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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Alfred the Great (849–899)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
IN the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford may be seen an antique jewel, consisting of an enameled figure in red, blue, and green, enshrined in a golden frame, and bearing the legend “Ælfred mec heht gewỳrcean” (Alfred ordered me made). This was discovered in 1693 in Newton Park, near Athelney, and through it one is enabled to touch the far-away life of a thousand years ago. But greater and more imperishable than this archaic gem is the gift that the noble King left to the English nation—a gift that affects the entire race of English-speaking people. For it was Alfred who laid the foundations for a national literature.  1
  Alfred, the younger son of Ethelwulf, king of the West Saxons, and Osberga, daughter of his cup-bearer, was born in the palace at Wantage in the year 849. He grew up at his father’s court, a migratory one, that moved from Kent to Devonshire and from Wales to the Isle of Wight whenever events, raids, or the Witan (Parliament) demanded. At an early age Alfred was sent to pay homage to the Pope in Rome, taking such gifts as rich vessels of gold and silver, silks, and hangings, which show that Saxons lacked nothing in treasure. In 855 Ethelwulf visited Rome with his young son, bearing more costly presents, as well as munificent sums for the shrine of St. Peter’s; and returning by way of France, they stopped at the court of Charles the Bold. Once again in his home, young Alfred applied himself to his education. He became a marvel of courage at the chase, proficient in the use of arms, excelled in athletic sports, was zealous in his religious duties, and athirst for knowledge. His accomplishments were many; and when the guests assembled in the great hall to make the walls ring with their laughter over cups of mead and ale, he could take his turn with the harpers and minstrels to improvise one of those sturdy bold ballads that stir the blood to-day with their stately rhythms and noble themes.  2
  Ethelwulf died in 858, and eight years later only two sons, Ethelred and Alfred, were left to cope with the Danish invaders. They won victory after victory, upon which the old chroniclers love to dwell, pausing to describe wild frays among the chalk-hills and dense forests, which afforded convenient places to hide men and to bury spoils.  3
  Ethelred died in 871, and the throne descended to Alfred. His kingdom was in a terrible condition, for Wessex, Kent, Mercia, Sussex, and Surrey lay at the mercy of the marauding enemy. “The land,” says an old writer, “was as the Garden of Eden before them, and behind them a desolate wilderness.” London was in ruins; the Danish standard, with its black Raven, fluttered everywhere; and the forests were filled with outposts and spies of the “pagan army.” There was nothing for the King to do but gather his men and dash into the fray to “let the hard steel ring upon the high helmet.” Time after time the Danes are overthrown, but, like the heads of the fabled Hydra, they grow and flourish after each attack. They have one advantage: they know how to command the sea, and numerous as the waves that their vessels ride so proudly and well, the invaders arrive and quickly land to plunder and slay.  4
  Alfred, although but twenty-five, sees the need for a navy, and in 875 gathers a small fleet to meet the ships of the enemy, wins one prize, and puts the rest to flight. The chroniclers now relate that he fell into disaster and became a fugitive in Selwood Forest, while Guthrum and his host were left free to ravage. From this period date the legends of the King’s visit in disguise to the hut of the neat-herd, and his burning the bread he was set to watch; his penetrating into the camp of the Danes and entertaining Guthrum by his minstrelsy while discovering his plans and force; the vision of St. Cuthbert; and the fable of his calling five hundred men by the winding of his horn.  5
  Not long after he was enabled to emerge from the trials of exile in Athelney; and according to Asser, “In the seventh week after Easter, he rode to Egbert’s Stone in the eastern part of Selwood or the Great Wood, called in the old British language Coit-mawr. Here he was met by all the neighboring folk of Somersetshire, Wiltshire, and Hampshire, who had not for fear of the Pagans fled beyond the sea; and when they saw the king alive after such great tribulation, they received him, as he deserved, with joy and acclamations and all encamped there for the night.” Soon afterward he made a treaty with the Danes, and became king of the whole of England south of the Thames.  6
