King Alfred: the father of English Prose

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     Anglo-Saxon prose is of much later origin than poetry and is rather poor in quality and quantity. This is natural, for prose implies a certain measure of civilization; it is the achievement of civilization. But poetry is as old as man. The object of prose is to instruct and inform and not to move. The prose writing of Anglo-Saxons show a tendency towards observance of the rules of ordinary speech. It is business-like, simple and straight - quite unlike the style of old English poetry. Hence this prose is much nearer to modern literature than the poetry.

Alfred the Great
King Alfred

      King Alfred (c. 849) is justly claimed to be the "father of English prose". When he came to the throne of Wessex in 871, the English learning suffered a great deal due to the repeated raids of the Danes. Monasteries had been destroyed, books had been burnt, clerks had forgotten their Latin. The monks had written in Latin, which was unintelligible to the masses. When King Alfred set to writing there was a lamentable state of learning even among the monks. The knowledge of Latin had steadily declined. Hence after establishing peace and order in the country after the ravages of the Danes, he applied himself to the task of nurturing the mental life of the people. He is the pioneer of popular education. For this purpose he set down to increase the volume of English literature and superintended the translation of many Latin books in English prose. This is his contribution to English literature. He himself had done much of the work. The five important translations either done by himself or under his guidance are Pastoral Care ot Pope Gregory, the History of the World of Orosius, Bede's Ecclesiastical History, Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy and The Soliloquies of St. Augustine. As he himselt had saia, he "translates word by word, sometimes meaning of meaning' Although the literal translation had the most formative influence on prose, it is the free translations which are more interesting. He freely introduces original passages of his own by way of explanation or expansion and in these he attains to a certain originality. His style for the most part is simple, clean and straighttorward and has a charm of literary skill.

      The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was inspired and sponsored by Alfred who himself dictated some of the passages that deal particularly with his own campaigns. It is extant in several manuscripts. The narrative is continued till after the Norman conquest up to the death of King Stephen. This is the most important landmark of Anglo-Saxon prose. Thus Alfred's services to the native language are precious; he did much to make the native language known and loved by the people at large.

      Another prose writer is Ælfric, who became abbot of Eynsham in 1005. His Catholic Homilies, a series of sermons suitable for delivery by the clergy, Lives of Saints, and translations from the Scriptures are his principal works. The abbreviated version in Anglo-Saxon of the first seven books of the Old Testament entitle him to the claim of being the first translator of the Bible in English. His style is flowing and vigorous, natural and easy. The Homilies are the excellent examples of ornate and eloquent Old English prose. Ælfric took Alfred as his model, but his prose style is no longer the gossipy, colloquialism of Alfred. In his hands, English prose acquired a literary dignity. He freed the English prose from Latin syntax which characterises the prose of Alfred. The prose of Ælfric is poetic in its cadence and often alliterative. Ælfric is the master of prose in all its forms.

      Another writer is Wulfstan, who was the Archbishop of York from 1002 to 1023. His homilies are extant. The country was then suffering from the ills of Danish invasion and with deep feeling the homilist deplores the irreligion of the people for which they were suffering so much. Sermo Lupi is his most famous homily. Its language has rich colour and lively tones. It is alliterative in style like the old English poetry. The homily is a fluent and powerful piece of pulpit oratory. Wulfstan's prose is much more forceful than that of Ælfric. His style is fertile in concrete illustrations, and he avoids the subtle symbolism of Ælfric s style. His sentences are long but they have lucidity. He heaps synonym on synonym and clause upon clause. His style is that of the rhetorician than that of the philosopher. He speaks with prophetic eloquence and zeal.

      Anglo-Saxon prose is much nearer than the poetry to moden English. The poetry was archaic retaining obsolete words and expressions and the alliterative periphrases of the past. The prose was either the speech in daily use or modelled on the Latin which was the universal language of educated Europe, and thus put all scholars on an equal plane. With the Danish invasion and then with the Norman conquest of England, Anglo-Saxon literature suffered an eclipse. Poetry was almost destroyed; prose, on the contrary in spite of changes remained recognisable, and suffered no break with the past.

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