Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Some kind of kinship: the Virgilian prefaces of David Ferry

             I will be gone from here and sing my songs
             In the forest wilderness where the wild beasts are,
             And carve in letters on the little trees
             The story of my love, and as the trees
             Will grow the letters too will grow, to cry
             In a louder voice of my love.

A friend of mine, living in Brooklyn
and awaiting at any minute the birth
of his first child, wrote to me of a 
scheme to recite from The Aeneid dur-
ing the interrupted nights he expects
from the nursery. Widely and learnedly
traveled as he and his wife are, it
seemed to me that some of the harbors
in that poem might be deferred for a
child's later contemplation, but that
the same poet could serve in the pas-
toral mode of his earlier writings.

I sense that it is next to impossible
to discuss the positively immortal
beauty of Virgil's poetry in our in-
teresting culture, without sounding 
a little arch. But this is not true
of everyone, and it is probably least
true of one man, who could say this,
in a preface to The Aeneid from one 
of the finest houses in publishing:

I love the way that opening line in
the Latin ends with "almam" . .

Aurora interea miseris mortalibus almam

Aurora rose, spreading her pitying light

In Fagles, this is "the light that gives
men life." In Ruden, it is similar, "nur-
turing." In Fitzgerald, it is "kindly."
Sadly, every single one of these associa-
tions is not what Virgil had in mind at
this moment of spectacular mourning. Yet
each of these translations is commendable
for its industry, learning, and modesty.
I live with these exemplary translations
in grateful companionship, but this poet
has not shaken the soul of our "living"
language, to be forsaken to immortality.

One thinks of a new child and her father in
the nursery late at night, as the least neg-
eligible of all respondents in communication.
The corresponding burden, although light,
If I were a wise man, I would do my part.
But there is wisdom, and there is more. 

In this preface, and in the two he wrote
for Virgil's Eclogues and Georgics, David
Ferry has quietly promulgated a manifesto
on translation which every reader will wel-
come in many ways - on meter, on vocabulary,
on literary structure. The problem, more to
be relished than ignored, is how arduous
the choices are, how infinitely demanding
of the inherent gifts of poetry, itself,
in both voices in translation's dialogue:

The effort is to achieve a representation, 
in the lines as they move forward, line 
by line, telling the tale, some kind of
kinship not only to the sense of the Lat-
in but also to the expressive complexit-
its of implicated discernment and emotion
in the lines. 

In so many ways, the poetry of Virgil
projects that protection and libera-
tion through form which bear the
least dissonance with the greatest
love. I cite David Ferry's translation
of these lines from Gallus' song in the
Tenth Eclogue, as some evidence for the
ardor living in the Latin for the Eng-
lish listener, to respond to disbelief 
that it can be done. This is no tour de
force, merely of linguistics. It is con-
duct of the highest moral liveliness,
by which, I should think, we are all
awakened. And so one goes on, singing,
in the very weather of one's own time -

          But I think it is not out of order for me to say
          that "completing" this translation of the work of
          such a great poet means a great deal to me person-
          ally, since I have previously translated his Ec-
          logues and his Georgics, and I am in love with his
          voice as I hear it in all these poems,

          telling how it is with all created beings, the very
          leaves on the trees, the very rooted plants, the
          beasts in the fields, the shepherds trying to keep
          their world together with song replying to song re-
          plying to song,

          the bees in their vulnerable hives, doing their
          work, the soldiers doing their work of killing and
          dying, the falling cities, and the kings and fathers,
          and their sons, and Dido, and Palinurus, and Deipho-
          bus, and Mezentius the disrespecter of gods, and the
          mortal son of Venus, the creature Aeneas, carrying
          his household gods to build a city, heroic and vul-
          nerable, himself subject to monstrous rage, himself
          not always unconfused. All of them, all of us, crea-
          tures, created beings, heroic and vulnerable, and
          Virgil's voice telling it as it is, in his truth-
          telling pitying voice.

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1999©

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2005©

University of Chicago Press, 2017©

Photography, here

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