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The last words of Theoderic the Ostrogoth to his magister, Cassiodorus

So, Cassiodorus, it is you.
And just how long have you been standing there
in the shadows, cloaked in your dark habit
of silence? You wear it so easily,
even after all these years—but then
you have always wielded silence as a weapon
against me, Theoderic, king
of the Ostrogoths and of Rome,
though it is by me the walls still stand
around Byzantium and your beloved Rome.

I know you recall that day
when at table I struck down Odoacer,
the rat-faced general from Ravenna,
my rival for the throne. It’s true,
we’d pledged peace, but it was putrid from the start. . .
What could I do but strike first?

How you, in all your learning,
looked with such disdain at the blood
that fell on the meat of the feast!
You condemned me then, Cassiodorus,
but you never were a king.
You never wept as you heard the crash
when Roman towers fell in the grass,
nor saw the showers of soul-sparks rise
when the hammer of God struck the anvil of the pride
of men outside the gates of Byzantium.
You did not mark where your arrows fell
on the very doorstep of the pit of hell,
nor did you, wading through the blood of tribes,
take and wield, for the last time,
the Roman law as a burning brand
against the monstrous night.

All that I did, and more besides.
I knew what you did not, my boy:
that there is a noble living to be made
in the brutal defense of something good
that you have not lived by, or even understood.
Now your philosophy molders away
in a mildewed chest somewhere in Italy
behind walls I gave my soul to defend,
while over every door there gleams
a fragment of the glory of Rome,
and mark my words: by that gleam,
the night might yet pass us by.

I know what you are going to say:
the night passes no one by.
All this life, you say, is merely
the making of oneself into a candle
to burn with God’s light in the dark
that comes, relentless, to all.
Don’t say it. I know
what are the comforts your kind brings
to the deathbed of a failed king;
your silence is doubtless the gentlest thing.

The truth is, there is no hope for such as I.
This is my curse: that I was born
just when I was, at a joint in time,
and lived a man between the days,
a man whom all the other ages
point at, and mock, and will not understand.
Today it is not permitted to be
simply a barbarian lord. There is
some nobility there, but I became
something tawdry, something worse:
a peddler of tame superstitions,
a seller of trinkets and pedantries,
haggling in villages over bastardized Latin,
shreds of theology, scraps of philosophy,
the baubles and bangles of civilization
stripped from her still-warm corpse and hawked
in the marketplace as her bridal jewels.
What did I truly know of wisdom?
What tools did I have to divine
the nature of the Incarnation,
whether Christ was made or whether His
was a greater mystery than being made?
How could I hope to plumb the secret
space that hangs between sound and silence,
the two voices of God? And yet
to rightness in all this will I be held,
in this life and in the one to come.

What a strange thing is life,
and small! Look: the clouds hang low,
and we will soon have rain.

Do you remember that long spring
when for weeks the rain up-country
fell and befouled the river with mud?
Ah, and you were always laboring
at building your useless little ponds,
even on days when the frost still clung
at dawn to the soil, those fish-ponds to which
you wanted to bring (you said) the river
as it ought to have been.
I saw them
later, in summer, full. Such ponds!
As clear, cool, quiet as jewels,
brimming with shadows and light, with motion
and stillness, and the very sounds they made
were silence.
Then I thought that those
must be the happiest of fish,
darting through limpid water between
the crested stalks of water-flowers,
to them the mightiest of pillars
supporting the heaven of the water-surface.

Yes, the happiest of fish they were,
and seeing them, I the happiest of men.
What a strange thing is life. Look: the clouds
hang low, and soon we will have rain.
But whether it will churn up or wash away
the mud I cannot say.

Go, boy. Go
to your ponds; I know you are longing
to. Go. Yes, what a little thing
is life, and littlest of all its passing,
a raindrop’s ripple on the water
stirring up reflections of clouds,
sky, a pink-budding locust tree
ruffled by the breeze. I find
some solace in that breeze; perhaps still,
as over the surface of your ponds,
in the stillness to which I go, it moves.

Jane Scharl has contributed to Plough, Dappled Things, and other publications.

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J.C. Scharl is a senior editor at the European Conservative. Her poetry and criticism have appeared in the New Ohio Review, the Hopkins Review, the American Journal of Poetry, and other publications.