Here as I Am: The Aeneid   by Virgil, translated by David Ferry (University of Chicago Press, 2017).

Drew Swinger
| Reviews


Ferry’s unique style, however, comes through more distinctly elsewhere—for example, in the final epic simile of the poem (beginning “ac velut in somnis”). It depicts the disorientation of Turnus, the fiery leader of forces opposed to the Trojans’ attempted settlement in Italy, as he nears his defeat at the hands of Aeneas and with a little help from the gods, just as Hector neared defeat at the hands of Achilles outside the walls of Troy:

           It’s as in sleep, in the quiet of the night,
           Our languid eyelids close and in their dream
           Won’t tell wherever we are nor where we’re going
           Or trying to go nor can we get there where-
           Ever where might be, and who knows who it is
           We maybe are, our legs gone weak, no way
           To get there where? It was thus it was with Turnus.

Translators such as Robert Fitzgerald, who had previously translated Homer, nudge Virgil back to the source of his dream simile in the Iliad, Book 22, where predator and prey run in place:

                                  it seems we try in vain
           To keep on running, try with all our might

Ferry is freer, yet in a way he’s more faithful to Virgil by amplifying a special quality of this passage, which derives from Virgil’s introduction of the first-person plural (we/our). Ferry not only carries over Virgil’s device to draw us in and sympathize with the ill-fated Turnus (as Fitzgerald and others admittedly do); he puts us inside Turnus’s disorientation by means of his whirligig repetitions (e.g., where/wherever, there, go/going/gone, who, it was), extreme enjambment (“where- / ever”), and near-comedic inversion of declarative to interrogative (“to get there where?”) At the same time, Ferry’s lines match the alliterativeness of Virgil’s (“non lingua valet, non corpore notae / sufficiunt vires, nec vox aut verba sequuntur”). This is an astonishing bit of translation that typifies the level of Ferry’s sensibility and craft. And yet Ferry seems particularly himself in this passage. Compare the dream simile with samplings from Bewilderment, Ferry’s most recent collection of poems (the one which won that National Book Award):

           I don’t know what or where it is or was.
           But maybe it isn’t so much the where but the why.
           Or maybe I haven’t found it because beware.
                      (“One Two Three Four Five”)
           The ticking sound of falling leaves was like
           The ticking sound of gentle rainfall as
           They gently fell on leaves already fallen

It would be absurd to declare, as some reviewers have done of other translators’ work, that Ferry’s version is the Virgil in English or merely the Virgil for our day. As relevant as the Aeneid remains, as infinitely interpretable and deeply human as Virgil’s poetry is, Virgil is not as central to our culture as, say, the Bible was in the era of King James. Possibly Dryden comes closest. But Ferry’s Aeneid deserves a place in the pantheon. As Ferry tells us, his aim is “line by line, telling the tale” in what he hears as “Virgil’s voice telling it as it is, in his truth-telling pitying voice.” It’s as Ferry has Virgil’s Aeneas speak for himself:

           “I am here before you, myself in my own body,
           I am here as I am and here as what I have done.”

Drew Swinger‘s poems have appeared in Poetry and AGNI. He is a graduate of Boston University’s Creative Writing Program and currently manages analytics for a global higher education company headquartered in Chicago. He lives in Lexington, Massachusetts.

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