“Each year new consuls and proconsuls are made; but not every year is a king or a poet born.” ~Lucius Annaeus Florus c. 125
There is a little known principle — a secret law of the universe, as it were — that where two identical things simultaneously come into existence, one of them must cease to be, for there can be no two things exactly alike. This principle, like many spiritual laws, has been lost to our rational, mechanistic minds, though ancient philosophers and alchemists were aware of it and respected its power.
Borges made reference to this principle in his Personal Anthology, page 88, and it is a central feature of the story I am about to relate which was partially recorded in the History of Ammianus Marcellunus of the fourth century A.D.
The event took place during the reign of Marcus Tranquillius, an emporer known chiefly for his love of flowers, which has led some scholars to infer that he was more Greek than Roman. The fairest flower of the empire was a Court Poet of many years named Insepticus, whose name was being acclaimed throughout the Civilized World.
As is not uncommon among poets Insepticus had, as a result of achievements, come to believe himself of greater significance than the empire itself. At a certain point in time he made a public pronouncement that he was unquestionably the supreme poet of his generation, if not for all time, and that undoubtedly the angels themselves were jealous of his glory.
Hardly a week had passed before there appeared at the palace gate a young poet from abroad who claimed that the gods, in a dream, had presented him with the gift of a poem which he was to deliver in the presence of Marcus Tranquillius. He asserted that he himself had been the Court Poet for a minor sheik in the the kingdom of Kalenda Parnhu in the East. When word of the young poet’s arrival reached the emporer, the small hairs on his neck stood on end and his spine tingled, which gave him the impression that an affair of no small significance was on the verge of occurring.
An envoy was sent to retrieve the young poet. After three days of ceremonial cleansing and ritual instruction as regards behavior in the presence of a Roman Emperor, the young man was ushered into the Royal Court.
The sight of Insepticus, seated at the right hand of Marcus Tranquillius, impressed the young poet far more than the regal splendor of the court itself. Where else in the world could a mere poet attain to such honor?
After an evening of soporific speeches by unknown statesmen, Marcus Tranquillius at last stood to announce that the following morning there would be a Duel of the Poets with the entire assembly invited to attend to bear witness. Believing himself a spokesman for the gods, as is the custom of emperors, Tranquillius assigned added gravity to the occasion by declaring, “The Deity Himself has ordained it,” which, in fact, He had.
Throughout the evening Insepticus remained cool and composed, offering no indication that he was in any way intimidated by the young poet. Some later said that he did not sleep from the moment of the young poet’s arrival, but these were only rumors and have no bearing on what actually occurred, as will soon become apparent.
The morning sun emblazoned the sky with symbolic significance as courtiers prepared the poets for this epic confrontation. Tranquillius, it is said, woke three hours before dawn, his heart leaping from excitement. No one knows what the young poet felt through that fateful night. It is known only that he had come to satisfy a perceived obligation.
The amphitheater had nearly filled by the time Tranquillius was seated. A signal was given and a hush permeated the crowds as the two poets were ushered to the great stage.
Insepticus, who needed no introduction, was to be the first to deliver. As had been agreed, each would take turns presenting portions of oratory for as long as was deemed necessary until either one or the other conceded.
Insepticus stepped forward and a great stillness ensued. At a decisive moment he opened his mouth, delivering with prosaic eloquence a self-portrait in sixteen quatrains.
It would appear that the poem had made an impression on the young poet, for a remarkable blaze appeared in his eyes, though none could comprehend its meaning. When the young poet moved forward, the elder stepped aside, but did not retire to the rear of the stage. He was evidently eager to see what topic this unproven wayfarer had selected. To his amazement, the young poet began to repeat, verbatim, and with even greater eloquence, the same exact words he himself had only moments before delivered, in sixteen quatrains.
Insepticus took a rather long moment to compose himself. He then delivered forty-four couplets on the same theme he had previously introduced, only in greater detail.
To the astonishment of all, the young poet, looking confident, repeated the forty-four couplets with great enthusiasm.
An imperciptible numbness seemed to seize upon Insepticus’ brain. It was with great difficulty that he delivered his next sequence of stanzas which illuminated whole territories of his soul with remarkable exactitude.
The young poet continued his mimicry, only when it came to a certain particular in the twenty seventh stanza, the young poet diverged briefly to interject several additional particulars which Insepticus had omitted.
Upon completion of this specific sequence of stanzas by the young poet, Insepticus appeared to have regained a measure of his strength. Perhaps he feared that the duplication of his epic poem would eradicate it. The deviation which occurred in the twenty seventh stanza of the the third section would suffice to deflate this fear. His next three segments were delivered with the fluency and ease that had brought him the accolades he knew himself worthy of and for which he had been appointed Court Poet.
The young poet, however, proved equally eloquent, and a sense of dreamlike unreality began to overcome the crowd.
It was early afternoon when the young poet again deviated from the mimcry which had heretofore prevailed in his oration. Insepticus had, in the fourth stanza of his sixteenth segment, hinted at a private struggle which perpetually shamed him, but was an essential ingredient in his greatness. The young poet broke off into a twenty eight measure chant revealing intensely intimate details of this struggle. Insepticus appeared crestfallen.
But it was a measure of his greatness that when his turn again came to speak, he picked up the thread of his rhetoric with the forcefulness and expressiveness that two decades of audiences had delighted in. For the subject was himself, and upon this theme he could elaborate with great zeal.
As the performance continued late into the afternoon, the portrait of Insepticus, as drawn by his own words, seemed flawless and wonderful, though in a few small details incomplete. However, it was precisely at these points of incompleteness that the young poet had brought the added measure of meticulous precision needed to fill out the picture. And when the young poet stepped forward for what would become the final segment of their performance, a strange look came upon him. For the tongue carries both a song and a sword. It has a magical power of which we are often most ignorant. And the young poet, who knew not the fulness of this power, felt himself filled with it, and frightened by it, though his fear did not refrain him from yielding to it.
And the portrait which was spoken, with its longings and renunciations, self-acceptance and self-reproach, dreams and denials, its manifold loves and bitter failings, this portrait of Insepticus was indeed so precise, so accurate that it did in fact succeed in being a duplication of the man himself. And when the young poet ceased from speaking, in the self-same instant the elder poet, Insepticus, the Court Poet of Marcus Tranquillius, disappeared. Vanished into ether.
The effect was hypnotic. Eyewitnesses could never agree exactly how it occurred. An awkward emptiness filled the city from that day onward.
As was anticipated, the young poet was afterwards appointed to the highest seat of honor in the kingdom; however, in the short period during which he held this office Marcus Tranquillius seldom appreciated the few mediodcre poems he produced.
The young poet, whose modest output proved to be of a remarkably inferior caliber with little or no lasting merit, was in the end forced to resign, eventually returning to Kalenda Parnu in the East where his name has been forgotten to this day.
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an original story by ed newman
Available with five other stories in this collection:
Unremembered Histories: Six Stories with a Supernatural Twist.