A History of English Literature

(Marvins-Underground-K-12) #1
Peterborough until 1154. It used to be regarded as the most important work written
in English before the Norman Conquest, a palm now given to Beowulf.
Here is the entry for the climactic year of the Danish campaign, written by a
878 In this year in midwinter after twelfth night the enemy came stealthily to
Chippenham, and occupied the land of the West Saxons and settled there, and drove a
great part of the people across the sea, and conquered most of the others; and the people
submitted to them, except the king, Alfred. He journeyed in difficulties through the
woods and fen-fastnesses with a small force ....
And afterwards at Easter, King Alfred with a small force made a stronghold at
Athelney, and he and the section of the people of Somerset which was nearest to it
proceeded to fight from that stronghold against the enemy. Then in the seventh week
after Easter, he rode to ‘Egbert’s stone’ east of Selwood, and there came to meet him all
the people of Somerset and of Wiltshire and of that part of Hampshire which was on
this side of the sea. And they rejoiced to see him. And then after one night he went from
that encampment to Iley, and after another night to Edington, and there fought against
the whole army and put it to flight ....
Alfred stood sponsor at the baptism of the defeated King Guthrum at the treaty of
Wedmore (878).
The Somerset marshes are also the scene of the story of Alfred hiding at the hut
of an old woman, and allowing the cakes to burn while he was thinking about
something else – how to save his country. Alfred’s thoughtfulness is evident in his
two famous Prefaces, to the Pastoral Care and the Soliloquies. His resolute and
practical character was combined with a respect for wisdom and its rewards.
Alfred added to his Boethius the following sentence: ‘Without wisdom no faculty
can be fully brought out: for whatever is done unwisely can never be accounted as
In his Pre face to his later translation of the Soliloquies he seems to be looking back
on his career as a translator when he writes:
Then I gathered for myself staves and posts and tie-beams, and handles for each of the
to ols I knew how to use,and building-timbers and beams and as much as I could carry
of the most beautiful woods for each of the structures I knew how to build. I did not
come home with a single load without wishing to bring home the whole forest with me,
if I could have carried it all away; in every tree I saw something that I needed at home.
Wherefore I advise each of those who is able, and has many waggons, to direct himself to
the same forest where I cut these posts; let him fetch more there for himself, and load his
waggons with fair branches so that he can weave many a neat wall and construct many
an excellent building, and build a fair town, and dwell therein in joy and ease both
winter and summer, as I have not done so far. But he who taught me, to whom the forest
was pleasing, may bring it about that I dwell in greater ease both in this transitory
wayside habitation while I am in this world, and also in that eternal home which he has
promised us through St Augustine and St Gregory and St Jerome, and through many
other holy fathers ....
Alfred builds a habitation for his soul with wood taken from the forest of wisdom.
In the next paragraph he asks the king of eternity, whose forest this is, to grant the
soul a charter so that he may have it as a perpetual inheritance. The simple meta-
physical confidence with which this metaphor is handled shows that Alfred’s later
re putation for wisdom was not unmerited. Later writers also call him Englene hyrde,
Englene deorlynge(‘shepherd of the English, darling of the English’).


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