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with which it has been connected, the rudest minds, that have been most adverse to literature, have been always found to be impressible. Hence, before Alfred's birth, Saxon poems had been written; and in the court of his father and brothers, there were men who were fond of repeating them. Wherever they were recited, either by day or night, Alfred is recorded to have been, before he could read, an eager auditor, and was industrious to commit them to his memory (1). This fondness for poetry continued with him through life. It was always one of his principal pleasures to learn Saxon poems, and to teach them to others (2); and we have specimens of his own efforts to compose them, in his translation of the metres of Boetius. The memory of his children was also chiefly exercised in this captivating art (3). It had a powerful effect on Alfred's mind: it kindled a desire of being sung and celebrated himself; it created a wish for further knowledge; and began a taste for intellectual compositions. The muses have in every age had these effects. Their lays have always been found to be most captivating and most exciting to the young mind. They are the most comprehensible form of lettered intellect; and being, in their rudest state, the effusions of the feelings of the day, they excite congenial feelings in those who hear and read them. Poetry is sympathy addressing sympathy; and, if its subjects were but worthy of its excellences, it would lead the human mind to every attainable perfection. Alfred, though young, felt forcibly its silent appeal to the noble nature that lived within him; and when his mother promised the book of poems, already mentioned, to whichever of her sons would learn to read it, he sought an instructor, and never ceased his exertions till he had enabled himself to obtain it (4).
State of the An
The merit of Alfred in voluntarily attaining this art glo-Saxon mind. of reading, now so common, was more peculiar, because not only his royal brothers, and most, if not all, of the contemporary kings were without it, but even that venerated class of the nation, in whom the largest part of the learning of their age
(1) Sed Saxonica poemata die noctuque solers auditor relatu aliorum sæpissime audiens, docibilis memoriter retinebat. Asser, 16.
(2) Et maxime carmina Saxonica memoriter discere, aliis imperare. Asser, 43. Many princes were at this period fond of poetry. Eginhard mentions of Charlemagne, that he transcribed and learnt the barbara et antiquissima carmina quibus veterum regum actus et bella canebantur, p. 11. In 844 died Abdalla, son of Taher, a Persian king, in Chorasan, who composed some Arabic poems, and was celebrated for his talents in many elegies by the poets who survived him. Mirchond, Hist. Reg. Pers. p. 9. In 862, Mustansir Billa, the caliph of the Saracens, died by poison; he wrote verses, of which Elmacin has preserved two. Hist. Sarac. c. xii. p. 154. Wacic, the caliph, who died 845, was a poet. Elmacin cites some of his verses. His dying words were, "O thou, whose kingdom never passes away, pily one whose dignity is so transient," ib. His successor, Mntewakel, was also poetical.
(3) Et maxime Saxonica carmina studiose dedicere, at frequentissime libris utuntur. Asser, 43.
(4) Asser, 16. Malmsb. 45.
