Source: Translator's Introduction to Boethius's King Alfred’s Version of the Consolations of Boethius. Done into Modern English, with an Introduction by Walter John Sedgefield Litt.D. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1900).
In the year 878 a.d., on the conclusion of the negotiations begun with Guthrum at Wedmore, Wessex emerged unbeaten but sorely shaken from a life-struggle that had lasted many years without intermission. Inch by inch the Scandinavian pirates had been driven back, and now the West-Saxon king could boast of a broader realm than ever before had been his, and better still, a more united people. The first seven or eight years of his reign had been spent in camp or on the march, fighting, pursuing, retreating, in the varying fortunes of the struggle; a busy time, with small leisure for thoughts or deeds unconnected with immediate and constant peril. Alfred’s early ambitions had perforce to sleep, while his people had enough to do to hold their ground against the invader, standing still or going back on the path of culture. Still, it is probable that the harsh training king and subjects had gone through together in their dark days was after all a real though disguised benefit to both. They shared the memory of perils and hardships borne together, and must have come to understand and sympathize with each other as only those can do that have side by side faced a common danger for many months. And so Alfred would, when brighter days came, find ready to his hand ‘fitting instruments of rule,’ as he himself calls them. He entered upon the herculean labour of building up and consolidating the shattered fabric of society and government with a deep sense of the responsibility involved, and a clear perception of the difficulties to be faced. But his keen enthusiasm for the work made it seem easy, and carried him through it all with admirable success. Everything had to be done, as a veritable chasm gaped between the present and the past. First of all, the laws of the West-Saxon kings had to be copied afresh, amended, and published, and their honest administration enforced, so that equal justice done between man and man might smooth the way for the arts of peace. The citizen army had to be organized against a possible recrudescence of the piratical raids, a fleet of ships had to be built, and London resettled and fortified. Agriculture could now be carried on in security, and the simple arts and manufactures of that day needed careful fostering. The Church, sorely weakened and humiliated after repeated outrage on the part of the heathen and by neglect of her own distracted people, must be raised to her former high estate. Her bishops and priests must be put back in their cures, her monasteries endowed, and piety and learning again cherished.
For of all the many forms of activity into which Alfred plunged in his eagerness to make up for lost time, we are sure that, next to religion, the cause of learning lay nearest his heart. He himself had always loved it, its books and its bookmen, and he wanted his people to share his love. He quite understood that before a nation can begin to advance along the road of enlightenment and civilization it must be taught the elements of education; and we know from his own account into what a lamentable ignorance, not only the common people, but even the clergy had fallen. The words of the King on this subject are most instructive, and for the history of his times of prime authority. ‘The sacred orders,’ he says, ‘were once zealous in teaching and study. . . . Men used to come to England from other lands in search of wisdom and instruction, but now we should be obliged to get them from abroad if we wanted them. So entirely was learning fallen away in England that there were very few on this side of the Humber who could understand their church services in English, or even turn a Latin letter into English; and I think there were not many beyond the Humber. There were so few of them that I cannot call to mind a single one south of the Thames, when I succeeded to the throne. . . . Thinking over all this, I remembered also how I had seen, before the country was all ravaged and burnt, the churches throughout England standing full of treasures and books. There was also a great number of God’s ministers, but they had very little profit of their books, of which, not being written in their own tongue, they could make nothing.’
One of Alfred’s first acts in furtherance of his educational schemes was, if we may believe the story in Asser’s Life, the foundation of a court school, wherein he followed, consciously or not, the example of the great Frankish king whom he resembled in so many ways. It is interesting to note that Charlemagne had, like Alfred, much trouble in interesting his rough war-like nobles in his schemes for the spread of education.
As stated by himself, Alfred’s plan was that ‘all the sons of English free men, who could afford the time, should be kept at their studies, while they were as yet of no use to the state, until they could read English with ease. Then those who were to continue their education and to be promoted to a higher order should be taught Latin.’
Alfred, again like Charlemagne, had the good sense to gather round him the best scholars he could find, sending to other lands for them, as his own produced them no longer. The names of the little group of learned clerics that helped the King to such good purpose were—the two Mercians, Werfrith or Waerferth, Bishop of Worcester, and Plegmund, Archbishop of Canterbury; Grimbold, a Frankish priest, afterwards Abbot of Winchester; John, a priest from Old Saxony; and Asser, a Welsh monk. All of these, except the last, are mentioned by the King in the preface to his translation of the Pastoral Care of Pope Gregory.
With the co-operation of these scholars, then, Alfred took in hand the education of his people. Though hungry for knowledge, it is probable that he was at a disadvantage in his equipment for its pursuit. He doubtless had an education suitable to a king’s son when he was at Rome, and afterwards in England, but he assumed the reins of government at so early an age, and was so entirely absorbed in fighting the Northmen during the first years of his reign, that he cannot have had much leisure for keeping up or adding to his learning. Hence he could not fully understand unaided the more difficult books written in Latin, the sole language of the learned in Western Europe in his day. In the Life of Alfred, ascribed to Asser, we are told that one of his learned men used daily to read aloud to the King passages from his favourite authors. William of Malmesbury, too, a later chronicler, who made use of early annals and other old sources, mentions how Asser used to explain to Alfred the harder passages met with in reading the Latin text of the De Consolatione Philosophiae of Boethius. Being aware that the knowledge of Latin was wellnigh extinct among the clergy of his kingdom, and that to the common folk every avenue to learning was barred, Alfred conceived, and about the year 886 began to carry out, a plan of translating into English certain well-known standard works which he judged best fitted to give in moderate compass a good plain fund of knowledge to the Englishman of his day. These works, to use the King’s words, were ‘such books as are the most needful for all men to know.’ The modern reader should remember that a man who had mastered ten Latin books in the ninth century in England would have been accounted well read, and a knowledge of the contents of fifty would have amounted to encyclopaedic learning. Alfred’s choice fell upon the following works:—
1. The Universal History of Orosius, written early in the fifth century, being a compendium of the history of the world, written from a Christian point of view.
