David Ferry, a poet and translator whose direct, emotionally resonant work plumbing the chasms between the knowable and the unknowable won him broad praise and honors late in his career, including the National Book Award when he was 86, died on Sunday in Lexington, Mass. He was 99.
The death, at a retirement home, was confirmed by his son, Stephen.
Mr. Ferry spent nearly 40 years teaching literature at Wellesley College, and during that time he published just two books, both of poetry, with 23 years between them. He was admired as a critic and a teacher, but not as a poet, except within a small circle of admirers.
It was only after he retired in 1989, at age 65, that the productivity for which he would become known kicked in. He wrote 10 books over the next 34 years, including five more books of new and collected poems.
He turned initially to translating classical texts, although he did not know Latin or Greek and lacked a grounding in classical writing. His first post-retirement book, a translation of the ancient Babylonian epic “Gilgamesh” in 1993, was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and is widely considered the best modern rendering of that work.
“Only a handful of poets could come close to the subtlety and intelligence of the verse in this translation of the Babylonian epic,” The Times noted, “which is so masterly that it belongs as much to David Ferry as to its original poet.”
He later won praise for his translations of the Roman poets Horace and Virgil, including Virgil’s epic work “The Aeneid,” published in 2017.
Such was his renown as a translator that his poetry was at times overlooked — at least until he won the National Book Award in 2012 for “Bewilderment: New Poems and Translations.”
As the title makes clear, that book, like much of Mr. Ferry’s original work, draws heavily on translation, both as stand-alone entries and as excerpts within his own poetry.
Mr. Ferry spoke of living in a state of constant bewilderment — not just him, but everyone, and everything. The world is slippery, and nothing, not even words as concrete and precisely chosen as his, could capture it in full.
Engaging with the past, including through classical texts, he wrote in his poem “Ancestral Lines,” was among the only ways to find stability, if only briefly:
It’s as when following the others’ lines,
Which are the tracks of somebody gone before,
Leaving me mischievous clues, telling me who
They were and who it was they weren’t,
And who it is I am because of them,
Or, just for the moment, reading them, I am
Even his poems were bewildered, he said, and believed his job was to help them find their way. When writing, he started with a line and worked it out from there on a path of mutual discovery, both for him and for the poem.
Writing, he said in a 2020 interview with the online magazine Literary Hub, is “the experience of watching what’s happening in the lines as the experience of the sounds and rhythms and the experience of emotions and knowledge that’s gained.”
“Of course,” he added, “there’s the knowledge that you didn’t know you had, and that the poem line by line is sort of finding out itself.”
Mr. Ferry revered Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens, and like them he wrote in a direct, quietly devastating style. It is not frilly or overly difficult, though in its richness it contains multitudes that reward frequent rereadings.
He deployed metaphor sparingly and precisely, never to show off, as in his poem “Lake Water,” an elegy to his wife, the critic Anne Ferry:
When, moments after she died, I looked into her face,
It was as untelling as something natural,
A lake, say, the surface of it unreadable,
Its sources of meaning unfindable anymore.
Her mouth was open as if she had something to say;
But maybe my saying so is a figure of speech.
David Russell Ferry was born on March 5, 1924, in Orange, N.J., to Robert Ferry, a businessman, and Elsie (Russell) Ferry.
He studied English at Amherst College, though he left at the end of his freshman year to serve in the Army Air Forces during World War II. He returned after his discharge and graduated in 1946.
He received a Ph.D. in literature from Harvard in 1955, by which time he was already teaching at nearby Wellesley. He had also published his first poem, in The Kenyon Review, which he considered a special honor because the journal was edited by another of his literary heroes, John Crowe Ransom.
He met Anne Davidson while they were both teaching at Wellesley. They married in 1958. Mrs. Ferry later moved to Harvard, where she became the first woman to teach full time in the English department.
Mrs. Ferry died in 2006. Along with their son, Mr. Ferry is survived by their daughter, Elizabeth Ferry, and two grandchildren.
After retiring from Wellesley, Mr. Ferry taught at Boston University and at Suffolk University, where he was a distinguished visiting poet.
His final book, “Some Things I Said,” will be published in December. A day before he died, Mr. Ferry received an advance copy at his retirement home. His family and friends gave an impromptu reading from the book by his bedside as he lay there, listening.