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the first part when he died (1). There are many MSS. of the Anglo-Saxon translation of the Psalter extant (2); but it is not in our power to discriminate the performance of Alfred.
That the king translated the Bible or Testament into Anglo-Saxon has been stated on some authorities, but the selections which he made for his own use appear to have been confounded with a general translation (3).
In the Harleian Library there is a MS. of a translation of fables styled Æsop's, into French romance verse. At the conclusion of her work, the author (4) asserts that Alfred the king translated the fables from the Latin into English, from which version she turned them into French verse (5). Mary, the French translator, lived in the thirteenth century. The evidence of her assertion, as to Alfred being the English translator of the fables, can certainly only have the force of her individual belief; and as this belief may have been merely founded on popular tradition, it cannot be considered as decisive evidence. Such an assertion and belief, however, of an authoress of the thirteenth century, must be allowed to have so much weight as to be entitled to notice here (6). The completest MS. of Mary's translation
(1) Psalterium transferre aggressus vix prima parte explicata vivendi finem fecit. Malmsb. 45.
(2) Wanley says, p. 182., there is a MS. very elegantly written about the time of Ethelstan, which contains Jerome's Latin Psalter, with an interlineary Saxon version, in the King's Library. There is another interlineary version in the Cotton Library, Vesp. A. 1., written 1000 years ago, very elegantly, in capital letters. Wanley, 222. There is another written before the conquest in Tiberius, C. 6. p. 234. This contains many figures of musical instruments, alleged to be Jewish, and several coloured drawings on religious subjects. There is another interlineary version in the Lambeth Library, written in Edgar's reign, or a little before, which contains the curious and valuable addition of ancient musical notes. Wanley, 268. Spelman has published an Anglo-Saxon Psalter.
(3) Flor. Wig. says, that in 887, on the Feast of Saint Martin, he began it. It is clear, on comparing the passage, that he only meant what Asser had mentioned, p. 57., that he then began to translate some parts. The history of Ely asserts, that he translated all the Bible; but Boston of Bury says, that it was "almost all the Testament." Spelman's Life, p. 213. Yet as no MSS. of such a work have been seen, we cannot accredit the fact beyond the limits mentioned in the text.
(4) This author was Mary, an Anglo-Norman poetess. She states herself to have been born in France, and she seems to have visited England. The thirteenth volume of the Archæologia, published by the Antiquarian Society, contains a dissertation upon her life and writings, by the Abbé La Ruc, p. 36—67. (5) Mary's words are :
"Por amur le cunte Villame
Le plus vaillant de nul realme
Harl. MS. 978. p. 87.
(6) Mons. La Rue thinks, that Alfred was not the author of the English transla
contains an hundred and four fables, out of which thirty-one only are Æsop's (1).
But it would seem that Alfred's extensive mind had even condescended to write on one of the rural sports of his day; for in the catalogue of MSS. which in 1315 were in the Christ Church library we find a treatise of this king on keeping hawks mentioned. "Liber Alured, regis, de custodiendis accipitribus (2)." This book corresponds with the fact mentioned by Asser, that Alfred was accustomed "to teach his falconers and hawkers, and houndtrainers (3)."
It has been declared that the Parables of Alfred had great edification, beauty, pleasantry, and nobleness (4). It is a great loss to our curiosity, perhaps to our education, that we have not these tales, or moral apologues, which were existing in the reign of Henry the Second (5).
Alfred is also praised for his excellence in proverbial sayings (6). Some collections of this sort have been noticed by his biographer, Spelman, which may perhaps contain some of his ideas, as they were preserved by tradition, and in a later age committed to writing; but they are probably not wholly in the phrases of his own composition (7)..
tion which Mary used. His reasons are by no means conclusive: for 1st. Asser mentions no translations of Alfred's, and therefore his omission of Esop is of no consequence. 2d. Though Malmsbury does not particularize Æsop among the translations he enumerates, this argument is indecisive, because Malmsbury expressly states, that the king translated more books than those which he enumerates. His words are, "Denique plurimam partem Romanæ Bibliothecæ Anglorum auribus decit,——cujus præcipui sunt libri Orosius," etc. Malmsbury only names the chief of his translations; a monk would have hardly ranked Æsop in this honourable class. 3d. The abbe's doubt, whether Mary could, in the thirteenth century, have understood Alfred's language, is of no great force, because we cannot think it unlikely that there should be persons in England who knew both Norman and Saxon, or that Mary should have learnt Saxon if she wished it. 4th. As to the feudal expressions which Mary uses, as we have not the English MSS. which she translated, and therefore cannot know what were the actual expressions in that, I think no argument can be rested on them. Alfred, in his Boetius, puts king in one place, and heretogas in another, for Roman consuls.
(2) Wanley's preface.
(1) Archæologia, p. 53. (3) Asser, 43.
(4) So the MSS. Chron. Joan. Oxenedes says: "Parabolæ ejus plurimum habentes edificationis, venustatis, jocunditatis et nobilitatis." Cott. Lib. MSS. Nero, D. 2.
(5) Ail. Riev., who then lived, declares, "Extant parabolæ ejus," etc., using nearly the same words as Oxenedes, p. 355.
(6) "In proverbiis ita enituit ut nemo post illum amplius." Ann. Eccl. Wint. 1 Angl. Sacra, p. 289. Some of these are noticed in the Old English dialogue between the owl and the nightingale.