2. The History of the English Church by the Venerable Bede, containing the history of the English from their conquest of Britain up to the end of the seventh century, chiefly ecclesiastical, enlivened with accounts of saints and miraculous occurrences.
3. The Dialogues of Pope Gregory the Great, a popular book, describing the lives and miracles of Italian saints, and treating of the life of the soul after death.
4. The Pastoral Care or Rule of the same Gregory, a practical manual of the duties of the clergy.
5. The De Consolatione Philosophiae of Boethius.
6. The Soliloquies of St. Augustine.
Of these books the History of Orosius, the Consolation of Philosophy, the Pastoral Care, and the Soliloquies were put into English by the King himself. The Dialogues of Gregory were perhaps translated by Bishop Werfrith at Alfred’s suggestion, and it is probable that the English version of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History in its original form was also the work of one of the King’s learned priests.
By far the most important of these works was the famous treatise of Boethius. It was the philosophical vade-mecum of the Middle Ages, and countless scholars during a thousand years knew little else of abstract reasoning save what they found in its pages. The influence that it exercised on the expression of abstract thinking during many centuries is hardly conceivable by us moderns, who can range freely over the best of ancient classical literature and wield a philosophical vocabulary ready made for us. Its influence and popularity, indeed, as a book of practical piety, can only be compared with that of the later Imitation of Christ, and the earlier Cicero’s De Officiis. Hundreds of manuscripts of it are still to be found in dozens of libraries, some of them going back to the tenth century; and it was one of the first books printed in Europe. Wherever the rude tongues of mediaeval Europe began to be articulate in prose, versions of the De Consolatione Philosophiae in the vernacular appeared. Of these early translations Alfred’s was the first, and it was followed after the lapse of about a hundred years by a literal rendering into the Alemannic dialect of the Old High German language made at the famous monastery of St. Gall by the monk Notker.
To the eleventh century belongs a fragment of a manuscript now in the Public Library of Orleans containing part of a free rendering or imitation in old Provençal. In the course of the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries there appeared four versions in French, the first by the famous Jehan de Meun, who dedicated it to Philippe le Bel. In England no less a poet than Geoffrey Chaucer made a prose translation. He was followed by nearly a dozen others in the following centuries, including Queen Elizabeth, and the last English version was published as late as the year 1897. We have said nothing, be it noted, of Italian, Spanish, and Greek versions, all of which had begun to appear before the end of the fifteenth century. Other tongues have also done their share in popularizing the Consolations. It has frequently been annotated and imitated, and it has comforted hundreds in their day of affliction. Our own Sir Thomas More had it with him in prison, and even wrote an imitation of it. Leslie, Bishop of Ross, sent an imitation of it to his royal and captive mistress in 1572. Its influence on European literature has been immense. Traces have been found in the ancient English poem of Beowulf. Chaucer’s poems are steeped in it. Gower, Lydgate, and Spenser drank inspiration at this fountain, as the author of the Roman de la Rose in France, and the greater Dante and Boccaccio in Italy had done in their day.
The sad surroundings under which the Consolation of Philosophy was written have ever found a responsive chord of sympathy in the hearts of the oppressed, and never more readily than in those turbulent times when the great ones of the earth were liable to be reft in a day of rank and honours at the nod of a capricious tyrant.
Let us now glance at the life of the author of this classic of the Middle Ages, the man whom Gibbon styles ‘the last of the Romans whom Cato or Tully could have acknowledged for their countryman.’
About 400 years before King Alfred wrote, Theodoric, King of the Ostrogoths, starting from Wallachia, led a host of his folk over the Alps, and overthrowing Odovacar (Odoacer) reigned over Italy in his stead. Theodoric’s rule for many years was just and impartial, neither unduly oppressing the orthodox nor favouring those of the Arian heresy to which he himself belonged. He also respected the Imperial traditions, so that the Roman Senate continued to exercise at least a show of its old functions.
Among the eminent Romans of the time one was marked out for high honour by the new ruler on account of his high descent, vast wealth, and remarkable ability. Amicius Manlius Severinus Boethius, who was born about 480 a.d., traced his origin to families powerful even under the Republic. His wife Rusticiana was a daughter of Symmachus, a nobleman of great connexions and estate. Boethius rose from one honour to another, being Consul in 510, and again in 522 in conjunction with his two young sons; and at length he came to be Head of the Senate, the most dignified position to which a Roman subject could attain. Contemporary historians tell us in what repute Boethius was held by all right-thinking men as well as by Theodoric, and how he laboured to lay bare the corruption and misgovernment of the Roman officials. His enemies were consequently numerous, and they plotted his downfall.
After years of beneficent rule, Theodoric suddenly developed signs of intolerance. He sent Pope John the First on a humiliating embassy to Justin the Emperor of the East at Constantinople, and on his return cast him into prison, where the old and feeble pontiff soon died. Theodoric was now in the mood to listen to charges made by the foes of Boethius. Accused of being concerned in a conspiracy against his imperial master, the noble Roman defended himself with the eloquence for which he was famed, but in vain. He was sentenced by the Senate to imprisonment, Theodoric still wishing to keep up an appearance of legality, and was confined in a dungeon at Ticinum. There, when his property had been confiscated, and after many months of imprisonment, he was, as we are told, tortured and put to death.
