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After a life of fifty-three years in extent, the early part of which was spent in the most severe conflicts with the enemies of his country for the national existence of his very kingdom, and the latter, covered with glory and honor, he died 901, and left his kingdom perhaps more formidable and prosperous than any other cotemporary monarchy.
Alfred is represented to have attained the fifteenth year of his age without having learned to read even his native language. But about that period his mind was aroused, through the assiduous care of his mother, by the recitation of simple Saxon poems, to the subject of learning; and in the course of a few years, he made those wonderful attainments in literature which rendered him both an able and accomplished scholar. When he became quietly seated on his throne, he, through anxiety for the improvement of his subjects, translated the historical works of Bede, and some religious and moral treatises, perhaps also Æsop's Fables and the Psalms of David, into the Anglo-Saxon language. These translations are accompanied with frequent and appropriate reflections, some of which have much point and beauty. Alfred's poems are based chiefly on Boethius; but the original writer often merely suggests the thought, which the royal bard expands into symmetrical beauty. This is peculiarly the case in the odes that follow, the first and second of which were composed during his exile from his throne, and the third at some after-period.
A SONG OF SORROW.
Lo! I sang cheerily
In my bright days,
Chant I my lays;
Many a verity
In those glad times
Taught I in rhymes;
Wanders my tongue,
Worldliness brought me here
Riches have wrought me here
Sadness of mind;
When I rely on them,
Lo! they depart,
Bitterly, fie on them!
Rend they my heart.
Why did your songs to me,
Even as then?
Why did ye lyingly
Think such a thing,
Seeing how flyingly
Wealth may take wing?
A SONG OF DESPAIR.
Alas! in how grim
A gulf of despair,
Dreary and dim
For sorrow and care,
My mind toils along
When the waves of the world,
Stormy and strong,
Against it are hurl'd.
When in such strife,
My mind will forget
Its light and its life
Of this world doth grope,
Lost to the light
Of heavenly hope.
Thus it hath now
I know no more how
God's goodness to find;
Troubled and tost,
For the world I have lost.
A PSALM TO GOD.
O Thou, that art Maker of heaven and earth,
And turnest all swiftly the heavenly zone.
Thou, by Thy strong holiness, drivest from far
In the way that Thou willest each worshiping star;
The moon, at Thy word, with his pale-shining rays
So also the Morning and Evening Star
To keep in her pathway each year evermore,
Behold, too, O Father, Thou workest aright
Short seasons of sunshine with frost on the skies.
On earth and in heaven each creature and kind
Forever, Almighty One, Maker and Lord,
On us, wretched earth-worms, Thy pity be poured;
Evil men sit, each on earth's highest seat,
Trampling the holy ones under their feet;
Why good should go crookedly no man can say,
O Guide, if Thou wilt not steer fortune amain
Then spare the poor earth-worms, and save them alive!'
The character of this monarch, embracing so much gentleness, together with such manly vigor and dignity, and displaying, at the same time, so pure a taste, seems sufficient to have graced the most civilized age, nearly as much as it did the rude one in which he lived.
ALFRIC, Archbishop of Canterbury, is the next important name after Alfred, that graces British literature. This learned prelate was a voluminous writer, and, like Alfred, entertained a strong desire to enlighten the common people. He therefore wrote much in his native tongue, particularly a collection of homilies, a translation of the first seven books of the
For the translation of these poems we are indebted to the recent publication of King Alfred's Poems in English Metres by Martin F. Tupper, the author of 'Proverbial Philosophy.' They were kindly communicated to us by C. Edwards Lester, Esq.
Bible, and some religious treatises. He was also the author of a grammar of the Latin tongue, in consequence of which he is usually called 'the Grammarian.' Alfric himself declares that he wrote in Anglo-Saxon, and that he might be understood by the unlettered people, avoided the use of all obscure words. This interesting writer died 1006.
