. These encounters have been accompanied by conviviality, usually dinner, at nearby restaurants: first at one of the favorites in Brookline Village, Matt Murphy’s of course, but also Pomodoro, and before renovation made it less appealing, Sichuan Garden, and after the move at Il Casale in Lexington and the noble Il Capriccio in Waltham. Our talk has been of family, of poetry and translation, of politics and the world, of engaging trifles and matters of great moment. Joan and I have prized these opportunities, and we hope for and look forward to a resumption in the months ahead.
To return to my Catullan theme, as for Tennyson’s “tenderest of Roman poets” in Verona, so for me here in the hills and valleys of western Massachusetts, one book did make the trip with me, in this case, David’s translation of Virgil’s Georgics from 2005. As did the new translation of the Aeneid, work on the Georgics came late enough for me to read David’s translations with him, to talk about passages as he was putting them into a poetic English form that engages the beauty and power, and the lights and shadows, of what Dryden called the “best poem of the best poet.” In 2007 we even did an interview together, which is there at the bottom of the Wikipedia page on Virgil, with David’s reading available to all:
Anne had died the year before the Georgics appeared, and many of us vividly recall that time, reading the poems that came out in Bewilderment and reading, or hearing David reading, his translation of the aching beauty that the Virgilian genius achieved in his account of Orpheus’ loss of Eurydice as the Georgics nears its end. And you hear all of this and more in the epigram that begins the translation that is “dedicated to the cottage industry, David, Elizabeth, and Stephen; and to Isaiah and Sebastian”:
You lie in your bed as if an orchard were over us.
You are what’s fallen from those fatal boughs.
Where will we go, when they send us away from here?
As for all of us, that question remains. But for now the compensation is to be found in places like the Georgics, in that “stateliest measure ever moulded by the lips of man,” as an earlier English Virgilian put it of the Latin, and in the masterful English iambic pentameter poem that David Ferry created for us.
Richard F. Thomas
Also by Richard F. Thomas (see all)
- For David Ferry - May 31, 2021