Imágenes de página
PDF
ePub

he mends his bow and arrows. The good house-wife confides to his care her baking loaves: but his thought is elsewhere, and they are burning rapidly to cinders. The irate woman, running up to remove them, exclaims:

"Ca'sn thee mind the ke-aks, man, an' doossen zee 'em burn?

I'm bound thee's eat 'em vast enough az zoon az 'tis the turn!' Near Easter a gleam of good news from the west gladdens the hearts of the wanderers; and in the lengthening days of spring, strong men and true are rallied, for word is abroad that the heroking is alive; the spirit of the red-handed Dane is broken, and in the resulting fusion of elements are laid the foundations of a better England. The messengers

of death are also the messengers of resurrection. There is leisure now for reform, and for upwards of four precious years King Alfred pushes forward the work of internal repair and improvement - material and educational. But in the middle of reforms, while the country is thrilling with awakening life, the war-cloud gathers again, and he prepares to meet another great wave of invasion. The final issue is tried between Christian and Pagan. In three years the Saxon prevails—Thanks be to God,' says the Chronicle.' Thenceforth his reign is devoted to raising the slothful and stolid nation out of the exhaustion in which the life-and-death struggle have left it. Worn out by the constant stress of government and a grievous but unknown complaint, which the physicians ascribed to the spite of the Devil, he died on the 26th of October, 901, in the fifty-second year of his age, closing his eyes on peace at home and abroad. The good die early; the world's hardest workers and noblest benefactors rarely burn to the socket.

Writings.- Chiefly translations into English of the popular manuals of the time, omitting here and expanding there, as might be needful for English use:

Bede's Ecclesiastical Ilistory of England. Perhaps reverence for the venerable author caused him to present it without change or addition. It seems likely that his rendering of this work gave the first impulse toward the compilation of the Saxon Chronicle.

Orosius' Universal History, whose scope is thus characteristically summed up by its author—a Spaniard of the fifth century:

"I have now set out by the help of Christ, and in obedience to your desire, O most blessed father Augustine, the lusts and punishments of sinfu) men, the contlicts of thg

ages, and the judgments of God, from the beginning of the world to the present time; that is to say, for 3617 years.' The text - dull enough, though probably the best account of human affairs available to Alfred is enriched with the new geographical discoveries in the North, including reports of the Northern voyages made by two of his sea-captains. With gossip worthy of Herodotus, we are told:

• Eastland is very large, and there are in it many towns, and in every town a king; and there is also great abundance of honey and fish; and the king and the richest men drink mare's milk, and the poor and the slaves drink mead. They have many contests among themselves; and there is no ale brewed among the Esthonians, for there is mead enough.' Funerals are postponed by the relatives as long as possible, according to the riches of the deceased; kings and the great lying in state for half a year: for —

• There is a tribe which can produce cold, and so the dead in whom they produce that cold lie very long there and do not putrefy; and if any one sets two vessels full of ale or water, they contrive that one shall be frozen, bc it summer or be it winter.' The living drink and sport, till the day of burial or burning:

"On that day they divide the dead man's property into five or six portions, according to value, and place it out, the largest portion about a mile from the dwelling where the dead man lies, then another, then a thirı, and so on till it is all laid within the mile. Then all the neighbors within five or six miles who have swift horses, meet and ride towards the property; and he who has the swiftest horse comes to the first and largest portion, and so each after other till the whole is taken; and he takes the least portion who takes that which is nearest the dwelling: and then every one rides away with the property, and they may have it all; and on this account swift horses are there excessively dear.'

Boethius' Consolations of Philosophy, the hand-book of the Middle Ages for the serious. "A golden book,' says Gibbon, “not unworthy the leisure of Plato or Tully.' Few books are more striking from the circumstances of their production. It was written in prison, in the dying-swan-like tones of Aurelius.

T reflections that consoled the writer in bonds were soon required to support him in the hour of his execution. To him whose soul is his country, a dungeon is the vestibule of Heaven. The mind, shut out from this scene of sensible things, retires into its own infinite domain. In Milton and Bunyan we shall see how wide, when the outer world loses its charms, the inner opens its gates.