Those of his contemporaries whose writings have reached us, such as Priscian, Cassiodorus, and Ennodius, regarded Boethius as decidedly the most able and learned man of his day. He was deeply versed in the works of the Greek philosophers, some of which he turned into Latin and annotated for the use of his countrymen. It is certain that for centuries after his death the mediaeval schoolmen knew Aristotle almost solely through the translations and commentaries of Boethius. He had also a remarkable talent for mathematics, science, and practical engineering, and his work on music remained till last century the chief text-book on the subject at Oxford and Cambridge. After his death Boethius came to be regarded by the Church of Rome as a martyr for the orthodox faith, and was canonized as St. Severinus. Many works on doctrinal theology have been attributed to him, but modern scholars are not agreed as to his authorship of them, nor even as to his having been a Christian at all. His most important and authentic work, the De Consolatione Philosophiae, contains nothing from which the Christianity of its author could be positively inferred, for it bases its philosophy entirely on the old systems of Aristotle, the Stoics, and the Neo-Platonists.
Such was the man who wrote the famous book which King Alfred set himself to make known to his people. That it was a task after the English monarch’s own heart we may well believe. The splendid career and the wretched end of the last great Roman must have deeply impressed Alfred, who had himself known adversity, and was far from sure that his present heyday would last.
But the task of translation, though congenial, was difficult. In the first place, Alfred’s knowledge of Latin can hardly have sufficed to give him an exact idea of the contents of a book whose style was modelled on the old classical writers of Rome, and differed widely from the crude Latin written by the learned monks in the ninth century. This difficulty the King surmounted, as we have already noticed, by having Asser read out the Latin text and explain it to him; and this is confirmed by an examination of Alfred’s version, which in many parts bears the marks of having been written from a recent recollection of the Latin rather than directly from it. The King’s version makes no attempt to imitate the artificial and involved periods of Boethius; he was content to write so as to be ‘understanded of the people,’ and in this he succeeded, for his English, though devoid of art and often inelegant and rambling, is clear enough as to the sense. It is probable that Alfred wrote as he spoke, for he could have found but little prose literature in English fit to form his style upon. Certain parts of the Vulgate and the Book of Psalms and a number of prayers had been Englished, as the Life informs us; but beyond these it is likely that no prose of a literary character existed in West-Saxon. All previous literary effort in English had taken the form of verse, which chiefly flourished north of the Humber; and we have the curious, but not isolated, spectacle of a noble and expressive poetry co-existing with a rude, faltering, barely articulate prose, as we can see it in the old charters which have come down to us. In the process of transferring the ideas of Boethius into English of the ninth century a certain loss was inevitable. This Alfred doubtless realized, and from the first resolved to attempt no more than to give the general sense of his original, now keeping fairly close to the Latin, now being content to find a simple expression for ‘dark words’; here omitting what he judged of less moment for the end he had in view, there making additions of his own. And it is just these additions that are the most interesting part of the King’s version. In them we see him in the capacity of author, and can make a comparison between the ideals he himself here puts before us and his success in realizing them as recorded in the pages of history. In this connexion we may note that the annals of the West Saxons, perhaps previously written in Latin, were in the latter years of Alfred’s rule recorded in English, probably by the King’s orders, and the events of his reign were described in language of considerable vigour, with which it is instructive to compare the prose of the royal writer himself. These annals form the first instalment of the famous Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which was continued in various monasteries, till the last version, the Peterborough Book, ends with the joyful accession of Henry II.
Thus King Alfred may be regarded as the first known writer of English literary prose. Abbot Ælfric, about a century after, recognized his debt to the King, saying that in his day ‘there were no other godly books in the English tongue save the books that King Alfred skilfully translated from Latin into English.’ Ælfric formed himself consciously on the style of the King, and in his hands English prose became smoother and clearer, more elegant, and more suited to the expression of shades of thought.
It is now time to see how the English King went to work in turning the Consolations of Philosophy into his own tongue. A glance over his version will at once show that it is very far from being even a free translation of the original work. Alfred evidently realized that a literal rendering, such as we find in his version of the Pastoral Care, would be a difficult task for himself, and would be largely unintelligible to the people for whom it was intended. So he resolved to omit what seemed to him unessential, or too hard to translate, or too stiff for plain men’s comprehension, and he did not hesitate to amplify where he thought a fuller treatment needed. Thus at the very beginning of the work he supplies a historical Introduction, and boldly transposes and condenses the first few sections of the Latin; a treatment to which he occasionally resorts throughout the book, particularly at the end. One is soon struck in reading Alfred’s version by the large number of explanatory notes inserted in the text. The King watches his chance, and explains allusions, mythological, historical, and geographical, with evident pleasure, and sometimes at great length.
This plan was also followed by Alfred in his Orosius, and here we see his anxiety that obscurities should be removed, so that his book might be truly a popular one, and read by persons who had no knowledge of the ages that lay behind them, and to whom a literal translation of the De Consolatione would often have seemed mere nonsense. It has been proved that Alfred made considerable use of Latin commentaries which had already appeared before his day, just as they had appeared in the case of the old classical writers, and many of the additions that distinguish Alfred’s version, and till quite recently were unhesitatingly credited to him, are now seen to correspond, often word for word, with commentaries still extant in MSS. dating from the tenth and eleventh centuries1 . This, however, only shows that Alfred procured the best MSS. of the Consolation that he could, and used the commentaries written in the margin, just as modern scholars make use of the scholia in preparing their editions of the classical texts.