CYNEWULF, Bishop of Winchester, Wulfstan, Archbishop of York, and some others of less note, bring down the list of Anglo-Saxon authors to the Conquest, giving to this period of English literature a duration of nearly five hundred years. During this time there were many seats of learning in England, many writers, and many books; although these have now chiefly become matter of curiosity to the antiquary only. Saxon literature may, indeed, be said to have had a protracted existence, till the breaking up of the language in the latter part of the twelfth century; but during that whole period it was graced by no names of distinction. We must here, however, advert to the historical productions usually called the Anglo-Saxon Chroncle, which consists of a view of early English history, written it is believed by a series of authors, commencing soon after the time of Alfred, and continued to the reign of Henry the Second, the first prince of the house of Plantagenet. This Chronicle is chiefly valuable as the basis of our historical knowledge of the period of which it treats.
The Conquest, by which a Norman government and nobility were imposed upon England, led to a very great change in the language. Norman French, one of those modifications of Latin which arose in the middle ages, now became the language of education, of the courts of law, and of the higher classes of society generally, while Saxon shared in the degradation which the mass of the people experienced under their Conquerors. Though depressed, yet as the speech of the great body of the nation, it could not, however, be extinguished; but it was destined, in the course of the twelfth century, to undergo very essential grammatical changes. Its sounds were greatly altered, syllables were shortened in the pronunciation, and the termination, and inflections of words were softened down until they were entirely lost. Indeed, in the opinion of Dr. Johnson, the Normans affected the Anglo-Saxon language more in this manner than by the introduction of new words. The language which resulted from this change, was the commencement of the present English.
The first literary productions that call for attention after the Conquest, are a class which may, in a great measure, be considered foreign both to the country and to its language. Before the Conqueror's invasion of England, poetical literature had begun to be cultivated in France, with a considerable degree of spirit and taste. The language, which, from its origin, was called Romane, was separated into two great divisions-that of the South, which is represented popularly by the Provençal, and that of the North, which was subdivided into French and Anglo-Norman, the latter dialect being the one which was chiefly confined to England. The poets of the South were called
in their native dialect Troubadours, and those of the North were distinguished by the same title, though written in their language Trouvères. In Provence arose a series of elegant versifiers who employed their talents in composing romantic and complimentary poems, full of warlike and amatory sentiments, of the recitation of which, before assemblies of the great, many of them made a regular business. Norman poets writing with more plainness and simplicity, were celebrated even earlier than those of Provence; and one of them named Taillefer, was the first man to break the English ranks at the battle of Hastings. From the preference which the Norman kings of England gave to the poets of their own country, and from the general depression of the Anglo-Saxon language, the natural result was that the distinguished literary names of the first two centuries after the Conquest, should be those of Norman poets-men who are as frequently natives of France as of England.
Philippe de Thaun, author of treatises on popular sciences in verse; Thorold, who wrote the fine romance of Roland; Sampson de Nanteuil, who translated the Proverbs of Solomon into French verse; Geoffroi Gaimar, author of a chronicle of the Anglo-Saxon kings; and David, a trouvere of eminence, whose works are lost, were the most noted predecessors of one of much greater celebrity, named Maistre Wace, a native of Jersey.
About 1160, WACE wrote, in his native French, a narrative poem called Brutus of England. The principal hero of this poem was an imaginary son of Æneas of Troy, who was represented as having founded the state of Britain many centuries before the Christian era. This, however, was no creation of the fancy of the Norman poet, as he only translated a serious history, written in Latin a few years before, by a monk named Jeoffrey of Monmouth, in which the affairs of Britain were traced, with all possible gravity, through a series of imaginary kings, beginning with Brutus of Troy, and ending with Cadwalader, who was said to have lived in the year 689 of the Christian era.
This history is, on account of its origin and its influence on subsequent literature, a very remarkable work. The Britons settled in Wales, Cornwall, and Bretagne, were distinguished at this time for the numberless fanciful and fabulous legends which they possessed-a traditionary kind of literature resembling that which has since been found among a kindred people of the Scottish highlands. Walter Calenius, archdeacon of Oxford, collected some of these of a professedly historical kind relating to England, and communicated them to Jeoffrey, by whom they were put into the form of a regular historical work, and introduced, for the first time, to the then existing learned world. As little else than a mass of incredible stories, some of which may be slightly founded on fact, this production is of small value; but it formed a basis for Wace's poem, and proved an unfailing resource for the writers of romantic narrative for the ensuing two centuries. Nor even in a later age was its influence exhausted; for from it Shakspeare drew the