Alfred in the Neatherd's Cottage: History Painting and Epic Poetry in the Early Nineteenth Century
Harvey, A. D., Philological Quarterly
In 1766 the German dramatist and critic Gotthold Ephraim Lessing warned in his essay Laokoon against over-emphasizing apparent similarities between the arts of poetry and painting, and his views have been restated more uncompromisingly by modern critics. (1) Nevertheless the sheer number of epic poems and history paintings, often on the same theme, produced in western Europe in the five decades following Lessing's death makes it tempting to suppose that there was some sort of underlying conception common to the work of both poets and painters. (2) Both epic poetry and history painting enjoyed a particular vogue in this period. In France the depiction in the grand manner of scenes from French history was sponsored by the comte d'Angiviller, Louis XVI's Directeur des Batiments from 1774 onward; after 1800 Napoleon made sure that events of his own reign were similarly celebrated by the leading painters of the day, both French and Italian. In Britain Benjamin West, having established his reputation as a history painter with his The Death of Wolfe, was patronized by George III and in 1792 elected to succeed Sir Joshua Reynolds as President of the Royal Academy. Official encouragement of epic poetry was less direct, though one notes that epic poets of the period included junior ministers like James Bland Burges and Richard Wharton, court officials like Goethe and state councillors like Anders Frederik Skjoldebrand, but one way of looking at the artistic and literary culture of this period as a whole is in terms of a kind of division, perhaps even competition, between a neo-classicism that emphasized participation in the public sphere and the celebration of public events in a style self-consciously derived from the classics, and a romanticism which involved a retreat from, even a rejection of, the public sphere in favor of self-contemplation and an immersion in nature and local traditions, and if this distinction is held valid, epic poetry will be seen to fall very much on the neo-classical, public-sphere-oriented side of the divide. (3) Since certain topics were almost equally favored as subjects for history painting and epic poetry it is worth investigating what it was in these topics that attracted both painters and poets.
One theme that was notably popular with practitioners of the two sister arts was King Alfred, the ninth-century King of the West Saxons, the only English monarch to have been accorded the title "The Great." (4) Born in 849, Alfred succeeded his elder brother AEthelred as King of the West Saxons in 871 at a time when invading Danes seemed at the point of conquering the whole of England. After a number of battlefield reverses and a period of guerrilla warfare directed from a base in the marshes of Somersetshire, Alfred vanquished the Danes at the Battle of Edington in 878 and established a peace which left him in control of England south of a line running from London to Chester, a territory which had to be defended when war with the Danes flared up again in the 890s. Probably the first English king to be able to read and write, Alfred translated the first fifty psalms and Boethius's De Consolatione Philosophiae into Anglo-Saxon, sponsored the compilation of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, drew up a code of laws, encouraged the spiritual education of the clergy, and organized a navy. Though he never enjoyed the legendary, almost mythic status of Charlemagne, who had reigned less than a century earlier and whose great-granddaughter was the Saxon king's stepmother, Alfred benefited from being relatively well-documented by contemporaries, notably Asser, a member of his household, whose life of Alfred is the earliest known biography of an English layman.
