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Philemon and Baucis

(Recueil 3, Livre 12, Fable 25)



Subject taken from Ovid's Metamorphoses

For Monseigneur le Duc de Vendôme

Nor gold nor grandeur brings us happiness:

The wealth and fleeting pleasure we possess

From those unsure, fickle divinities

Are brief at best. Therewith our miseries,

Our agonies abide: vultures that pluck

At the poor son of Japhet, whose ill luck

It was to be chained to a cliff; whereas

The umble, lowly habitation has

No need to pay such tribute. There, peace-blessed,

The sage lives out his life and scorns the rest.

Roaming the wood, content with simplest things,

He sees, spread at his feet, minions of kings,

Of wealth possessed, and reads the eloquent

Proof-on the brows of those whose lives are spent

In empty luxury--that one must pay

Fortune for what she sells, not gives away.

And, when comes time to quit his life, it is

As if far evening bears that day of his

Off to its peaceful night... Well, Philemon--

Who with his Baucis dwelt-was such a one.

Couple much loving and much loved, they were

Devoted, she to him and he to her,

Since the sweet springtime of their youth; and love

Had turned their but into a shrine thereof.

Clotho took pleasure measuring out the thread

Of each; and, though long years they had been wed,

Their flame was not by time or marriage faded.

Each was the other's all; and both, unaided

By servant's hands, for two score summers, tilled

Garden and field, with soul deeply fulfilled

Thereby. But everything in time grows old.

Furrows wrinkled their brows; and, though not cold,

Their passion cooled a bit. Friendship became

Its surrogate, and yet could heat to flame

When love's darts pricked it ho...Now then, their town

Was filled with folk of scurrilous renown--

Cold and hard-hearted--such that Jupiter

Decides to purge the earth of them. Demur

He will not. Leaving, rather, then and there,

With his son, quick of tongue, he rends the air...

Arrives... The pair, decked out in pilgrim guise,

Knock on a thousand doors: no one replies.

Not one! And, as the gods prepare to qui

Such a vile, shameful place, lo! their eyes hit

Upon a humble hut, off from the road,

That seems an honest, welcoming abode,

Free of disgrace. Whereat god Mercury--

The son, eloquent one (for it was he)--

Wishing to try once more, knocks on the door.

It opens in a trice...Standing before

Our pilgrim-gods, good Philemon declares:

"Methinks you travel far. The thoroughfare's

Journey has tired you both, no doubt. Come, rest.

We have but little, but it is the best

That we can offer you. Alas, messieurs,

Gone is the wondrous day when Jupiter,

Though carved of wood, heeded our every prayer!

Now that they fashion him of gold, we fare

Far worse! Deaf is he to our pleas, I fear!"

Then, to his Baucis: "Go, make haste my dear

And warm the water for our guests, though we

Are not so quick as once we used to be."

Blowing the charcoal embers back to life,

Slowly, laboriously, his gentle wife

Obeys. They wash the travelers' feet and ask

Their pardon for the slowness of the task.

Philemon speaks to them the while, but not

Of grandeur, gaming, wealth--the kingly lot.

Rather he talks of pleasures innocent

And rare, in woods, fields, orchards, sweetly spent.

Meantime, Baucis the rustic meal lays out

Upon a rough-hewn table, wrought without

Compass or such, one of whose legs--ill-starred,

Wracked too by time--was held firm by a shard

Of earthenware, time-wracked as well. (At least

So it was said.) A cloth, for solemn feast

Reserverd--worn, flower-spread--had but a bit

Of Ceres'bounty fair to cover it;

A little milk as well. Our voyageurs

Divine, most thirsty from their travels, were

Content to mis their lowly country wine

With a stream's waters, pure and crystalline.

But as they do, behold! The more they pour,

The more the jug contains! Kneeling before

The godly pair, Baucis and Philemon

Know that a miracle has here been done!