From a modern reader’s point of view these constant digressions seem to encumber the text and impede the free course of the argument, but we should remember that in Alfred’s day such things as footnotes were unknown, so that he was obliged to put everything into the text, unless he had chosen to imitate the scholia or explanatory notes written on the broad margins of the Latin manuscripts. Alfred’s arrangement, however, was exactly adapted to the purpose he had in view, for as books were in those days generally read aloud by one man in the presence of others, it was convenient that his reading should flow on without interruption from distracting notes. Another point in which Alfred’s version differs from the original is its distinctly Christian colouring. As we have said before, Boethius gives no sign in his Consolations of Philosophy that he was acquainted with or influenced by the Christian faith. Alfred, on the contrary, mentions Christ by name, speaks of ‘Christian men,’ ‘angels,’ ‘the devil’; and the name of God, which the Roman seldom directly mentions, occurs nearly two hundred times in the English version. Alfred’s allusions to Old Testament history form an entirely new feature, while as a Western Churchman he shows his disapproval of the Arian Theodoric as markedly as he shows his sympathy with the Catholic Boethius.
Frequently Alfred forgets his rôle of translator, and prompted by a word or phrase of his original, writes freely as his own feelings taught him. One of these spontaneous outpourings has a keen and enduring interest for Englishmen; revealing as it does the noble aims of him whom the late Professor Freeman called ‘the most perfect character in history.’ This is the passage on the duties of a king forming chapter xvii, where Alfred sets forth his aims in stirring words that deserve a place on every monument that Englishmen may raise to their national hero. ‘It has ever been my desire,’ he says, ‘to live honourably while I was alive, and after my death to leave to them that should come after me my memory in good works.’
King Alfred’s Boethius has reached us in two manuscripts, one of the tenth century written about fifty or sixty years after his death, and the other dating from the beginning of the twelfth century. The older manuscript is now in the British Museum, having once formed part of the collection made by Sir Henry Cotton in the seventeenth century. It was injured by the fire which ravaged this valuable collection in the year 1740, and for a century afterwards lay neglected in a box. Some sixty years ago two scholars arranged the scattered and charred leaves, and with great skill mounted them separately in an album, like photographs, so that now the greater part of the writing on the damaged vellum can be made out in a favourable light. Towards the end of the seventeenth century, when this manuscript was still perfect, Franciscus Junius, a German scholar settled in England, the first serious and critical student of the oldest English, took from it many readings and wrote them in the margin of the copy he had made of the later manuscript, copy and manuscript being now in the Bodleian Library. This manuscript is in perfect preservation. Junius also copied from the Cotton or older manuscript the whole of the alliterating version of the metres of Boethius which in the later manuscript are rendered in Old English prose.
Besides these two manuscripts, a small fragment of a third was discovered at the Bodleian Library at Oxford by Professor Napier some years ago. It is extremely probable that such a popular book as King Alfred’s Boethius would have been frequently copied, so that it is somewhat strange that more manuscripts of it have not come down to us. We are told that among the books presented by Bishop Leofric to the chapter of Exeter Cathedral in the eleventh century there was an old English version of the De Consolatione, referred to as Boeties boc on englisc, ‘The Book of Boethius in English.’ The two manuscripts above mentioned differ in the following respects as to their contents. The older one has, as we have before said, a metrical alliterating version of the carmina of Boethius, which in the later one are rendered into prose. Again, while the text of the later manuscript is broken up into forty-two chapters that do not always correspond to the divisions in the Latin original, the older manuscript has no formal divisions, except that the end of each book and the beginning of the next are indicated. Both manuscripts had the same prose preface, but the older manuscript contains in addition a metrical proem which is wanting in the later one. Finally, the latter has a table of contents prefixed.
Alfred’s prose rendering of the verses of the original is often closer than that of the rest of the book. Some he omits altogether, especially towards the end, and one he amplifies to an immense extent (pp. 87-91). An interesting question arises regarding the authorship of the version of the carmina which we find in the earlier manuscript. This is in verses of the usual Old English type, each line of which consists of two half-lines separated by a pause, with one or two stressed words in the first half-line alliterating with the first stressed word in the second, as in the line:—
Setton suðweardes . sigeðeoda twa,
or, as we may render it:—
Two tribes victorious . tramped to the south.
Did King Alfred write this alliterating version as well as the prose one which occurs in the later manuscript?
In seeking an answer to this question we will first turn to the prose preface prefixed to the work in both manuscripts (see p. 9). Here we find it stated that after King Alfred ‘had translated this book into English prose, he afterwards turned it into verse, as it is now done.’ This seems plain enough, and if we believe Alfred wrote this preface—and we have no prima facie reason to doubt it—the question is settled. The metrical preface found in the older manuscript confirms the statement as to Alfred’s authorship. But not a few scholars, after a careful comparison of the two versions of the carmina, have persuaded themselves that the King could not have been the author of the metrical version, and are consequently forced to deny him the authorship of the prefaces.
What we know for certain on this question does not amount to much, and may be thus summarized.
Let us in the first place for convenience indicate by the letter B the prose version of the metres of Boethius which is found only in the Bodleian or later manuscript of Alfred’s translation, and by the letter C the alliterating metrical version of the same metres which only occurs in the Cotton or older manuscript.
1. A careful comparison between the two versions clearly shows us that C was made by a person who had B before him, the former being only an expansion in metrical form of the latter.
2. It is equally certain that the Latin original was not used in the making of C. Thus we see that B represents the older version made by King Alfred.
