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Analysis of Poem 'Philemon and Baucis' by Thom Gunn

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Thom Gunn (1929–2004)

Thom Gunn (1929–2004)

Thom Gunn and a Summary of 'Philemon and Baucis'

'Philemon and Baucis' is inspired by Ovid's 'Metamorphoses', a classical narrative poem of Greek myths and stories written in Latin in the first century AD.

Thom Gunn uses one of the retold stories to help express his feelings on love and relationships within the context of the disease AIDS.

In 23 lines of free verse poetry, he describes the loving way in which the two trees, formerly Philemon and Baucis, an old couple, embrace and live together, thriving, 'wedded in one flow', their longevity preserved in love.

With careful use of caesura (pauses in the lines), enjambment (when a line runs on into the next without punctuation) and repetition, Gunn's syntactical success lies in the measured way sincere language is plainly expressed.

The poem contains elements of the story intertwined with the idea of a shared love becoming long-lasting unity rooted in peace; acceptance of one another, warts and all, is the key to growth and harmony.

The story of the two poor Phyrgian peasants who shelter and feed disguised gods Jupiter and Mercury is taken from Ovid's 'Metamorphoses', Book VIII. The gods have come down to earth to find out if the rumours are true—that the people of the township in Phyrgia no longer follow the sacred laws of hospitality. They find the rumour to be fact.

Having been shunned at a thousand households, the two eventually turn up at the simple hut where Philemon and Baucis live. They are welcomed in from the storm, given food typical of a Roman peasant table: boiled bacon, nuts, dates, figs, apples, prunes, plums, purple grapes and fresh honeycomb.

When the hedgerow wine they serve starts to replenish itself in the jug, the poor couple realise that their guests are not mere mortals but gods. They offer to kill their one and only goose to make up for their meagre offerings, chasing it around the place in comic fashion until it flies behind the two guests and is saved from the pot.

Jupiter and Mercury then take the peasants up a nearby mountain to show them the town, now gone, flooded in a swamp, punishment for the immoral behaviour. The couple though are spared and granted two wishes.

'When he had spoken briefly with Baucis, Philemon revealed their joint request to the gods. “We ask to be priests and watch over your temple, and, since we have lived out harmonious years together, let the same hour take the two of us, so that I never have to see my wife’s grave, nor she have to bury me"'.

-A.S Kline, 2000, Ovid (43 BC–17) - 'The Metamorphoses': Book 8 (poetryintranslation.com)

Ovid's poem (from lines 611–724), probably derived from an earlier folk-tale, is a moralistic telling of a story that contains classic elements, namely:

  • immoral human behaviour, wicked society
  • divine intervention by disguised gods
  • hospitality offered to these gods by a poor couple (theoxenia)
  • divine goodwill often by miraculous event (replenishing wine)
  • punishment of society through flood
  • reward for couple's generosity and friendliness (turned into two trees).

Other stories and myths following the universal deluge theme contain similar motifs. For example: Deucalion and Pyrrha from Greek mythology, Noah's Ark from the Bible's Old Testament.

  • Thom Gunn takes the basic bones of the ancient story, presenting the two trees as one, the couple in a solid embrace, and fleshes them out with romantic and philosophical qualities.
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Mention of the gods giving comfort is counterbalanced by the phrases 'nervous exuberance' and 'continuous revelation'; the couple reach a final peace because their separate loves are now in harmony.

Gunn's language is at times arboreal and human—contrast trunks, leaves, bark and wooden hug with blanketing both and peace of mind. He has chosen not to go into too great a detail of the old couple fusing as one, unlike say Michael Longley in his 1992 'Baucis and Philemon', or John Dryden, the 17th century English poet, who wrote 'The Story of Baucis and Philemon' in 1693:

Dryden designs his version along traditional lines:

Old Baucis is by oldPhilemon seen

Sprouting with sudden Leaves of sprightly Green:

Old Baucis looked where old Philemon stood,

And saw his lengthen’d Arms a sprouting Wood:

New Roots their fasten’d Feet began to bind,

Their Bodies stiffen in a rising Rind:

Then, ere the Bark above their Shoulders grew,

They give and take at once their last Adieu;

At once, Farewell, O faithful Spouse, they said;

At once th’incroaching Rinds their closing Lips invade.