The veil is lifted from their eyes, and there

Stands Jupiter, dark-browed, with that fierce air

That shakes the skies from pole to pole. "Pray, sire,"

Begs Philemon, "spare us your holy ire

At our most modest welcome! How could we

Have dreamed that such as Your Divinity

Would be our guest? The food we offered you

Was paltry, sire, at best. Still, thereunto,

Even if we were kings, how could we serve

What you, the masters of the world, deserve?

True, it came from the heart. But finer yet

The gods expect. And surely they would whet

Their appetite not on the heart's intent

Sincere, but on more worldly nourishment.

Baucis, my love, "he asks, "what worthier fare

Can we yet offer them? Pray, go prepare

As best you can!" Out in the garden she

Had kept a partridge, and has tenderly

Raised it since birth. She gives it chase; but it

Flees from her trembling grasp and, t o outwit

Her vain pursuit, perches betwixt the knees

Of Jupiter himself, as he decrees

The town's demise, decides the time has come

To cast his shadow over sinnerdom.

Down from the mountains roll the shades, and spill

Over the valleys. Now the two gods will

Quit the abode and lead therfrom their pair

Of hosts. Cries Jove: "No longer will I bear

The ills this race commits! Now shall it be

Destroyed. Come", say the god. "You, Mercury,

Summon the winds. And you, iniquitous,

Foul folk, who closed your homes and hearts to us,

Be now undone!" As thus he spoke, a gale

Bellowed across the plain. The couple, frail

And bent with years, followed as best they could,

Tottering, each, with a slim cane of wood

To lean upon, until, by both the grace

Of the two gods--and fright!--they reach the place

Proposed: a hill hard by. The pair peer down,

Watch as a hundrer clouds lash at the town

Below, unleash their wrath, go crashing, sweep

Off in a flood divine, all in a heap--

Acolytes of the gods--people, beasts, trees,

Houses, and orchards, till no trace of these,

Or those, or anything at all remains.

In secret Baucis weeps; the havoc pains

And grieves her. What? That beasts should suffer so?

Just was the peopl's punishment. But oh!

Innocent beasts as well? Meanwhile, in but

An instant, lo! the thatched roof of their hut

Turns to a glistening golg before their eyes,

With marbled pillars rising to the skies,

Gleaming in all its new magnificence;

And, painted on the wainscot, the events

I have described, traced by no mortal hand--

No Zeuxis, no Apelles, or their band

Of human limners! Awed, confounded, our

Husband and wife, thinking some godly power

Has brought them to Olympus, say: "Might we,

Your humble servants, have such purity

Of hand and heart, that we, in priestly wise,

May bring to you, O Jove, the prayers, the cries,

The pleas of simple pilgrims!" Whereupon

The god grants their request; whence Philemon

Makes yet one more: "Would that our mortal tether

Come to an end, my wife's and mine, together,

Serving you altars. No more could we ask

Of Clotho tan this final twofold task!

I should not mourn my Baucis, and her tears

Would irk you not." Jupiter listens, hears,

Agrees...Now let me tell you, if I dare,

A fact hard to believe. One day, as there

They sat--our saintly pair, that is--before

The temple gate, as pilgrims more and more

astounded, listened, Philemon said: "This

Has not forever been an edifice

Unto the gods immortal. No! It was

Surrounded by a city without laws;

A foul, barbaric place, whose people scorned

The very gods, and who--undone, unmourned--

Knew wrath celestial! And we two are all

That still remains. Herein each sacred wall

Recounts the tale, and what is yet to be,

Painted by Jove himself..."As lovingly

He spoke, he cast now and again a glance

At Baucis, who, motionless in her stance,

Was turning to a tree, har arms outspread.

It not please you enough. Apollo had--

Or so, at least, they tell us--promptly bade

Her and her sister Muses to convey

That sacred valley to your fair Anet.

And so they did. Now may we long give thanks

In the shade of the boughs that line its banks!

May they lift up their verdant brows, anon,

As once did Baucis and her Philemon!

Jean de La Fontaine

Book 12, Fable 25



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