3. Another thing to notice is that not all the metra of B have been turned into verse in C; and the omitted ones are not introduced and dismissed with the customary words ‘Then Philosophy began to sing,’ or ‘When Philosophy had sung this song.’
4. Only a few lines in C contain new thoughts. Of these additions the chief is the simile where the earth is compared to an egg (metr. xx. ll. 169-175), and this was derived from a Latin commentary.
Now, putting aside the Prefaces, the opponents of the King’s authorship of C base their case on two considerations, one being the third of the abovementioned facts. (a) The King, they say, would not have omitted any metra when turning B into C. (b) Further, they object that C is but a weak diluted version of the terse and often vigorous prose of B, and more likely to have been the work of some clerical versifier than of the King himself, who shows vigour and character in his literary work, and who would have added to and improved on B if he had resolved to recast it in a metrical form.
To the first of these two arguments it may be replied that as the Latin original was laid aside, and B only was used in the preparation of C, Alfred might have easily overlooked some of the metra which were not preceded nor followed by the usual formulas; or again, he might have purposely omitted them for some reason or other. The second argument takes it for granted that Alfred must have been a good poet as well as a good king; and further, it puts C in a false light. We have to bear in mind that in the days of King Alfred, poetry, if ever it had been cultivated in the south of England as a branch of literature, had greatly declined in form and substance from the splendour to which it had attained in the preceding century in Northumbria. The modern critic is too apt to compare C with this older poetry, much to the disadvantage of the former; whereas we should remember that C was most probably meant to be read aloud or chanted. Thus then the seemingly idle expansions and repetitions which we find in it, and the occurrence of words and phrases consecrated to the use of poetry, would have greatly added to its effect, and made it more acceptable to the illiterate but unspoiled West-Saxons, to whose ears the folk-songs were quite familiar. This is only an illustration of the fondness that all primitive races have for a regular chanted measure accompanied by a well-marked rhythm. Further, we learn from the Life attributed to Asser that Alfred loved the poetry of his native land, and learned much of it as a child, and we may well believe that he would welcome the chance of himself adding to the national store of verse. Nor should we forget that he has given us some specimens of his verses in the Preface to his Pastoral Care. To sum up then, there seems no reason to doubt the tradition of antiquity and the testimony of the prefaces, even if these were not written by the King, that it was Alfred who turned the prose of B into the verse of C. We may imagine that, having completed the prose version of the De Consolatione, he felt that by versifying the metra he should be only doing the right thing by his author, and at the same time giving the lays of Boethius a form that would readily lend itself to learning by heart and recitation. There would be no necessity for bringing new thoughts into the verses. He had shown plenty of originality already in his prose version of Boethius, far more than in any of his other translations; and, besides, a fresh handling of the subject would probably have taken more time than he could spare in his busy life. His end then would be fully attained if he produced a rough metrical version with the familiar alliteration and swing of the national poetry; and in this he succeeded very fairly. His subjects may well have preferred the more long-winded verses, with their familiar poetical catchwords and reminiscences of the older poetry, to the more severe and colourless prose of his earlier version.
Biblical and Christian. Noah, pp. 35, 112. Nimrod, p. 112. Jerusalem, p. 7. Heavenly city, pp. 120, 165. Angels, pp. 60, 78, 111, 150, 165, 166, 169, 171, 172, 174. Holy martyrs, p. 25. Christ, pp. 25, 178, 188, 193. Christians, pp. 1, 153. Devil, p. 39. God the roof and base, p. 127. Unity of God, p. 83.
Mythological. Orpheus and Eurydice, pp. 116, 117. Ulysses and Circe, pp. 133, 134. Hercules and Busiris, p. 37. Hercules and the Hydra, p. 148. Titans war with gods, p. 12. Weland the smith, p. 48.
Historical. Boethius, p. 52. Cyrus and Croesus, p. 15. Theodoric, pp. 1, 34, 64. Nero, pp. 34, 40. Pope John, p. 1. Rædgod, p. 1. Aleric, p. 1. Tarquin, p. 35. Nero, pp. 34, 40. Regulus, p. 37. Homer and Virgil, p. 165. Ptolemy, p. 43. Burning of Troy, p. 40. Roman Treasurers, p. 69. Cato, p. 48. Brutus, p. 48. Cicero, pp. 44, 168. Catullus and Nonius, p. 66. Nero and Seneca, p. 71. Papinianus and Antonius, p. 72. Unnatural children, p. 76.
Geographical. Mount Etna, pp. 34, 35. Scythians, pp. 1, 44. Thule, p. 73.
General. Pirate fleet, p. 33. Noxious insects, p. 36. Languages of the world, pp. 44, 113. Air, fire, and water, pp. 51, 88, 89. Seasons, p. 51. Sea and land, p. 52. The lynx, p. 79. True friends, p. 57. Attributes of Wisdom, p. 67. Common origin of mankind, p. 74. Soul and body, pp. 91, 97, 114. Sun, moon, and stars, pp. 90, 96, 158, 159. Saturn, pp. 120, 147. The Wain Shafts, p. 146. Collapse of Universe, p. 106. The use of fables, p. 115. The spoken word, p. 27. The threefold soul, p. 90. Growth of trees, p. 103. Instruments and materials for government, p. 41. Race for a crown, p. 130. The deed and the will, p. 127. Proud kings, p. 128. Excess leads to sin, p. 129. Folly and fools, p. 141. The example of great men, p. 163. Grades of intelligence, pp. 171, 172.
