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Feb 17
Arts and Poetry
Baucis and Philemon

DSCN0320A Greek myth from Ovid
translated by Rolph Humphries
read by Celsiana Warwick at Paul Warwick’s Sukhavati
February 5, 2013

An oak tree stands
Beside a linden, in the Phrygian hills.
There’s a low wall around them. I have seen
The place myself; a prince once sent me there
To a land ruled by his father. Not far off
A great marsh lies, once habitable land,
But now full of seagulls and diving birds.
Zeus came here, once upon a time,
Disguised as a mortal man, and Hermes,
His son, came with him, having laid aside
Both wand and wings. They tried a thousand houses,
Looking for rest; they found a thousand houses
Shut in their face. But one at last received them,
A humble cottage, thatched with straw and reeds.
A good old woman, Baucis, and her husband,
A good old man, Philemon, used to live there.
They had married young, they had grown old together
In the same cottage; they were very poor,
But faced their poverty with cheerful spirit
And made its burden light by not complaining.
It would do you little good to ask for servants
Or masters in that household, for the couple
Were all the house; both gave and followed orders.
So, when the gods came to this little cottage,
Ducking their heads to enter, the old man
Pulled out a rustic bench for them to rest on,
As Baucis spread a homespun cover for it.
And then she poked the ashes around a little,
Still warm from last night’s fire, and got them going
With leaves and bark, and blew at them a little
With an old woman’s breath, and added kindling,
The wood split fine, and the dry twigs, made smaller
By breaking them over the knee, and put them under
A copper kettle, and then she took the cabbage
Her man had brought from the well-watered garden,
And stripped the outer leaves off. And Philemon
Reached up, with a forked stick, for the side of bacon
That hung below the smoky beam, and cut it,
Saved up so long, a fair-sized chunk, and dumped it
In the boiling water. They made conversation
To keep the time from being too long, and brought
A couch with willow frame and feet, and on it
They put a sedge-grass mattress, and above it
Such drapery as they had, and did not use
Except on great occasions. Even so,
It was pretty worn, it had only cost a little
When purchased new, but it went well enough
With a willow couch. And so the gods reclined.
Baucis, her skirts tucked up, was setting the table
With trembling hands. One table-leg was wobbly;
A piece of shell fixed that. She scoured the table,
Made level now, with a handful of green mint,
Put on the olives, black and green, and cherries
Preserved in dregs of wine, endive and radish,
And cottage cheese, and eggs, turned over lightly
In the warm ash, with shells unbroken. The dishes,
of course, were earthenware, and the mixing-bowl
For wine was the same, and the cups
Were beechwood, the inside coated with yellow wax.
No time at all, and the warm food was ready,
And wine brought out, of no particular vintage,
And pretty soon they had to clear the table
For the second course: here there were nuts and figs
And dates and plums and apples in wide baskets, and purple
Grapes fresh from the vines, and a white honeycomb
As centerpiece, and all around the table
Shone kindly faces, nothing mean or poor
Or skimpy in good will. But meanwhile
Baucis and Philemon saw that the mixing bowl,
As often as it was drained, kept filling up
All by itself, and the wine was never lower.
And this was strange, and scared them when they saw it.
They raised their hands and prayed, a little shaky,
“Forgive us, please, our lack of preparation,
Our meager fare!” They had only one goose, a guardian,
Watchdog, he might be called, of their estate
And now decided they had better kill him to make their
Offering better for their divine guests. But the goose
Was swift of wing, too swift for slow old people
To catch, and they were weary from the effort,
And could not catch the bird, who fled for refuge
To the presence of the strangers.
“Don’t kill him,” said the gods, and then continued:
“We are gods, you know: this wicked neighborhood
Will pay as it deserves to; do not worry,
You will not be hurt, but leave the house, come with us,
Both of you, to the mountain-top!” Obeying,
With staff and cane, Baucis and Philemon made the long climb, slowly
And painfully, and rested, where a bowman
Could reach the top with a long shot, looked down,
Saw water everywhere, only their cottage
Standing above the flood. And while they wondered
And wept a little for their neighbors’ trouble,
The house they used to live in, the poor quarters
Small for the two of them, became a temple:
Forked wooden props turned into marble columns;
The thatch grew brighter yellow, the roof was golden;
The doors were gates, most wonderfully carved;
The floor that used to be of earth was marble.
Zeus, calm and grave, was speaking to them:
“You are good people, worthy of each other,
Good man, good wife–ask us for any favor,
And you shall have it.” And they hesitated,
Asked, “Could we talk it over, just a little?”
And talked together, apart, and then Philemon
Spoke for them both: “What we would like to be
Is to be priests of yours, and guard the temple,
And since we have spent our happy years together,
May one hour take us both away; let neither
Outlive the other, that I may never see
The burial of my wife, nor she perform
That office for me.” And the prayer was granted.
As long as life was given, they watched the temple,
And one day, as they stood before the portals,
Both very old, talking the old days over, each saw the
Other put forth leaves. They were turning into trees. Philemon
Watched Baucis changing, Baucis watched Philemon,
And as the foliage spread, they still had time
To say, “Farewell, beloved!” and the bark closed over
Sealing their mouths. And even to this day
The peasants in that district show the stranger
The two trees close together, and the union
Of oak and linden in one.

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1 response to “ Baucis and Philemon ”
  1. Linda V. Lewis
    Feb 18, 2013


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