(7) One of these, the least likely to be Alfred's, may be seen in Dr. Hickes's Anglo-Saxon Grammar, p. 222. The other, which suits better Alfred's wisdom, has been quoted by Spelman, in his Life of Alfred, and translated from the MS. in the Cotton Library. See p. 94. of Walker's edition, and 127. of Hearne's. Spelman's extracts may be more valued, as the Cotton MS. of Galba, A. 19., was ruined by the fire which destroyed much valuable antiquity.
Of Alfred's manual or memorandum book, which seems to have existed in Malmsbury's days (1), and which would have been such a curiosity to modern times, not even a remnant has been found.
His taste in the The genius of Alfred was not confined to literature it also extended to the arts; and in three of these, architecture, ship-building, and gold and silver workmanship, he obtained an excellence which corresponded with his other talents.
Asser mentions, "that he caused edifices to be conArchitecture. structed from his own new designs, more venerable and precious than those which his predecessors had raised (2)". These not only consisted of halls and royal apartments, made of wood or stone, in pursuance of his directions, to the surprise of his contemporaries: but he also formed cities and towns, some of which he repaired, and others built; some he destroyed on their ancient sites, to raise them of stone, in positions more useful and appropriate (3). He was so earnest in these improvements, that he procured from many nations numerous artificers, versed in every sort of building, and he regularly appropriated a sixth of his yearly revenues to pay their expenses, and remunerate their labour (4).
His talent and cultivation of naval architecture have
Ship-building. been already noticed.
He also taught his artisans and workers in gold (5), gold. and by his instructions, occasioned many things to be incomparably executed (we use the epithet of his contemporary) in gold and silver (6). One specimen of his talent in this art yet exists to us in a jewel of gold which was found near Athelncy (7).
(1) Malmsbury's references to this show, that it was not a mere receptacle for devout extracts, but was rather a general common-place book; for he cites from it some traits of biography, and observations on a piece of poetry. Qui enim legit manualem librum regis Elfredi, reperiet Kenterum Beati Aldhelmi patrum non fuisse regis Inæ germanum sed arctissima necessitudine consanguineum, lib. v. De Pont. 341. Again, speaking of Aldhelm, he says, he cultivated AngloSaxon poetry, "Adeo ut, teste libro Elfredi, de quo superius dixi, nullo unquam ætate par ei fuerit quisquam poesin Anglicam posse facere, tantum componere, eadem apposite vel canere vel dicere. Denique commemorat Elfredus carmen triviale quod adhuc vulgo cantitatur Aldelmum fecisse. By the next paragraph, Alfred seems to have reasoned upon the subject. His manual was therefore the repository of his own occasional literary reflections; for Malmsbury adds, speaking still of Alfred, “Adjiciens causam qua probet rationabiliter, tantum virum his quæ videantur frivola, instituisse populum eo tempore semibarbarum, parum divinis sermonibus intentum, statim cantatis missis cursitare solitum," p. 342. (2) "Et ædificia supra omnem antecessorum suorum consuetudinem venerablliora et pretiosiora nova sua machinatione facere." Asser, 43.
(5) Ibid. 43.
(3) Asser, 58. (4) Ibid. 66. (6) Ibid. 58. (7) On one side is a rude outline of a human figure apparently sitting, and holding what seem like two flowers. On the other side is a flower; it is much ornamented, and the workmanship is said to be excellent. The inscription expresses, that it was made by Alfred's orders.
In the less valuable pursuits of hunting, falconry, hawking, and coursing, he was also distinguished (1).
Alfred's Poetical Composition.
To the other accomplishments of his mind Alfred endeavoured to add that of poetry. Fond of Saxon poems from his infancy, he found a pleasure in attempting to compose them; and the metrums of Boetius afforded him the opportunity of practising his powers of language in this interesting art.
The great characteristic of Saxon versification was the position of a few words in short lines, with a rhythmical effect. As far as we can now discern, there were no rules of artificial prosody to be observed; but the car was to be gratified by a rhythm or musical effect in the pronunciation; and any brief sequence of syllables that would produce this pleasure was used and permitted.
It would be presumptuous, now that the Anglo-Saxon has so long ceased to be spoken, to decide peremptorily on the merit of Alfred's versification, which must have depended so much on the colloquial tones and cadences of his day. But as far as can be judged from a comparison of it with the compositions of Cedmon, the odes in the Saxon Chronicle, and the poem on Beowulf, it has not their general strength and fulness of rhythm. Though at times sufficiently successful, it is weaker and less elevated than their style, and is not often much more musical than his own prose. Of its poetical feeling and mind we can better judge, as he has translated the metrums also into prose; and it may be said, without injustice, that his verse has less intellectual energy than his prose. The diction is amplified to admit of its being made nearer to poetry, but it is rather diluted than improved. Here and there a few expressions of greater vigour occur, but, in general, the prose is not only more concise, but also more spirited and more clear.
Yet it is only in comparison with his own prose that the merit of Alfred's poetry is thus questioned. His superior intellect in imitating and emulating, and sometimes passing beyond his original, has given it a value of thought and feeling, an infusion of moral mind, and a graceful case of diction, which we shall look for in vain, to the same degree and effect, among the other remains of the Anglo-Saxon poetry.
The reader who compares the description of the Golden Age,
(1) Asser, 43.
and the stories of Eurydice and Circe, inserted before from Alfred's prose, with his translations of the same into verse, will perceive that his poetry has not increased their interest. They are too long to be inserted here. But it will be a just respect to his memory to insert some of his other versifications of the metrums of Boetius, as specimens of the usual style of his poetical diction. He has so amplified and varied his originals as to make much of them his own compositions. The amount of the poetry of the king's mind will best appear from comparing the following effusions with the originals in Boetius, which are also given :