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VI. Alfred and the Old English Prose of his Reign

§ 7. Augustine’s Soliloquies

The West Saxon version of Augustine’s Soliloquia stands last in order of Alfred’s translations, and considerable doubt has been expressed as to its genuineness. Pauli, on the ground that Alfred’s name does not occur in the preface, rejects it altogether, and finds justification in the fact that the language is an impure form of West Saxon. Wülker, who formerly identified the Soliloquies with the Handbook, considers the book to be genuine. He points out that the preface in its present form is mutilated and that the twelfth century MS. is too late to afford any evidence based on style. Judging from the nature of the references to holy orders, the translation appears to have been the work of a layman rather than a monk, and the closing words, whether genuine or not, attribute it to Alfred. The vocabulary of the Soliloquies has much in common with that of Alfred’s Boethius, and there are close resemblances between the two works in thought and style. Some of the original passages seem to have been directly based upon translated portions of Boethius, and original passages in both works sometimes correspond closely. Alfred was attracted to Augustine by the nature of his them. The Latin work is a treatise on God and the soul, in which much space is devoted to a discussion of immortality. The translation is undertaken quite in accordance with Alfred’s customary methods. He renders the first book somewhat closely, but paraphrases the sense and makes a few additions, indulging his taste for simile in a comparison between the soul at rest in God and a ship at anchor, and discoursing at length on the changes that take place in nature, on the likeness between God and the sun and on the relation between king and subject. Book II he renders very freely. He discusses the problem of immortality from an independent standpoint: “Believe thine own reason and believe Christ, the Son of God, and believe all His saints for they were truthful witnesses, and believe thine own soul which ever declares through reason that she is in thee.” Book III is based on another source, Augustine’s De Videndo Deo, supplemented by passages from Augustine’s De Civitate Dei, Gregory’s Morals and Dialogues and Jerome’s Commentary on Luke. The dialogue form is continued for some time, though the sources do not justify such an arrangement. The spirit of the whole translation is deeply religious. It is a logical discussion of the nature and future of the soul, in which Augustine’s dialectics are rejected in favour of commonsense reasoning. There is a natural connection between the Soliloquies and Boethius, since its central theme had already been suggested in the closing pages of the latter. It hasalready been shown that the preface to the Pastoral Care is in the nature of a general introduction to Alfred’s translated works; the preface to the Soliloquies may be considered an epilogue—the king’s farewell to literature—

  • I gathered me poles and props and bars and handles for each of the tools which I could handle, and bough timbers and bolt timbers for each of the tasks which I was capable of undertaking, the fairest wood, as far as I could bear it away. I came not home with a great burden, since it pleased me not to bring all the wood home, even if I could have carried it. On each tree I saw something which I needed at home. Therefore, I advise every man who is able and has many waggons, that he direct himself to the same wood where I cut the props, and that he procure for himself more, and load his waggons with fair beams, that he may construct many a fair wall, and many a beautiful house, and many a town and dwell there merrily and peacefully, both winter and summer, as I have not done.
  • With this parable Alfred closes his literary career.