Ferry was born in Orange, New Jersey, and grew up and attended Columbia High School amid the “wild hills” of suburban Maplewood, New Jersey. His undergraduate education at Amherst College was interrupted by his service in the United States Army Air Force during World War II. He ultimately received his B.A. from Amherst in 1946. He went on to earn his Ph.D. from Harvard University, and it was during his graduate studies that he published his first poems in The Kenyon Review.
From 1952 until his retirement in 1989, Ferry taught at Wellesley College where he was, for many years, the chairman of the English Department. He now holds the title Sophie Chantal Hart Professor Emeritus of English at Wellesley. He has also taught writing at Boston University. Ferry was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1998, and he is a fellow of the Academy of American Poets.
In 1958 Ferry married the literary critic Anne Ferry (died 2006), who later became the first full-time woman member of the Harvard University English faculty; they had two children, Elizabeth, an anthrophologist, and Stephen, a photojournalist. Before moving to his current home in Brookline MA, Ferry lived across the Charles River in Cambridge, in the house where 19th century journalist and women's rights advocate Margaret Fuller lived before she joined the Brook Farm community.
In 2000, Ferry’s book of new and selected poems and translations, entitled Of No Country I Know, received the Lenore Marshall Prize from the Academy of American Poets and the Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry from the Library of Congress (for the best work of poetry for the previous two years). He is the author of a critically praised verse rendering of the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh. The poet W. S. Merwin has described Ferry's work as having an "assured quiet tone" that communicates "complexities of feeling with unfailing proportion and grace."
Ferry is also a recipient of the Harold Morton Landon Translation Award.