-Talking Trees: Philemon and Baucis Revisited | emily gowers - Academia.edu 2005

Thom Gunn published 'Philemon and Baucis' in his 1992 book The Man With Night Sweats. Though based on a moralistic myth, the poem sensitively deals with human acceptance and trust, even in death. It is a survivor's poem that acknowledges the ideal and the beautiful.

'Poetry can’t defend the dying from death, but it can give them a voice, make them sing. “The Man with Night Sweats” is as much about the people in its poems as it is about Gunn’s belief in writing as an act not only of remembrance but of social conscience, an act that binds the living to the dead forever'.

-Hilton Als, 2022, The Revelations of Thom Gunn’s Letters | The New Yorker

'Philemon and Baucis' by Thom Gunn

love without shadows-W.C.W.

Two trunks like bodies, bodies like twined trunks
Supported by their wooden hug. Leaves shine
In tender habit at the extremities.
Truly each other’s, they have embraced so long
Their barks have met and wedded in one flow
Blanketing both. Time lights the handsome bulk.
The gods were grateful, and for comfort given
Gave comfort multiplied a thousandfold.
Therefore the couple leached into that soil
The differences prolonged through their late vigour
That kept their exchanges salty and abrasive,
And found, with loves balancing equally,
Full peace of mind. They put unease behind them
A long time back, a long time back forgot
How each woke separate through the pale grey night,
A long time back forgot the days when each
—Riding the other’s nervous exuberance—
Knew the slow thrill of learning how to love
What, gradually revealed, becomes itself,
Expands, unsheathes, as the keen rays explore:
Invented in the continuous revelation.

They have drifted into a perpetual nap,
The peace of trees that all night whisper nothings.

Line-by-Line Analysis of 'Philemon and Baucis'

Lines 1–3

The first line is unusual in that it contains a clause with caesura, then almost a repeat, introducing the reader to two trees, the trunks (the bole), close together, twined. This doubling up reinforces the idea of two becoming one and sets the scene for the rest of the poem.

Enjambment carries the first line into the next—the two trunks are hugging, mutually supporting. Again, the line isn't allowed to flow. Leaves are present and are tender, as in they're gentle, familiar and settled.

The similes are partners, relating to the overall theme of two as one.

Lines 4–6

Such is their closeness and longevity their bark has met, they've grown into each other's skin, appearing as a liquid almost, a protective cover. As the leaves shine, time, the passing of seasons, has also brought distinctive light.

Note the language as the poem progresses: each other's, embraced, wedded, blanketing both. There's a feel of complete togetherness, a strong binding over time.

Lines 7–8

There's direct connection to the original myth with mention of the gods and their giving comfort a thousandfold. In the story, Philemon and Baucis are the only ones to offer shelter and food to the disguised gods. A thousand people refused them hospitality and so were doomed.

The comfort here is to be as one; two entwined in a single gesture.

Lines 9–13

To leach is to drain, empty or remove and it is this action that enables the couple over time to let go of their differences, because they're rooted in the same soil and can put up with harsh realities.

Basically, what feeds the soil is what makes for a stable relationship; a lifetime's chemistry equating to love, ending in harmony. This is an ideal yes—a romantic notion of the perfect kind . . . who ever gets full peace of mind?

The thirteenth line has a significant full stop halfway. The reader can take a brief pause before moving on to the next stage of the poem.

Lines 13–21

The couple left behind unease a long time back—the repeated phrase becomes a kind of conversational mantra—and have reached this state of continuous revelation, as the light reveals their growth in love.

Lines 22–23

They appear to be asleep in an ongoing calm and as trees with shiny leaves in a breeze might be whispering words of love to one another.

Meter in 'Philemon and Baucis'

Gunn's poetry often is a mix of the formal and disciplined. In this poem, some lines follow the pentameter route, 10 syllables or 11 ride the variable feet. Odd lines go beyond, stretching into hexameter.

Let's take a closer look at the first six lines:

Two trunks / like bod / ies, bod / ies like / twined trunks
Support / ed by / their wood / en hug. / Leaves shine
In ten / der hab / it at / the extrem / ities.
Truly / each oth / er’s, they / have em / braced so long
Their barks / have met / and wedd / ed in / one flow
Blanket / ing both. / Time lights / the hand / some bulk.

There's a single line of pure iambic pentameter, line 5, with that familiar rhythmic daDUM beat. The rest vary, pyrrhic, trochee and spondee breaking the iambic pattern (in many lines of the poem), the syntax carefully controlling the flow.

Sources

© 2022 Andrew Spacey

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