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VI. Alfred and the Old English Prose of his Reign

§ 5. De Consolatione Philosophiae

It is possible that some years elapsed before Alfred began his translations of Boethius’s De Consolatione Philosophiae. Assuming that his energies had been fully employed during the period from 888 to 893 with his early work, he could have had little leisure for any new undertaking before the year 897. The freedom with which the whole of this new task is carried out points to a late period and a mature method. Boethius’s book ranked among the most characteristic products of the Middle Ages. Its influence on later literature was immense, and is scarcely to be estimated by the number of translations, numerous though they were. It was done into English, after Alfred’s time, by Chaucer and Elizabeth, into German by Notker, into French by Jean de Meun. An early metrical version in Provençal also exists. The influence of Boethius has been traced in Beowulf; it permeates Dante and Chaucer. The closing words of the Paradiso—”Already my desire and will were rolled, even as a wheel that moveth equally, by the love that moves the sun and the other stars”—owe their origin to the Consolation of Philosophy. The book was written while the author was under sentence of death after having fallen into disfavour with the Ostrogothic king Theodric. It is in the form of a dialogue between Boethius and Philosophy, wherein are set forth the consolations associated with the contemplative state of mind. The famous dissertation upon fate and providence is conducted with considerable subtlety; but the atmosphere of the book is religious rather than philosophical, and it is signally free from the technicalities of the schools. Boethius harks back to the early Greek standpoint of Plato, from whom he derives his central doctrine of submissiveness. The finite is to be realised only in the absolute, which is identical with love, and love is realised by faith. The Middle Ages, with their vivid sense of an overruling fate, found in Boethius an interpretation of life closely akin to the spirit of Christianity. The Consolation of Philosophy stands, by its note of fatalism and its affinities with the Christian doctrine of humility, midway between the heathen philosophy of Seneca and the later Christian philosophy of consolation represented by Thomas á Kempis. Alfred’s religious outlook had much in common with the gentle philsophy of “the last of the Romans,” and the translation afforded him considerable opportunity for self-expression. In some passages the king identifies himself with the philosopher and enlarges on metaphysical themes. In others, as in the famous seventeenth chapter, he reflects on such problems as his duty toward the state:

  • Thou knowest, Reason, that the greed and grandeur of this temporal power have never pleased me much, nor have I longed overmuch for this earthly kingdom: but I desired tools and material for the work which I was ordered to work, in order that I might virtuously and fittingly control the power entrusted to me.
  • The rendering of Boethius is never close, and the additions give a unique character to the work. The spirit of Alfred’s version is naturally more in keeping with Christianity than is the Neo-Platonic doctrine of Boethius. There is definite mention of God and Christ where Boethius speaks of “the good,” or “love,” or “the true way,” or “divine reason”; again, the English version substitutes “angels” for “divine substance.” The minor additions are often interesting. The lynx is “an animal that can see through anything—trees or even stones”; the Parcae are “the cruel goddesses who preside over the fates of every man”; Orpheus is “an excellent good harper.” Alfred’s interest in geography induced him to supply the information that ultima Thule is situated “in the north-west of this earth,” and Mount Etna in “the island of Sicily.” But it is in the expanded passages that the chief value of the book consists. The preface and chapter I, with its interesting account of the Latin author, are wholly original. Chapter XVII, again, is original, save for a few lines. Details concerning Busiris, Regulus and Seneca are inserted, which are only partially translated, and the account of Cicero is a noteworthy addition. It was a happy inspiration that led Alfred to render the Latin Ubi nunc fidelis ossa Fabricii manent?— in the spirit of a Teuton attached to his national legends —“Where are the bones of Weland?” He is much interested in astrology, and refers more than once to “the cold star,” Saturn. The reflective passages afford most instructive glimpses into the workings of the king’s mind. They are permeated by deep religious fervour: “It is,” he writes, “the expectation and fancy of fools that power and wealth are the highest good; but really is quite otherwise.” He reflects on the vanity of earthly ambition: “O glory of this world, why do men falsely call thee glory, when thou art not so?” The literary beauty of the similes employed by Alfred has been often noted. Prosperity passes away “like a gust of wind”; blessings flow from the source of all goodness “like waters from the sea.” God is likened to a steersman who perceives the oncoming of a storm and makes preparations against it. In an important article, Schepss raised the question as to how far Alfred’s interpolations were based on Latin commentaries similar to that of Froumond, or upon scholia such as are to be found in the Munich MS. He pointed out that, in expanding Boethius’s account of the giants, who incurred the wrath of Jupiter by assailing heaven, Alfred introduced Nimrod and the Tower of Babel. The hint for this seems to have been derived from the Munich MS. The famous simile of the egg—

  • Thou, glorious king of hosts, through strong might wonderfully didst establish the earth so firmly that she inclineth not on any side nor may she sink hither and thither any more than she ever did. Yet nothing earthly sustains her, it is equally easy for this world to fall upwards or downwards: likest to that which happens in an egg, the yolk is in the midst yet glideth freely about the egg. So stands the world fixed in its place, while the streams, the play of waters, the sky and the stars and the shining shell move about day by day as they did long ago—
  • and the other simile, of the wheel, in which God is compared to the fixed axle round which the felly and spokes turn, are not wholly original but, together with many other passages, show the influence of the scholia. It is highly probable that much in Alfred’s work which has hitherto been looked upon as wholly original will be found to have been based upon similar sources. The preface, on the genuineness of which some doubt has been thrown, informs us that Alfred was the translator of the book and that he rendered his original “sometimes word for word, sometimes sense for sense, as best he could amid the manifold occupations of his kingdom.” This description of the king’s method is altogether in keeping with that prefixed to the Pastoral Care. It is worthy of note that, according to William of Malmesbury, Asser had previously glossed the Latin for the king’s benefit. In view of this statement the present translation was, for a long time, considered to have been the first of Alfred’s undertakings. He may have intended to begin Boethius at an early period, but it is certain that the translation as we now have it is a late piece of work. The language has given rise to interesting problems. The two chief MSS., the Bodleian and the Cottonian, contain, according to Sievers, a large number of Kentisms. These are possibly due to a scribe of Kentish origin, the whole case being parallel to that of Bede.