Commonplace Book: Aeneid, translated by David Ferry

Still working my way through David Ferry’s Virgil, wonder, astonishment and beauty; here’s a grim excerpt that shows the vividness and control of both author and translator. Roman, Marble relief fragment with scenes from the Trojan War, 1st half of 1st century A.D., Marble, Palombino, 7 1/8 x 6 15/16 in., 1.1kg (18.1 x 17.6 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Fletcher Fund, 1924 (24.97.11)

“Aurora rose, spreading her pitying light,
And with it bringing back to sight the labors
Of sad mortality, what men have done,
And what has been done to them; and what they must do
To mourn. King Tarchon and Father Aeneas, together
Upon the curving shore, caused there to be
Wooden funeral pyres constructed, and to which
The bodies of their dead were brought and placed there,
In accordance with the customs of their countries.
The black pitch smoke of the burning of the bodies
Arose up high and darkened the sky above.
Three times in shining armor the grieving warriors
Circled the burning pyres, three times on horseback,
Ululating, weeping, as they rode.
You could see how teardrops glistened on their armor.
The clamor of their sorrowing voices and
The dolorous clang of trumpets rose together
As they threw into the melancholy fires
Spoils that had been stripped from the Latins, helmets,
And decorated swords, bridles of horses,
And glowing chariot wheels, and with them, also,
Shields and weapons of their own familiar
Comrades, which had failed to keep them alive.
Bodies of beasts were thrown into the fire,
Cattle, and bristle- backed swine, brought from surrounding
Fields to be sacrificed to the god of death.

And all along the shore the soldiers watched
The burning of the bodies of their friends,
And could not be turned away until the dewy
Night changed all the sky and the stars came out.
Over there, where the Latins were, things were
As miserable as this. Innumerable
Scattered funeral pyres; many bodies
Hastily buried in hastily dug-up earth,
And many others, picked up from where they fell
When they were slain, and carried back to the fields
Which they had plowed and tilled before the fighting,
Or back into the city where they came from;
Others were indiscriminately burned,
Unnamed, and so without ceremony or honor.
The light of the burning fires was everywhere.
On the third day when the light of day came back
To show the hapless scene, they leveled out
What was left of the pyres and separated what
Was left of the bones, now cold and among cold ashes,
And covered over the ashes and the bones.

– From David Ferry’s The Aeneid

David Ferry’s Aeneid

Finally—embarrassed to say—reading the Aeneid, led to it, tardy though I am, by Hector Berlioz.

I picked up David Ferry’s new translation, having loved his Gilgamesh.

His note on the translation and his aims ends like this (after props to Dryden, which also won me over).

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 personally, since I had previously translated his Eclogues 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, very rooted plants, the beasts in the fields, the shepherds trying to keep their world together with song replying to song replying 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 Deiphobus, 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 vulnerable, himself subject to monstrous rage, himself not always unconfused, all of them, all of us, creatures, created beings, heroic and vulnerable, and Virgil’s telling it as it is, in his truth-telling pitying voice.

His version has a gorgeous ‘swing’ from beginning to end, and you are likely to find a beautiful line just by opening the book.


Here is a bit of Book three,


“Meanwhile, the sun is carried round upon

The great wheel of the year, and icy winter

Agitates the waters with its gales.

And I affix a shield of hollow brass

Great Abas carried long ago in battle

To the columns at the entrance to the town,

Placing this verse upon it, that we were there:







After then I told my people to leave this port

And take up the oars and compete with one another

To sweep across the water and away.”




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