Similes and Metaphors. Brook, river, and ocean, pp. 56, 92, 96. Sifting meal, p. 105. Ingot of metal, p. 101. Fire and smoke, p. 136. Woman in travail, p. 76. Light shining through crack in door, p. 110. Children and old men, p. 124. Children’s games, p. 124. The eagle, p. 15. Habits of swine, p. 133. Crash of forest-tree, p. 136. Refining silver, p. 139. Wheel, nave, spokes and fellies, pp. 151, 152. Good seamanship, p. 170. Dung in midden, p. 119. The body and its members, p. 131. Diseased eyes unable to bear light, p. 141. The King with enslaved subjects, p. 166.
We will now place before the reader in chronological order specimens of the English versions of the Consolation of Philosophy that have been made since Alfred’s time. Taken together they give a fair idea of the course of English translation during the last five hundred years. The same passages, both from the prose and the verse, will be given where possible.
Not a single attempt was made, so far as is known, to follow the great King’s example, until nearly five centuries after he wrote his Boethius. The task would have been perhaps too heavy for the English language and for English learning. During these centuries our speech had been as it were in the melting-pot. The old standard West-Saxon, in the political and social ferment that had followed the Norman Conquest, had given place to various provincial dialects as literary media. These in their turn had begun to merge in another standard form, rivalling in vigour and adaptability the Norman stocks from which it took many a graft. This standard English, which at length emerged from the competition of dialects, to last with comparatively slight change to the present day, was largely indebted to the labours of our first great modern poet. Geoffrey Chaucer in the beginning of his literary career devoted much of his time to translation, and felt himself obliged, in the course of his work, to transplant hundreds of Norman-French words into his own tongue. By this means he made English a more complete instrument than he found it; and in his literal translation of the Consolation of Philosophy he laid the foundations of an English philosophical prose. This version, all in prose, swarming with new words, the greater number of which are still in use, is of uncommon interest, as it is the first prose work of the master, and the source of the many allusions to and quotations from Boethius which run through his original poems. A peculiarity of Chaucer’s Boèce lies in the inclusion of glosses or explanatory notes in the text. They are usually introduced by the words ‘That is to say,’ and most of them were derived from the Latin manuscript which Chaucer had before him.
It likeþ me to shewe by subtil songe wiþ slakke and delitable soun of strenges how þat nature myȝty enclineþ and flitteþ gouernementȝ of þinges, and by whiche lawes she purueiable kepiþ þe grete worlde, and how she bindynge restreineþ alle þingus by a bonde þat may nat be vnbounden. Al be it so þat þe liouns of þe contree of pene beren þe faire cheines, and taken metes of þe handes of folk þat ȝeuen it hem, and dreden her sturdy maystres of whiche þei ben wont to suffren betinges, yif þat hir horrible mouþes ben bibled (þat is to sein of bestes devoured), hir corage of tyme passeþ þat haþ ben ydel and rested, repaireþ aȝein, þat þei roren greuously and remembren on hir nature, and slaken hir nekkes from hir cheins vnbounden, and hir maistre first to-teren wiþ blody toþe assaieþ þe woode wraþþes of hem, (þis is to sein þei freten hir maister). And þe iangland brid þat syngiþ on þe heye braunches, (þis is to sein in þe wode), and after is inclosed in a streit cage, al þouȝ þat þe pleiyng besines of men ȝeueþ hem honiede drinkes and large metes wiþ swete studie, ȝit naþeles yif þilke brid skippynge oute of hir streite cage seeþ þe agreable shadewes of þe wodes, she defouleþ wiþ hir fete hir metes yshad, and sekeþ mournyng oonly þe wode, and twitriþ desirynge þe wode wiþ hir swete voys. Þe ȝerde of a tree þat is haled adoun by myȝty strengþe bowiþ redely þe croppe adoun, but yif þat þe hande of hym þat it bent lat it gon aȝein, an oon þe crop lokeþ vp ryȝt to heuene. Þe sonne phebus þat failleþ at euene in þe westrene wawes retorniþ aȝein eftsones his cart by a priue paþe þere as it is wont aryse. Alle þinges seken aȝein in to hir propre cours, and alle þinges reioisen hem of hir retournynge aȝein to hir nature, ne noon ordinaunce nis bytaken to þinges but þat þat haþ ioignynge þe endynge to þe bygynnynge, and haþ makid þe cours of it self stable þat it chaungeth nat from hys propre kynde.
Þan quod she ‘Yif þat a wyȝt be myȝty to moene and goþ vpon hys feet, and anoþer to whom þilke naturel office of feet lakkeþ enforceþ hym to gone crepynge vpon hys handes, whiche of þise two-auȝte to ben holden more myȝty by ryȝt?’ ‘Knyt furþe þe remenaunt,’ quod I. ‘For no wyȝt ne douteþ þat he þat may gone by naturel office of feet ne be more myȝty þan he þat ne may nat.’ ‘But þe souereyne good,’ quod she, ‘þat is euenlyche purposed to þe good folk and to badde, þe good folke seken it by naturel office of uertnes, and þe shrewes enforcen hem to geten it by dyuerse couetise of erþely þinges, whiche þat nis no naturel office to geten þilke same souereyne goode. Trowest þou þat it be any oþer wyse?’ ‘Nay,’ quod I, ‘for þe consequence is open and shewynge of þinges þat I haue graunted: þat nedes goode folk moten ben myȝty, and shrewes feble and vnmyȝty.’ ‘Þou rennest aryȝt byfore me,’ quod she, ‘and þis þe iugement, þat is to seyn; I iuge of þe ryȝt as þise leches ben wont forto hopen of seke folk, whan þei aperceyuen þat nature is redressed and wiþstondeþ to þe maladie.’
