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Section IT.—Alfred (849-901).
Authority.—I have used Rawlinson's text of Alfred's translation. Oxford, 1698,
First in chronological order after the 'Deeds of Beowulf comes another Anglo-Saxon work, King Alfred's translation of Boethius's book, which, apart from the immense personal interest attaching to any literary achievement of this great king, commands our closest attention in virtue of the prominent place it holds in the first translating movement of modern Europe. The circumstances of this new literary activity under Alfred offer a singular parallel to the revival of letters in the fifteenth century, after the long silence of the Wars of the Eoses. For eighty years and more the land had been in a wild welter of blood and desolation. The last sounds of the long and deadly strife between Mercia and Wessex had hardly died away, when the hoarse war-cry of the Danes began to ring round the coast from Northumberland to Ayr. Christianity, and all the culture and refinement that were tied up with it, had suffered heavily during the fifteen years that preceded the founding of the English kingdom under Egbert; and now the barbarian invaders, that swept the land in a storm of conquest, bade fair to stamp it out altogether. At the time when Alfred ascended the tottering throne of Anglo-Saxon power, learning, was sunk to so low a state that, as he tells us himself, there was scarcely a man throughout the length and breadth of the kingdom who could read Latin. This is not the place to follow him through the details of his long struggle with the Danes, and we must pass quickly on to the moment when he had barely and almost miraculously rescued his nation from perdition, and had at last breathing-space to address his great mind to the problem of reconstruction and education. For this purpose he summoned to his court a small band of learned men,— Werferth from Mercia, Grimbald from Flanders, John of Saxony, Asser, his biographer, and Plegemund, who rekindled his enthusiasm for classical studies.
It gives additional lustre to the name of Boethius that such a king as Alfred, inquiring after those books which might with most advantage be set within his subjects' reach, should have chosen the 'Consolation' to represent philosophy in the little library he was preparing for their use. The names of the companion volumes of the selection are a strong testimony to the esteem in which our author was held by the Saxon king and his advisers. Beda's 'Ecclesiastical History, ' the story, told in unrivalled manner, of English Christianity—in a word the Church history par excellence of the nation; Orosius's 'Universal History,' whose words were accepted and reverenced as classical by all students through the middle ages down even to Dante, who does not seem to have known much beyond; Gregory's 'Pastoral Care' and 'Dialogues,' of which the former was to serve as a rule of conduct for the clergy amid the growing needs of a nation newly awakened to freedom and a higher spiritual and intellectual life—the latter as an antidote to the poison spread by the countless coarse stories which were all the people had to amuse them. Nor is this all. If, as is most probable, Alfred and his literary movement gave the first centralised force to the Saxon chronicle, we have further instance of the capital nature of the selection in which Boethius figures as the pattern of the philosopher.
In view of Alfred's literary motive and personal tastes, the reader of his translations must not look for any strict adherence to the original. He expands and curtails as the spirit moves him. He adds a whole chapter on the geography of Germany to the history of Orosius; he interweaves with the 'Soliloquies' of Augustine many a page from that precious hand-book, which, alas! has not come down to us, wherein he was wont to jot down his passing thoughts and impressions. But if he left his mark on the works of Orosius and Beda, it is in his translation of Boethius that Alfred's personality is most strongly stamped. The theme was a congenial one. He, too, had had some taste of changing fortune in his own life; he, too, had felt the shock of a fall from high estate; and though he had now won his way to his throne again, and could look calmly back at the dangers and vicissitudes he had come through, he would not for that reason feel the less sympathy with the Eoman patriot whose only crime—no crime, indeed, in Alfred's eyes—was that he had lent an ear to the prayers of those who would fain be delivered from the yoke of a barbarian tyrant. This very sympathy, while it blinded his judgment with regard to Theodoric, whom he is never tired of abusing, led him to identify himself so entirely with Boethius, that the latter is often quite lost sight of, the king taking his place and giving utterance to sentiments of which the Eoman never dreamt. Thus in his seventeenth chapter (corresponding to Book II. prose 7 of the Latin) he takes the opportunity of setting forth his ideas as to the duties of a monarch, and of recording his desire so to live that after life his memory should still shine bright in the good works he had wrought.
That Alfred had from the first no intention of adhering closely to the text before him, either in thought or form, is shown by his changing the original arrangement of five books of alternate verse and prose into forty-two chapters, and by his substituting for the two persons of the dialogue, Wisdom and Eeason in place of Philosophy; and now the Mind, now Boethius, now the personal pronoun, in place of the Philosopher. It is impossible to assign an adequate cause for this frequent change of the grammatical subject; when once his mind had taken fire at some suggestion in the text, he seems to have cast aside his cloak of translator, and to have been sublimely careless in whose mouth he placed the lessons of faith and fortitude which were to lead and guide his readers. In his naive and delightful preface, he pleads " the various and manifold occupations which often busied him in mind and body" in excuse for any imperfection of scholarship or obscurity of meaning. His method of dealing with the difficulty and obscurity of the Latin is summary. He finds out the gist of the philosopher's meaning, and proceeds to adapt and weld it to his liking, as he thinks will be most