For my parents, who have been reunited.
|Rembrandt van Rijn, Philemon and Baucis are visited by Jupiter and Mercury|
Two ordinary-looking trees, an oak and a linden, growing side-by-side on a small hill, surrounded by a wall. But first, a tale of two gods wandering in peasant disguise, seeking hospitality in the homes of strangers, only to find mille domos adiere locum requiemque petentes, mille domos clausere serae: a thousand doors remain shut to their pleas. Until the gods reach the last house in the town, where an old couple live in freedom-giving poverty, each owing obedience only to the other. They take in the strangers, and the poet minutely and tenderly describes the table they set and the dinner they prepare, sharing the best of what little they have. The reviving of the fire from the day before, with leaves and dry bark. The cutting of a slice of an old piece of bacon, softened in water and washed of its salt. And then each of the courses, modest but proper and carefully laid out, accompanied with wine. Above all, vultus accessere boni nec iners pauperque voluntas: welcoming looks, and a warm, solicitous disposition towards the uninvited guests.
Thus begins the story of Philemon and Baucis, as told by Ovid in the Metamorphoses. Its original source, if any, is unknown, although there is a biblical echo in what happens next, as the gods reveal themselves to the mortals – by magically increasing the supply of wine – and announce that they are about to lay waste to the town for the impiety of its inhabitants. Only the old couple will be spared, so long as they march to the top of the hill, without looking back. When they reach the summit and turn their ‘no more forbidden eyes’ (as per John Dryden’s liberal translation), Philemon and Baucis see that the town has been drowned in a lake of sludge. While weeping for the loss of lives they watch their old home, which was parva duobus – barely enough for two people – be transformed into a temple, with marble floors and columns sprouting like vegetation in a forest. Whereupon Jupiter asks the couple to declare their wish, which the gods will grant.
The story is all in the next two lines. Cum Baucide pauca locutus iudicium superis aperit commune Philemon: after consulting briefly with Baucis, Philemon tells the gods their shared desire.
They didn’t have to speak for long: their mind was already made up. Their wish had always existed, waiting for two passing gods to come along and fulfil it.
This is the part that has no biblical echoes whatsoever – it is all about earthly love, not the divine – and that my mother used to speak about with longing. The part where Philemon and Baucis ask to serve as priests in the newly erected temple, but above all that when their hour comes they be allowed to die together. Nec coniugis umquam busta meae videam, neu sim tumulandus ab illa: that she may not have to see my grave, nor I have to bury her.
When a loved one dies, it always feels as if death had just been invented. But Philemon and Baucis are the last people: by which I mean to each other, a state expressed by heavy-handed metaphor through the massacre of the rest of the townsfolk. And if there is no-one and else, if they are the last loved ones, to each be spared the death of the other is the ultimate gift: the promise to live their remaining years free of the fear of that pain.
When the time comes, the gods’ design reveals itself in poetic form. The couple are sitting on the temple’s foreground, reminiscing about what came to pass, when
...frondere Philemona Baucis,Frondere, what a magnificent verb: it means that the two have started to grow branches and leaves. And then ‘farewell’, ‘oh, my spouse’ they have time to say to each other before bark seals their mouths and the swift metamorphosis is complete.
Baucida conspexit senior frondere Philemon.
iamque super geminos crescente cacumine vultus
mutua, dum licuit, reddebant dicta ‘vale’ que
‘o coniunx’ dixere simul, simul abdita texit
Two ordinary-looking trees, an oak and a linden, growing side-by-side on a small hill, surrounded by a wall. What fate could be more sweet?