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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."

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