Though all but forgotten during the Middle Ages, with the growth of antiquarian interest in Anglo-Saxon antiquities from the sixteenth century onwards Alfred assumed an increasingly important role in Englishmen's perception of their national identity. The first, short, modern biography, Robert Powell's The Life of Alfred or Alvred: The First Instituter of Subordinate Government in this Kingdome and Refounder of the University of Oxford (London, 1634), was published together with a Parallel of our Soveraigne Lord K. Charles until the year 1634, testifying to the potential topicality of a historical figure whose "noble minde," according to John Milton a few years later, "renderd him the miror of Princes." (5) Milton himself, though contemplating "offering at high strains in new and lofty Measures to sing and celebrate thy divine Mercies and marvellous Judgements in this Land throughout all AGES," thought not of Alfred as a possible protagonist but of "Arthur, who carried war even into fairyland." Later in the seventeenth century John Dryden too wished to devote himself to "a Work which would have taken up my Life in the Performance of it," but "intended chiefly for the Honor of my native Country, to which a poet is particularly oblig'd," but was undecided between Edward the Black Prince as a possible subject and "King Arthur, conquering the Saxons, which, being farther distant in Time, gives the greater Scope to my Invention." (6) It was not perhaps till the publication in 1709 of an English translation of Sir John Spelman's scholarly biography of Alfred, originally written in Latin in the 1630s, that a wider public had access to the details of Alfred's career and historical achievement, and even then Sir Richard Blackmore's Alfred: An Epick Poem in Twelve Books (London, 1723), though citing Spelman's work as a source, gives scant attention to recorded events and deals mainly with Alfred's supposed experiences on the Continent prior to his return to England to confront the Danes. (7) This poem was dedicated to King George I's grandson, Prince Frederick, then aged sixteen. Frederick later commissioned a number of statues and busts of Alfred, at least one with the inscription "the Founder of the Liberties and Commonwealth of England," though he also announced his intention of making the fourteenth-century warrior prince, Edward, the Black Prince, "the pattern of his own conduct." As well as the statues and busts, Prince Frederick commissioned a masque by James Thomson and David Mallet featuring Alfred as a fugitive in the Somersetshire marshes. This was first performed at Cliveden in 1740 to celebrate the anniversary of the Hanoverian succession and the third birthday of Frederick's daughter Augusta. (8) The public performance in 1750 of this masque, revised, according to David Mallet, to make Alfred "what he should have been at first, the principal figure in his own Masque," contributed to Alfred's growing popular stature as a key historical figure as well as introducing to the public what later became Britain's National Anthem. Another devotee of Alfred was the Tory banker Henry Hoare who in 1762 had a 155-foot high brick tower designed by Henry Flitcroft built at Stourhead in Wiltshire, "in memory of King Alfred, who, on the spot it stands upon, erected his standard in the year 871 to make head against the Danes;" he also commissioned a full-length statue of Alfred to go over the door and a bust of the Saxon king by Michael Rysbrack which still survives, and which probably resembled a pair of busts of Alfred which Rysbrack had executed for Prince Frederick thirty years previously and which are now lost. (9) By now Alfred was making routine appearances in reference books such as William Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England (1766-69), which acknowledged "his mighty genius," and the first edition of The Encyclopaedia Britannica (1768), which noted that "all our historians agree in distinguishing him as one of the most valiant, wisest and best of kings that ever reigned in England." Alfred, "a prince of the most exalted merit that ever graced the English throne," also featured in an anonymous but influential Historical Essay on the English Constitution which claimed that "the Saxon form of government which was founded on the common rights of man" had been overthrown by the Norman Conquest and that ever since, "our arbitrary kings, and men of arbitrary principles, have endeavoured to destroy the few remaining records and historical facts that might keep in remembrance a form of government so kind, so friendly, and hospitable, to the human species." (10)
