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Here is a vast fire,
Where I had power of my hands."'.
thick dull grating, a powerful conception-one which Milton has borrowed and developed—that of the Evil One feeling in his dark bosom jealousy at young Man, almost overpowering his hatred to God; and another conception still more striking, that of the devil's thorough conviction that all his plans and thoughts are entirely known by his great Adversary, and are counteracted before they are formed
"Thus perceive I that he knoweth my mind.' Compare this with Milton's lines
So should I purchase dear
From granting he, as I from begging peace.” Caedmon saw, without being able fully to express, the complex idea of Satan, as distracted between a thousand thoughts, all miserable—tossed between a thousand winds, all hot as hell — “pale ire, envy, and despair' struggling within him—fury at man overlapping anger at God—remorse and reckless desperation wringing each other's miserable hands—a sense of guilt which will not confess, a fear that will not quake, a sorrow that will not weep, a respect for God which will not worship; and yet, springing out of all these elements, a strange, proud joy, as though the torrid soil of Pandemonium should flower, which makes the hell he suffers seem a heaven,' compared to what his destiny might be were he either plunged into a deeper abyss, or taken up unchanged to his former abode of glory. This, in part at least, the monk of Whitby discerned; but it was reserved for Milton to embody it in that tremendous figure which has since continued to dwindle all the efforts of art, and to haunt, like a reality, the human imagination.
Passing over some interesting but subordinate Saxon writers, such as Ceolfrid, Abbot of Wearmouth; Aldhelm, Abbot of Malmesbury; Felix of Croyland; and Alcuine, King Egbert's librarian at York, we come to one who himself formed an era in the history of our early literature—the venerable Bede. This famous man was educated in the monastery of Wearmouth, and there appears to have spent the whole of his quiet, innocent, and studious life. He was the very sublimation of a book-worm.
One might fancy him becoming at last, 'as in the Metamorphoses' of Ovid, one of the books, or rolls of vellum and parchment, over which he constantly pored. That he did not marry, or was given in marriage, we are certain; but there is little evidence that he even ate or drank, walked or slept. To read and to write seemed the be all and the end all' of his existence. Important as well as numerous were his contributions to literature. He translated from the Scriptures. He wrote religious treatises, biographies, and commentaries upon portions of Holy Writ. Besides his very valuable Ecclesiastical History, he composed various pieces of Latin poetry. His works in all were forty-four in number: and it is said that on the very day of his death (it took place in 735) he was dictating to his amanuensis, and had just completed a book. His works are wonderful for his time, and not the less interesting for a fine cobweb of fable which is woven over parts of them, and which seems in keeping with their venerable character. Thus, in speaking of the Magi who visited the infant Redeemer, he is very particular in describing their age, appearance, and offerings. Melchior, the first, was old, had gray hair, and a long beard ; and offered 'gold' to Christ, in acknowledgment of His sovereignty. Gaspar, the second, was young, and had no beard ; and he offeredfrankincense,' in recognition of our Lord's divinity. Balthasar, the third, was of a dark complexion, had a large beard, and offered myrrh' to our Saviour's humanity. We should, we confess, miss such pleasant little myths in other old books besides Bede's Histories. They seem appropriate to ancient works, as the beard is to the goat or the hermit; and the truth that lies in them is not difficult to eliminate. The next name of note in our literary annals is that of the great Alfred. Surely if ever man was not only before his
age, but before all ages,' it was he. A palm of the tropics growing on a naked Highland mountain-side, or an English oak bending over one of the hot springs of Hecla, were not a stranger or more preternatural sight than a man like Alfred appearing in a century like the ninth.
A thousand theories about men being the creatures of their age, the products of circumstances, &c., sink into abeyance beside the facts of his life, and we are driven to the good old belief that to some men the 'inspiration of the Almighty giveth understanding;' and that their wisdom, their genius, and their excellency do not proceed from themselves. On his deeds of valour and patriotism it is not necessary to dwell. These form the popular and bepraised side of his character, but they give a very inadequate idea of the whole. On one occasion he visited the Danish camp—a king disguised as a harper; but he was, all his life long, a harper disguised as a king. He was at once a warrior, a legislator, an architect, a shipbuilder, a philosopher, a scholar, and a poet. His great object, as avowed in his last will, was to leave his people free as their own thoughts. Hence he bent the whole force of his mind, first, to defend them from foreign foes, by encouraging the new naval strength he had himself established; and then to cultivate their intellects, and make them, as well as their country, worth defending. Let us quote the glowing words of Burke :'He was indefatigable in his endeavours to bring into England men of learning in all branches from every part of Europe, and unbounded in his liberality to them. He enacted by a law that every person possessed of two hides of land should send their children to school until sixteen. He enterprised even a greater design than that of forming the growing generation—to instruct even the grown, enjoining all his sheriffs and other officers immediately to apply themselves to learning, or to quit their offices. Whatever trouble he took to extend the benefits of learning among his subjects, he shewed the example himself, and applied to the cultivation of his mind with unparalleled diligence and success. He could neither read nor write at twelve years old, but he improved his time in such a manner, that he became one of the most knowing men of his age, in geometry, in philosophy, in architecture, and in music. He applied himself to the improvement of his native language; he translated several valuable works from Latin, and wrote a vast number of poems in the Saxon tongue with a wonderful facility and happiness. He not only excelled in the theory of the arts and sciences, but possessed a great mechanical genius for the executive part. He improved the manner of shipbuilding, introduced a more beautiful and commodious architecture, and even taught his countrymen the art of making bricks, most of the buildings having been of wood before his time—in a word, he comprehended in the greatness of his mind the whole of government, and all its parts at once; and what is most difficult to human frailty was at the same time sublime and minute.'
Some exaggeration must be allowed for in all this account of Alfred the Great. But the fact that he left a stamp in his age so deep,—that nothing except what was good and great has been ascribed to him,—that the very fictions told of him are of such vraisemblance and magnitude as to FIT In to nothing less than an extraordinary man,—and that, as Burke says, 'whatever dark spots of human frailty may have adhered to such a character, are entirely hid in the splendour of many shining qualities and grand virtues, that throw a glory over the obscure period in which he lived, and which is for no other reason worthy of our knowledge,'—all proclaim his supremacy. Like many great men,-—like Julius Cæsar, with his epilepsy-or Sir Walter Scott and Byron, with their lameness—or Schleiermacher, with his deformed appearance,—a physical infirmity beset Alfred most of his life, and at last carried him off at a comparatively early age. This was a disease in his bowels, which had long afflicted him, 'without interrupting his designs, or souring his temper.' Nay, who can say that the constant presence of such a memento of weakness and mortality did not operate as a strong, quiet stimulus to do with his might what his hand found to do—to lower pride, and to prompt to labour ? If Saladin had had for his companion some such faithful hound of sorrow, it would have saved him the ostentatious flag stretched over his head, in the hour of wassail, with the inscription, “Saladin, Saladin, king of kings ! Saladin must die!'
Alfred wrote little that was original, but he was a copious translator. He rendered into the Anglo-Saxon tongue—which he sought to enrich with the fatness of other soils—the historical works of Orosius and of Bede; nay, it is said the Fables of Æsop, and the Psalms of David—desirous, it would seem, to teach his people morality and religion, through the fine medium of fiction and poetry.
Alfric, Archbishop of Canterbury, is the name of another important contributor to Saxon literature. He wrote a grammar