usually concentrates, was, in general, ignorant of it. Such facts induce us to consider our ancestors with too much contempt. But we may recollect that literature was not despised by them from want of natural talent, or from intellectual torpidity. Their minds were vigorous, and in great and continual exertion; but the exertion was confined within the horizon, and directed to the objects, around them. The ancient world stood, in its recording memorials, like an unknown continent before them, shrouded from their sight by its clouds and distance, and kept so by their belief of its inutility. It was too unlike their own world, and too little connected with their immediate pursuits, for them to value or explore. They did not want its remains for their jurisprudence; their landed property; the rules of their nobility and feudal rights; their municipal institutions; their religion; their morals; their internal traffic, manners, amusements, or favourite pursuits. On most of these points, and in their legislative assemblies and laws, as well as in their private and public wars, they were so dissimilar to the Greeks and Romans, that the classical authors were as unserviceable to them as those of the Chinese are to us. This may explain that indifference of our ancestors to that literature which is really so precious. For if a magician could offer us a fairy wand, by which at our own pleasure we could transport ourselves to the busy streets of Athens or Rome, to hear Demosthenes harangue, or Socrates teach, or Virgil and Horace recite their immortal compositions ; —or to make all the past ages live again before our sight, with all their applauded characters, and interesting incidents, who, that is not insane, would refuse the stupendous gift? The art of writing, combined with an ability to read, provides us with this wondrous power; and yet the highest ranks of the Anglo-Saxons would not acquire such a fascinating privilege. But their aversion, or their apathy, did not arise from proud ignorance or brutal stupidity. They neglected what we so dearly value, because it neither coincided with their habits of life, nor suited their wants, nor promoted their worldly interests. They had to fight for several generations to win their territorial possessions, and afterwards, from their mutual independence, to defend them against each other. The whole frame of their society, and the main direction of their spirit and education, was essentially, because necessarily, warlike. The continual attacks from the Sea-kings and Vikingr of other countries also contributed to make the preparation for battle, mi litary vigilance, and repeated conflicts, the inevitable and prevailing habits of their life and thoughts. Classical literature could have then been only a subject of speculative curiosity to their retired clergy, inapplicable to any of the daily pursuits of the laity; and, by its pagan mythology, rather impeding than assisting the devotion of their monasteries. For their religion and morals they had higher sources in their revered Scriptures; and for their rights
and ceremonics they had sufficient teachers, occasionally from Rome, and generally in their native clergy. To these, indeed, a small portion of Latin was necessary for the correct reading and due understanding of their breviaries. But to the rest of society it was not more practically essential, than the scientific astronomy of a Newton or La Place to ourselves. It would have improved their minds, and enlarged their knowledge, and produced beneficial effects; but all the daily business of their lives could be, and was, very ably transacted without it. Hence the intellects of our ancestors are no more to impeached for their ignorance of classical literature, than ours are for our inability to perform their martial exercises; or for the absence of that great mass of discoveries and improvements, which we hope that a few more centuries will add to the stock we now possess. We may likewise add, that there is no convincing evidence that the Anglo-Saxon public were much more deficient in the art or habit of reading, than the public of the Roman empire, whom the Gothic nations subdued. It is probable that the bulk of mankind, in the ancient world, was always as illiterate as our Saxon forefathers. We too gratuitously ascribe a literary cultivation to the whole Grecian and Roman population. Many enlightened minds and great authors emerged from the various provinces, and produced that stream of intellect which has so highly enriched the world, and given a new source of happiness to human life. But we must not take the writers in the Latin language that have survived to us, as the general samples of their contemporaries. The more this subject is studied, the more clearly it will be perceived that there was less difference between the intellectual state of the mass of the people before and after the Gothic irruptions, than has been usually supposed. It is the art of printing which, by making the diffusion of knowledge so easy, has created that vast distinction in this respect, which is now every where observable in Europe, and in which we so justly exult; and yet, until lately, how many, even amongst ourselves, have passed through life, not unreputably, without that instruction, for the absence of which our predecessors have been so strongly arraigned! What was our national multitude in this respect even a single century ago? Before Addison made reading popular, what were our farmers, artisans, tradesmen, females, and the generality of our middling gentry? It was therefore a defect, but no peculiar stain, that our Anglo-Saxon ancestors were an illiterate population. More gratitude is due to those who, in an age so unfavourable, could desire and attain an intellectual cultivation.
But in this state, even before increased wealth and population had given to some part of society both leisure and desire for objects of mere intellectual curiosity, a few soaring minds occasionally emerged among the Anglo-Saxons, who became inquisitive beyond the precincts of their day. One of these was Alfred. Led by the
encouragement of his step-mother to attain the art of reading, it was happy for his country that he endeavoured to pursue it. If he had not made this acquisition, he would have been no more than many of the race of Cerdic had been before him. But the love of study arising within him, and gradually bringing to his view the anterior ages of human history, and all their immortalised characters, the spark of moral emulation kindled within him; he strove for virtues which he could not else have conceived; he aspired to the fame which only these will bestow; and became a model of wisdom and excellence himself for other generations to resemble. In no instance has an immortal renown been more clearly the result of literary cultivation, than in our venerated Alfred. It was his intellectual improvement which raised him from a half-barbaric Saxon to a high-minded, patriotic, and benevolent sage, whose wisdom, as will be presently shown, still lives to instruct and interest even an age so superior as our own.