The burden of the work is, that a wise God rules the world; that man in his worst extremity possesses much, and ought to fix his thoughts on the imperishable; that God is the chief good,

and works no evil; that, as seen in Eternity, only the good are happy; that God's foreknowledge is reconcilable with the freewill of man. It is a work congenial to Alfred's thinking; for he, like Boethius, has known adversity. Moreover, he would give to his people a system of moral precepts. To do this, he must stoop as to a child; for his audience has never thought or known anything. In this style — asking his readers to pray for him and not to blame him for his imperfect attainments-he renders the refined sentiments and classical allusions of the grand Roman Senator:

'It happened formerly that there was a harper in the country called Thrace, which was in Greece. The harper was inconceivably good. His name was Orpheus. He had a very excellent wife, called Eurydice. Then began men to say concerning the harper, that he could harp so that the wood moved, and the stones stirred themselves at the sound, and wild beasts would run thereto, and stand as if they were tame; so still, that though men or hounds pursued them, they shunned them not. Then said they that the harper's wife should die, and her soul should be led to hell. Then should the harper become so sorrowful that he could not remain among the men, but frequented the wood, and sat on the mountains, both day and night, weeping and harping, so that the woods shouk, and the rivers stood still, and no hart shunned any lion, nor hare any hound; nor did cattle know any hatred, or any fear of others, for the pleasure of the sound. Then it seemed to the harper that nothing in this world pleased him. Then thought he that he would seek the gods of hell, and endeavour to allure them with his harp, and

pray that they would give himn back his wife. When he came thither, then should there come towards him the dog of hell, whose name was Cerberus,- he should have three heads, -and began to wag his tail, and play with him for his harping. Then was there also a very horrible gatekeeper, whose name should be Charon. He had also three heads, and he was very old. Then began the harper to beseech him that he would protect him while he was there, and bring him thence again safe. Then did he promise that to him, because he was desirous of the unaccustomed sound, Then went he further until he met the fierce goddesses, whom the common people call Parcze, of whom they say that they know no respect for any man, but punish every man according to his deeds; and of whom they say that they control every man's fortune. Then began he to implore their mercy. Then began they to weep with him. Then went he farther, aud all the inhabitants of hell ran towards him, and led him to their king; and all began to speak with him, and to pray that which he prayed. And the restless wheel which Ixion, the king of the Lapithe, was bound to for his guilt, that stood still for his harping. And Tantalus the king, who in this world was immoderately greedy, and whom that same vice of greediness followed there, he became quiet. And the vulture should cease, so that he tore not the liver of Tityus the king, which before therewith tormented him. And all the punishments of the inhabitants of hell were suspended whilst he harped before the king. When he long and long had harped, then spoke the king of the inhabitants of hell, and said, “Let 119 give the man his wife, for he has earned her by his harping." He then commanded him that he should well observe that he never looked backwards after he departed thence; and said if he looked backwards, that he should lose the woman. But men can with great difficulty, if at all, restrain love! Wellaway! What! Orpheus then Jed his wife with him till he came to the bonndary of light and darkness. Then went his wife after him. When he came forth into the light, then looked he behind his back towards the woman. Then was she immediately lost to him. This fable teaches every man who desires to fly the darkness of hell, and to come to the light of true good, that he look not about him to his old vices, so that he practise them again as fully as he did before. For whosoever with full

[ocr errors]

will turns his mind to the vices which he had before forsaken, and practises them, and they then fully please him, and he never thinks of forsaking them; then loses he all his former good unless he again amend it.'