  It was now Alfred’s work to reorganize his kingdom, to strengthen the coast defenses, to rebuild London, to arrange for a standing army, and to make wise laws for the preservation of order and peace; and when all this was accomplished, he turned his attention to the establishment of monasteries and colleges. “In the mean-time,” says old Asser, “the King, during the frequent wars and other trammels of this present life, the invasions of the Pagans, and his own daily infirmities of body, continued to carry on the government, and to exercise hunting in all its branches; to teach his workers in gold and artificers of all kinds, his falconers, hawkers, and dog-keepers, to build houses majestic and good, beyond all the precedents of his ancestors, by his new mechanical inventions, to recite the Saxon books, and more especially to learn by heart the Saxon poems, and to make others learn them also; for he alone never desisted from studying, most diligently, to the best of his ability; he attended the mass and other daily services of religion: he was frequent in psalm-singing and prayer, at the proper hours, both of the night and of the day. He also went to the churches, as we have already said, in the night-time, to pray, secretly and unknown to his courtiers; he bestowed alms and largesses both on his own people and on foreigners of all countries; he was affable and pleasant to all, and curious to investigate things unknown.”  7
  As regards Alfred’s personal contribution to literature, it may be said that over and above all disputed matters and certain lost works, they represent a most valuable and voluminous assortment due directly to his own royal and scholarly pen. History, secular and churchly, laws and didactic literature, were his field; and though it would seem that his actual period of composition did not much exceed ten years, yet he accomplished a vast deal for any man, especially any busy sovereign and soldier.  8
  An ancient writer, Ethelwerd, says that he translated many books from Latin into Saxon, and William of Malmesbury goes so far as to say that he translated into Anglo-Saxon almost all the literature of Rome. Undoubtedly the general condition of education was deplorable, and Alfred felt this deeply. “Formerly,” he writes, “men came hither from foreign lands to seek instruction, and now when we desire it, we can only obtain it from abroad.” Like Charlemagne he drew to his court famous scholars, and set many of them to work writing chronicles and translating important Latin books into Anglo-Saxon. Among these was the ‘Pastoral Care of Pope Gregory,’ to which he wrote the Preface; but with his own hand he translated the ‘Consolations of Philosophy,’ by Boethius, two manuscripts of which still exist. In this he frequently stops to introduce observations and comments of his own. Of greater value was his translation of the ‘History of the World,’ by Orosius, which he abridged, and to which he added new chapters giving the record of coasting voyages in the north of Europe. This is preserved in the Cotton MSS. in the British Museum. His fourth translation was the ‘Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation,’ by Bede. To this last may be added the ‘Blossom Gatherings from St. Augustine,’ and many minor compositions in prose and verse, translations from the Latin fables and poems, and his own note-book, in which he jots, with what may be termed a journalistic instinct, scenes that he had witnessed, such as Aldhelm standing on the bridge instructing the people on Sunday afternoons; bits of philosophy; and such reflections as the following, which remind one of Marcus Aurelius:—“Desirest thou power? But thou shalt never obtain it without sorrows—sorrows from strange folk, and yet keener sorrows from thine own kindred.” and “Hardship and sorrow! Not a king but would wish to be without these if he could. But I know that he cannot.” Alfred’s value to literature is this: he placed by the side of Anglo-Saxon poetry,—consisting of two great poems, Cædmon’s great song of the ‘Creation’ and Cynewulf’s ‘Nativity and Life of Christ,’ and the unwritten ballads passed from lip to lip,—four immense translations from Latin into Anglo-Saxon prose, which raised English from a mere spoken dialect to a true language. From his reign date also the famous Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the Anglo-Saxon Gospels; and a few scholars are tempted to class the magnificent ‘Beowulf’ among the works of this period. At any rate, the great literary movement that he inaugurated lasted until the Norman Conquest.  9
  In 893 the Danes once more disturbed King Alfred, but he foiled them at all points, and they left in 897 to harry England no more for several generations. He died having reigned for thirty years in the honor and affection of his subjects. Freeman in his ‘Norman Conquest’ says that “no other man on record has ever so thoroughly united all the virtues both of the ruler and of the private man.” Bishop Asser, his contemporary, has left a half-mythical eulogy, and William of Malmesbury, Roger of Wendover, Matthew of Westminster, and John Brompton talk of him fully and freely. Sir John Spellman published a quaint biography in Oxford in 1678, followed by Powell’s in 1634, and Bicknell’s in 1777. The modern lives are by Giles, Pauli, Hughes, Conybeare, Draper, Harrison, and Jeffrey. The last four appeared at the time of the millenary celebration of 1901.  10
 
 
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