Rather more than a generation after Chaucer wrote his Boëce, a metrical version of the De Consolatione was made by one ‘Johannes Capellanus,’ as he is called in the manuscript copies still extant in the British Museum and other libraries. The real name of the translator is, in the Christ Church MS. at Oxford, given as John Walton, Canon of Osney [Oxford], afterwards Sub-dean of York. He is said to have translated the De Consolatione in 1410 at the request of Dame Elizabeth Berkeley. His version was printed for the first and only time in 1525, in The Boke of Comfort at the monastery of Tavistock. The first three books are in eight-line stanzas of the type ababbcbc, and the last two in seven-lined stanzas, Chaucer’s ‘rhyme royal.’ A preface and a historical introduction in verse are prefixed to the whole work, and there is another short proem to the fourth and fifth books. The following lines from the first proem are interesting:—
A century and a half now passed before the next English translation of the Consolation made its appearance. George Colvile, or Coldewel, turned the whole into English prose, and dedicated his book to Queen Mary in 1556. It is literal, and has glosses merged in the text like Chaucer’s version.
It pleaseth me to shew, with a sownynge songe, upon softe strynges, by what raynes or meanes, that is to say: by what naturall inclinacions, myghtie nature ruleth. And by what lawes nature beynge pronydente and circumspecte conserueth and kepythe the hole greate worlde. And by what lawes nature kepeth in and fastenyth all thynges with a fast and sure knot, that cannot be loosed. Althoughe the lions of Libia, haning goodly chaines aboute their neckes doo take mete at their maysters handes, and althoughe they feare their cruell mayster and be wont to suffer beating, yet if the bloud of beastes that the same lyons haue denoured do moist or tast in theyr mouthes, that is to saye: if they once taste bloude: then their corage that before was forgotten for lacke of vse, cometh agayne to his old nature and kynde. And with greet roryng they breke their chaynes from theyr neckes, and fyrste of all their mayster that kept them as tame felyth theyr rauenyng rage, beyng rente into peces with their blody teethe, that is to saye they fyrste kylle their mayster, that kept them. Likewise the syngyng byrde that syngeth vpon the hygh bowghes in the woode, if she be taken and put into a strayte cage, although the dilygent cure of men delytynge in her, geneth her swete drinkes and dyners meates wyth plesaunt labour: yet yf she chaunse to escape out of the strayt cage and seith the plesant shadowes of the woodes, beyng sorye of her strayt kepyng, ouerthrowith her metes and treadeth them vnder her fete and flyethe vnto the woodes, and there syngeth, and warbleth with swete notes and songs. Also the sprigge or bough of a tree by greate vyolence made croked boweth downe the toppe, but when the hand of him that boweth it, letteth it go at lyberte, it holdethe the toppe vpryght towarde heuen, that is to sai: it returnyth to his olde naturall course. The sonne lykewyse that at euen before night fallyth (as the poets faine) into the westerne waters: by a secrete path retourneth his charyot, to his accustomed rysing. So that all thynges naturall do returne and come agayne, to their naturall courses. And all naturall things reioyseth at theyr returne to their owne nature. And nothynge hath any other prescribed order, but that onely that hath ioyned the begynnyng to the ende. And hath so establyshed the worlde of it selfe: that it shall not chaunge from hys naturall course.
Phil. Then if a man beynge myghtye to go vpon his fete walketh, another that lacketh the naturall offyce of hys fete laboureth to go upon his handes. Which of these may iustely be iudged more strong or myghtye? Boe. I say, procede in thy other sayinges, for noo man doughteth but that he that maye go by naturall offyce of his fete, is stronger then he that maye not do the same. Phil. Even soo the soueraygne good before spoken of is shewed indifferently, aswel unto the euyll folke as to the good folke; but the good doo optayne it by the naturall offyce of vertue, and the wycked folke do enforce themselfe to get it by sundry couytous desyres of temporall and worldly thinges, whyche is not the naturall offyce or meane to obteyne good. Dost thou thynke it other wyse? Boe. No truly, for the thyng, that is the consequence, is manyfest. And of these thinges that I haue graunted, it is necessarye, that good folke be myghtye, and euyll folke vnmyghtye and weake. Phil. Thou sayest right, and it is a sygne or iudgement that nature is recouered in the, and resisteth the dyssease, as the phisicions be wonte to hope of the paciente and sycke folke.
In the Public Record Office in London there is a manuscript containing an English metrical version of all the carmina of the first book of the De Consolatione and the first two of the second book, made about 1563 by Sir Thomas Challoner, Ambassador to the Low Countries in 1559-60, and to Spain in 1561-65. These renderings in a variety of metres are so spirited as to make us wish Sir Thomas had translated the whole of the metres, as he says he was willing to do, if the burdensome duties of his office had allowed him. He also alludes to a prose version of the Consolation recently made, doubtless Colvile’s.