Gregory, on the Care of the Soul, which seemed to Alfred a most suitable manual for the clergy in their lethargic state. It is in the preface to this work that he tells us of the sad decay of learning in his kingdom, and of his desire for its true restoration:

• I wish you to know that it often occurs to my mind to consider what manner of wise men there were formerly in the English nation, both spiritual and temporal, and how happy the times then were among the English, and how well the kings behaved in their domestic government, and how they prospered in knowledge and wisdom. I considered also how carnest God's ministers then were, as well about preaching as about learning, and men came from forcign countries to seek wisdom and doctrine in this land, and how we, who live in these times, are obliged to go abroad to get them. To so low a depth has learning fallen among the English nation, that there have been very few on this side of the Humber, who were able to understand the English of their service, or to turn an epistle out of Latin into English; and I know there were not many beyond the Humber who could do it. There were so few, that I cannot think of one on the south side of the Thames when I first began to reign. God Almighty be thanked that we have always a teacher in the pulpit now. . . . When I thought of all this, I fancied also that I saw (before everything was ravaged and burned) how all the churches throughout the Euglish nation stood full of books, though at that time they gathered very little fruit from their books, not being able to understand them, because they were not written in their own language. For which reason I think it best, if you too think so, that we should turn into the language, which we all of us know, some such books as are deemed most useful for all men to understand. . . . When I reflected how this learning of the Latin tongue had fallen throughout the English nation, though many knew how to read English writing, I then began in the midst of divers and manifold affairs of this kingdom, to turn into Anglo-Saxon this book, which in Latin is named Pastoralis, and in Anglo-Saxon the Herdsman's Book; and I will send one of them to every bishop's see in my kingdom.'

Proverbs, compiled in the reign of Henry II, and hence in the broken dialect of the transition period. They mirror a wise and benevolent spirit. The scholar and the man outshine the king. We know him better and honor him more when we read from his own lips:

•The right nobility is in the mind, not in the flesh.'

• Power is never a good unless he be good that has it; and that is the good of the man, not of the power.'

• Learn therefore wisdom; and when you have learned it, do not neglect it. I tell you then, without any doubt, that by it you may come to power, though you should not desire the power.' In almost the last of the series, he addresses his son:

My dear son, set thee now beside me, and I will deliver thee trne instructions. My son, I feel that my hour is coming. My countenance is wan. My days are almost done. We must now part. I shall go to another world, and thou shalt be left alone in all my wealth. I pray thee (for thou art my dear child), strive to be a father and a lord to thy people; be thou the children's father and the widow's friend; comfort thou the poor and shelter the weak; and with all thy might, right that which is wrong. And, son, govern thyself by law; then shall the Lord love thee, and God above all things shall be

thy reward. Call thou upon Him to advise thee in all thy need, and so He shall help thee the better to compass that which thou wishest.'

Some truths and precepts are like diamonds, which may be set a hundred times in as many generations without loss of beauty or of lustre.

Style.- Artless, earnest, but sober; abrupt, yet long drawn out; practical and moral, like the man; idiomatic in vocabulary and arrangement, showing a strong repugnance to the importation of foreign words, a quality certainly due in part to his object - the instruction of a barbarous audience.

Character.- Tradition tells of his genial good-nature, his love of song, his eager desire for knowledge and the improvement of society. His words, and the books selected as the objects of his chief efforts, indicate strongly the union of zeal with moderation, of practical judgment with serious and elevated sentiment, of untiring industry with eminent piety. How or when he learned to read or write, we know not. Asser, his contemporary, says:

His noble nature implanted in him from his cradle a lovc of wisdom above all things; but, with shame be it spoken, by the unworthy neglect of his parents and nurses, he remained illiterate even till he was twelve years old or more; but he listened with serious attention to the Saxon poems which he often heard recited, and easily retained them in his docile memory.' And again:

* This he confessed, with many lamentations and sighs, to have been one of his greatest difficulties and impediments in this life, namely, that when he was young and had the capacity for learning, he could not find teachers.' Careful of detail and methodical, he carries in his bosom a notebook in which he jots down things as they strike him; now a prayer, now a 'story, now an event, now an image. Asser, instructed to write in it a passage which he has just read to the

[ocr errors]

king, says:

"But I could not find any empty space in that book wherein to write the quotation, for it was already full of various matters.' Four priests read to him whenever he has leisure, Asser among the number:

'I read to him whatever books he liked, and such as he had at hand; for this is his usual enstom, both night and day, amid his many other occupations of mind and body, cither himself to read books, or to listen whilst others read them.'

But there is a God in this universe, and a God's sanction, with which a nation may not dispense without peril, nor a man without

« AnteriorContinuar »