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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).>br>Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance.

VI. Alfred and the Old English Prose of his Reign

§ 11. His Literary Achievement

Alfred’s literary achievement is of immense importance. The prominence given to the vernacular during his reign made it possible for English literature to develop on its own lines. He was wise enough to limit himself to the work of translation, since he had not, apparently, great creative genius in letters. But the effect of his choice of models was to introduce a large Latin element into Old English prose style. Compared with the abrupt and rugged style of the king Cynewulf episode in the early part of the Chronicle, Alfred’s prose is that of an accomplished writer: compared with later prose, it is largely tentative. It was not until nearly a century later that more definite results were achieved when Aelfric took up the task left incomplete by the West Saxon king. Apart from the historic estimate, Alfred has some personal claim to recognition as a prose writer. His original passages, however much they may owe to undiscovered sources, embody his own personal convictions, and afford a remarkable proof of his ability to inform with life the materials at his disposal. In literature, personality is of the utmost importance, and Alfred is one of the most personal of writers. He is the embodiment, not only of the intellectual, but of the spiritual, thoughts of his time. His writings constantly reveal his aspirations after truth, and, even in the Laws, there is a definitely religious tone. “I have wished,” he writes inBoethius, “to live worthily while I lived, and to leave to those who should come after me my memory in good deeds.” And in the language of the inscription on the monument erected to his memory at Wantage in 1877, he “found learning dead, and he restored it; education neglected, and he revived it.”