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."