But the Anglo-Saxon poetry, to which Alfred first directed his application, was but scanty and barren, and must have been soon exhausted. To gratify his increasing intellectual propensities, he had to go far beyond his contemporaries, and to become himself the architect of his knowledge. Modern education deprives modern men of this merit, because all parents are at present anxious to have their children taught whatever it is honourable to know. To be intelligent now is even more necessary than to be affluent, because Mind has become the invisible sovereign of the world; and they who cultivate its progress, being diffused every where in society, are the real tutors of the human race; they dictate the opinions, they fashion the conduct of all men. To be illiterate, or to be imbecile, in this illumined day, is to be despised and trodden down in that tumultuous struggle for wealth, power, or reputation, in which every individual is too eagerly conflicting. In the days of Alfred, the intellect was a faculty which no one considered distinct from the pursuits of life: and therefore few thought of cultivating it separately from these, or even knew that they possessed it as a distinct property of their nature.
It is difficult to conceive how much even church- miteracy of the men partook of the most gross ignorance of the times ; clergy.
Very few were they," says Alfred, "on this side the Humber (the most improved parts of England), who could understand their daily prayers in English, or translate any letter from the Latin. I think there were not many beyond the Humber; they were so few, that I indeed cannot recollect one single instance on the south of the Thames, when I took the kingdom (1)." On less authority
(1) Swithe feawe wæron behionan Humbre the hiora thenunga cuthen understandan on Englisc oththe furthum an ærendgewrit of Gædene on Englisc areccan and ic wene that te nauht monige begeondan Humbre næren swa feawe hiora waron thætte ic furthum anne anlepne ne mæg gethencean be suthan Temese tha tha ic to rice feng. Alfred's Preface, p. 82. Wise's Asser.
than his own we could hardly believe such a general illiteracy among the clergy, even of that day it is so contrary to all our present experience. The earls, governors, and servants of Alfred, were as uninformed. When the king's wise severity afterwards compelled them to study reading and literature, or to be degraded, they lamented that in their youth they had not been instructed; they thought their children happy who could be taught the liberal arts, and mourned their own misfortune, who had not learnt in their youth; because in advanced life they felt themselves too old to acquire what Alfred's commands imposed as a duty, and by his example had made a wish (1).
Alfred's self- When Alfred began his own education, he had not education. only to find the stimulus in himself, to cherish it in opposition to the prejudices and practice of his countrymen, and to search out his own means, but he had also to struggle against difficulties which would have extinguished the infant desire in a mind of less energy. His principal obstacle was the want of instructors. "What," says his friend, who happily for posterity has made us acquainted with the private feelings as well as public pursuits of this noble-minded sovereign, "what, of all his troubles and difficulties, he affirmed with frequent complaint and the deep lamentations of his heart to have been the greatest, was, that when he had the age, permission, and ability to learn, he could find no masters (2)." When Alfred had attained the age of maturity, and by the dignity to which he succeeded had gained the means of obtaining instruction, he was almost disabled from profiting by the advantage. A disease, his daily and nightly tormentor, which his physicians could neither remedy nor explore; the duties and anxieties inseparable from his royal station; the fierce aggressions of the Northmen, which on sea and land demanded his presence and exertions, so afflicted and consumed his future life, that though he got a few masters and writers he was unable to enjoy their tuition (3). It is admirable to see, that notwithstanding impediments, which to most would have been insuperable, Alfred persevered in his pursuit of improvement. The desire of knowledge, that inborn instinct of the truly great, which no gratifications could saturate, no obstacles discourage, never left him but with life (4). If Alfred succeeded in his mental cultivation, who should despair?
It has been already hinted, that the Anglo-Saxon language had been at this period very little applied to the purposes of literature. In their vernacular tongue, Cedmon and Aldhelm had sung, but almost all the learning of the nation was clothed in the Latin phrase. Bede had in this composed his history, and his multifarious treatises on chronology, grammar, rhetoric, and other subjects of erudition. The other lettered monks of that day, also ex
(1) Asser, 71.
(2) Ibid. 17.