Baucis and Philemon

We love happy endings, rewards for the deserving

and long-suffering—heroes made constellations,

devoted lovers flowers, or better yet a pair of trees

growing ever in a root-to-blossom embrace.

Yet what if that old couple knew from the start
they hosted gods, saw for themselves a life beyond
the mean hut, stale crust and shallow cup?
What if it was just an act, their kindliness
and humility, outsmarting the divine and all
their Phrygian neighbors too, who hadn’t seen
the light (so obvious for miles) and thereby
missed the chance for favors from Olympus?

It wouldn’t have been the first mistake
for slumming Jove, though Mercury
should have picked up on the tone,
the feigned innocence and courtesy:
“Come rest here at the hearth,” and
“Please excuse our humble fare.”

But gods lack subtlety—lightning, flood,
Prometheus-on-the-crag their usual mode.

So in the end the whole thing backfired,
those geezers getting all they said they wished,
their hovel suddenly a temple
where they’d scrub floors and burn devotions
until they died, their disingenuous request
“to serve the gods” granted to the terrible letter.

It’s their bickering you hear in any wood,
that rustling in the trees: the linden’s bitter
heart-shaped leaves, the oak forever shaking
acorns down like so many small, hard words.

.

James Scruton’s most recent collections are the chapbooks: Galileo’s House, available from Finishing Line Press, and Exotics and Accidentals, available from graysonbooks.com. A sampling of other poems can be found at poetryfoundation.org.