David Ferry


A photo portrait of poet and professor David Ferry in front of a crowded bookcase

Courtesy of Wellesley College Archives

Courtesy of Wellesley College Archives

David Ferry, Sophie Chantal Hart Professor Emeritus of English, died on Nov. 5, 2023, at the age of 99. David taught at Wellesley for 37 years, from 1952 to 1989. Over the arc of his long career, at Wellesley and afterward, he was an exemplary scholar and teacher, a giant of our faculty, a translator and poet of the highest order, and a major figure in American literature.

David graduated from Amherst College in 1948, having interrupted his undergraduate years to serve in the United States Army Air Force. He went on to receive his doctorate from Harvard University and wrote his thesis on change, death, and eternity in the poetry of Wordsworth. At Wellesley, he taught courses in Romantic poetry, 20th-century poetry, the novel, Shakespeare, 18th-century literature, and composition. David’s students, some of whom are now in their 80s, remember his classes as life-changing, inspiring events. He was a recipient of the Pinanski Prize for Excellence in Teaching in the very first year that it was awarded.

As an influential chair of the English department, David shaped a curriculum and a community where literature, and especially poetry, ranked as a first-class intellectual pursuit as well as a life-enhancing joy. Beyond his department, he served on many College committees, including two full terms on the Committee on Faculty Appointments.

When David retired in 1989, his two books on Wordsworth and two volumes of poetry were very highly regarded, but he had devoted the bulk of his energy to teaching Wellesley students and to serving this College. Nobody could have predicted the astonishing yield of his retirement years, or the influence of his work on a generation of readers. David’s first book in retirement was a translation of the 4,000-year-old Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, which brought that poem back into English literature for a new generation of readers. David then worked assiduously on the major poems of Horace and then of Virgil, culminating in a translation of the Aeneid praised widely as among the finest versions of that poem, published when David was 93. For years, to his former colleagues in the English department, he would make bleak jokes about the actuarial odds of his making it all the way to the end; but he did, and when he finished, he turned to his own dazzlingly original poems.

Those poems are the heart of his achievement. In 2012 his volume entitled Bewilderment: New Poems and Translations won the National Book Award. A growing consensus in the poetry world puts Ferry at the very top of the generation of poets born in the 1920s. The title Bewilderment suggests how little David supposed he understood the world, and how deep and strange and honorable it is to cultivate a humility before the great mysteries—those that we find in poetry, and in life as well.

A memorial service in honor of David Ferry will be held in Houghton Chapel at Wellesley College on March 16 at 3 p.m., followed by a reception in the Multifaith Center on the lower level. All are welcome.


Doreen C. Dun (Crawford) ’59
I was among the students in the fall of 1955 to have David Ferry as teacher of the required Freshman English Composition course. His classes were wonderful - awe-inspiring and humbling. I and others learned quickly that what we had thought we knew as high-school writers was not very good - well assembled perhaps, but superficial and overconfident. Mr. Ferry was such a dazzling teacher that we didn't mind his criticism of our weekly papers. His reading and analysis of a scene from King Lear was breathtaking and unforgettable. We learned a lot.
Beth Bromberg (Shapiro) ’81
As a science major, my classes with David Ferry were a wonderful distraction and taught me to expand my thinking in a more creative way. I remember that he had a retinal detachment and still showed up to teach. As a retired ophthalmologist, I can now appreciate his dedication to teaching during his healing. Being a student of his was a true gift
Mary E. Perry (Perry) ’72
Dr Ferry and I first met on Cushing's Island off Portland Maine in 1968 while I was working for a retired US Representative and his wife there. We did not connect socially but I was introduced to him. When I came to Wellesley as a freshman I was incensed by the need to write a paper for the fundamentals of movement so I plagiarized something from a scientific book on muscles and bones and thought I was very clever, but it was reported to the English department and he, now introduced as Mr. Ferry, was the one who counseled me. I knew damn well what I had done but let him take me down the road of a better way. I don't think he ever realized I knew darn well what I had done or perhaps he did but he was still generous in his willingness to show me why not to plagiarize in the future! To his credit and mine, I never played your eyes anything ever again.
Susan (Bachrach) ’70
David Ferry‘s Romantic Poetry class was my favorite class at Wellesley. He was a wonderful, memorable teacher!
Ellen Scordato (Scordato) ’84
Professor Ferry taught the first English course I took at Wellesley, and it was everything I could have wished and more. Truly magical. I still remember his reading aloud "They Flee from Me," by Thomas Wyatt. The room was spellbound and utterly still when he finished. I wound up being a Classical Civ major and loving poetry forever more. Many thanks to a true giant in his field, gentle and fierce.
Jane (Howard) ’65
I had Professor Ferry for freshman English in 1961. I remember the class well. We wrote an essay “The person I begin to be”. I was puzzled by that topic and wrote something superficial, but continued to think about it ever after. I also showed him my high school poems and received a very considerate reaction that he couldn’t tell me what a person wants to hear when she shows him her poetry. I think my interactions with him were among the most meaningful and personal in my experiences with classes at Wellesley. I am glad to learn of his long and successful life.
Betsy Kristl (Abbott) ’83
My heart is broken. Mr. Ferry, as I always knew him, even though it was incorrect even though he'd asked me to call him David even though he signed my dogeared copies of his books, "Da/vid" with the characteristic scansion, WAS Wellesley to me. His quiet grace and elegance, his humility, his subtle sense of humor, as well as his enormity in the classroom have always left me in awe. I remember him on graduation day, as we filed past the faculty in our plain black gowns, the way he looked, majestic, with so many colorful banners over his shoulders, and awards around his neck. It was as it should have been. I smiled shyly at him and he smiled back, just a twinkle of pride on his familiar, stately countenance. He was warm and approachable, always humble, occasionally self-effacing, referring to the National Book Award with which he was honored upon publication of his final work, "Bewilderment." I sat in the plush new lecture hall in Pendleton West, on the stairs. I cried, your words are as resonant for me at 50 as they will continue to be. My apologies to Shelley and all poets who followed, but I believe your dead leaves have been well-scattered. To his son and daughter I wish my greatest sympathies. You were blessed to have such a fine man for a parent, to lose such a person is unimaginably bittersweet.

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