The first great English king had thought the translation of Boethius’ work a labour well worth the doing; it now remained for the first great English queen to follow his example. Queen Elizabeth, amid the countless preoccupations of her high estate, found time to translate the Consolations of Philosophy at Windsor, and several other Latin works, in the year 1593. The manuscript in which the royal version is preserved in the Record Office is partly in the Queen’s handwriting, the rest being written by a scribe to whom she dictated. In this MS. several persons bear witness that the Queen finished the work in an extraordinarily short space of time, twenty-five to twenty-seven hours of actual work, spread over a month, taking out Sundays, holidays, and absences from Windsor; the rate of work being one and a half to two hours a day. There may be some courtier’s exaggeration about this. The translation is fairly accurate and very literal, and the Queen’s spelling is remarkably untrammelled, as may be seen from the first specimen, which is written in her own handwriting in the MS.1
‘Yf any man then that can go, and an other to whom the naturall propertie of the feete is wanting, stryving with his handes, stryves so to walke, which of these ij suppose you more worth?’ ‘Perform the rest if that you will, for no man doutes but he is more of force that hath the vse of nature, than he that wantes it.’ ‘But the greatest good,’ said she, ‘that is set before yll and good, the good desyre by naturall duty of vertue, the other by a scatterd desyre, and stryue to get that which is no proper gift, to such as will obtayne the greatest good. Dost thou think the contrary?’ ‘No,’ quoth I, ‘for that is playne that followes. For heerby may we gather that I graunted afore, good men to be mighty, and yll men weake.’ ‘Rightly hast thou discourst, And so, as phisicians ought to hope, that it is a signe of a helthy and Resisting Nature.’
The next version, written by a certain ‘J. T.,’ was printed in London in 1609 for Matthew Lownes, as the title-page tells us. The book is dedicated to the Countess of Dorset. The metres are in terza rima.
Wherefore if one, that can go vpon his feete, doeth walke, and another, who hath not this naturall function of his feete, endeuoureth to walke by creeping vpon his hands: which of these two is deseruedly to be esteemed the stronger? Inferre the rest (quoth I) for no man doubteth, but that hee which can vse that naturall function is stronger then he which cannot. But (quoth she) the good seeke to obtaine the chiefest good, which is equally proposed to badde and good, by the naturall function of vertues, but the euill endeuour to obtaine the same by diuers concupiscences, which are not the natural function of obtaining goodnesse. Thinkest thou otherwise? No (quoth I) for it is manifest, what followeth. For by force of that which I haue already granted, it is necessary, that good men are powerful, and euil men weake. Thou runnest rightly (quoth she) and it is (as Physitions are wont to hope) a token of an erected and resisting nature.
In 1664 appeared a free metrical version of the whole work, the prose being rendered in eight-syllable rhyming couplets (the metre of Hudibras), and the verse in quatrains of a peculiar metre, a8b6a8b8. This was written by Harry Coningsby, a Royalist. The copy in the British Museum has a dedication, in the translator’s handwriting, to Sir Thomas Hyde.
In 1674, at Oxford, there appeared a version by ‘A Lover of Truth and Virtue,’ printed for Richard Davis. The rendering of Boethius Book iii. metr. 2, is not given here, being copied directly from the version of 1609 (see above).
If any one then should Go on his Feet, and another, who wants this Natural Office of Feet, should endeavour to Go on his Hands, who of these might be rightly judg’d to be the more Able man? Proceed, said I, for it is unquestionable, that he who has a Power to perform those Actions, which Nature requires, has more Strength than he, who is not Able so to do. But the soveraign Good, which All men Aim at, Good, and Bad, Good men Attein unto by the Natural Office of Virtues, but the Wicked earnestly after this very Good by gratifying their various Lusts, and unruly Affections, which is not the Office that Nature requires us to perform, that we may Attein to the True Good. Dost thou think otherwise? No surely, said I: the Consequence also is very clear. For from what I have granted, it must of necessity follow that Good men are Powerful, that Wicked men are altogether Feeble, and Impotent. Thou dost well, quoth she, thus to run before me; and this, as Phisitians are wont to hope, is a sign that Nature gathers Strength, and begins to resist the Disease.
In 1695, a version was published in London, made by Richard, Lord Viscount Preston. He mentions in his preface the version of Chaucer, that of 1609, and that of 1674. In his verses we find an irregular metre, then much in vogue.
Ph. If then he who is able to use his Feet walks, and if another to whom this natural Office of the Feet is wanting, creeping upon his Hands, doth endeavour to walk, which of these, by right, ought to be esteemed more able? Bo. Proceed with what remains; for no one doubteth but he who is able to move naturally upon his Feet, is more powerful than he who cannot. Ph. But the Sovereign Good, which even the Vertuous and Impious propose to themselves as their End, by the one Party is sought by the natural means of Vertue, whilst the other endeavours after it by various and differing Desires of earthly things, which is not the natural way of obtaining it; dost thou think otherwise? Bo. No; for the Consequence is plain, and it appears out of that which before I granted, which was, that the Good were endowed with Power and Might, and that the evil Men were destitute of it Ph. Thou dost rightly run before me; and it is a good Sign, as Physicians observe, when Nature exerts herself, and resists the Malady.
During the eighteenth century there appeared four versions, none of which show more than moderate merit, and a few lines from the verse in each case will suffice as a specimen.
By William Causton, London, 1730, in heroic couplets.
By the Rev. Philip Ridpath, Nonconformist minister, who alludes in his dedicatory epistle to the translations by King Alfred and Queen Elizabeth, and gives a Life of Boethius. London, 1785. He uses the octosyllabic couplet, much affected by Nonconformists of his day.
By Robert Duncan, who employs the blank verse that his countryman Thompson had made fashionable again, Edinburgh, 1789.
An anonymous translation of the verses of Boethius, in octosyllabic quatrains, with the Latin printed opposite, and a translation of Peter Berty’s preface, appeared in 1792, London.
The last translation of the Consolations into English was made by H. R. James, London, 1897.
[1 ]See Introduction to the Clarendon Press edition of King Alfred’s Boethius.
[1 ]Printed by the Early English Text Society.
Last modified April 10, 2014