Alfred was introduced to a continental readership by Albrecht von Haller's historical romance, Alfred, Konig der Angel-Sachsen (1773), based mainly on Spelman, and a new biography, by Alexander Bicknell, appeared in 1777: in the dedication Alfred was described as "the most judicious Lawgiver that ever flourished in this island." (11) The frontispiece was a portrait of Alfred engraved by Joseph Collyer from an imaginary portrait owned by University College, Oxford University's oldest college, allegedly founded by Alfred himself, and was accompanied by a vignette of the neatherd's wife scolding the fugitive Alfred for allowing her cakes to burn, a story that had appeared in all the eighteenth century's standard histories of England, Rapin's, Hume's, Smollett's, and Goldsmith's. (12) (Oddly enough the story does not appear in Bicknell's blank verse drama The Patriot King: or, Alfred and Elvida, written in 1778 but not published till 1788.) Another anecdote of Alfred's life, which appears in Rapin, Smollett, Hume, and Goldsmith, but not in Asser, has the King reconnoitring the Danish camp disguised as a minstrel. The notion that his reason for doing so was not a need for military intelligence but a lover's hope of learning of the whereabouts of a sweetheart named Ethelswida or Ethelswitha was popularized in Britain by John Home's tragedy Alfred (1777). In the preface to the printed text Home accepted the criticism that "the character of Alfred, in the Tragedy, does not agree with the character of Alfred in History: 'That the Hero, the Legislator, is degraded to a Lover, who enters the Danish camp, from a private, not a public motive, and acts the part of an impostor.'" Although the play was a top on the stage it influenced later authors. (13) Alfred's main celebrity however was as a political icon. From the 1780s onwards his name was regularly used as a signature by pamphleteers on the progressive--or at least anti-ministerialist--side of British politics; but one of the characteristics of the period was that government supporters simply refused to acknowledge that their mainstream critics actually represented any sort of rival or alternative political tradition. (14) A rather neat instance of this is the use of Alfred as a name for a warship. The first such vessel was fitted out by rebel American merchants about the time of the Declaration of Independence. This Alfred, a flag-carrier for civil rights and the tradition of individual liberty, was captured in March 1778 by the British, whom the Alfred's crew saw as representing arbitrary principles, and re-commissioned in the Royal Navy without a change of name; but a few months later a seventy-four-gun ship of the line was christened Alfred at its launching at Chatham (and in due course played an insignificant part in the Battle of the First of June, 1794). (15) The name Alfred was also given by King George III to his fourteenth child, born in 1780: also not a conspicuous success as the little boy died in infancy.
When Joseph Cottle's epic Alfred, in Twenty-four Books appeared in 1800, the Gentleman's Magazine remarked:
It is not a little surprizing, that, whilst some of our first-rate poets resorted to fabulous times for heroes, &c. Alfred should have escaped their notice. D'Urfey's Historical Ballad of Alfred is the only piece of English verse in which that monarch is celebrated till Mr. Cottle hit upon one of the most fruifful subjects in out own or perhaps any other language. (16)
This, as well as being unfair to Blackmore, Mallet, Bicknell, Home and obscurer versifiers such as Robert Holmes, author of Alfred, an Ode (1778), necessarily failed to take account of epic projects begun earlier than Cottle's and either given up or else still at the stage of being polished. James Montgomery, later a prolific and rather successful poet--and author of an epic on the subject of The World Before the Flood--wrote two out of an intended twenty books of a poem on the wars of Alfred in 1786, when aged fifteen: it was "to consist of a series of Pindaric odes, in which the story was to be developed, the youthful poet conceiving it possible to unite the orderly sublimity and magnificence of the of the epic with the glowing enthusiasm exhibited in the two grand odes of Dryden." (17) Within the next half-dozen years the Poet Laureate Henry James Pye also began an epic poem on Alfred but seems to have broken off when appointed a metropolitan police magistrate (a post somewhat more remunerative than the Laureateship); the poem was eventually published soon after, and to some extent in competition with, Cottle's longer poem and in his Dedication Pye explained that it had been "originally composed when I had more leisure for literary pursuits" but that it had been kept by him to "transcribe, alter and correct, and that for a period nearly equal to the time prescribed by Horace." (18) Two other poems on Alfred that were to have a long gestation, one of which was never published, and the other only after the author's death, may also have been begun before Cottle's Alfred appeared. Michael Thomas Sadler, later a Member of Parliament and a prominent social reformer, began "an epic poem on the national subject of the deeds of Alfred" while starting out in business in Leeds in the 1800s: James Montgomery supplies the plausible detail that it was "written in imitation of the style of Pope's version of Homer," and also claims, much less plausibly, that Sadler was offered two thousand guineas for the copyright. (19) In 1808 John Fitchett, a successful Warrington attorney, began publishing sections of an epic on Alfred which eventually became the longest poem in western literature: 131,000 lines in forty-eight books totalling nearly three thousand pages of smallish print: more than nine rimes longer than Cottle's Alfred, which itself may have been thought over-long by many readers.
Alfred was also the protagonist of Charles Hubert Millevoye's last complete work, Alfred, roi d'Angleterre (1815) and Richard Payne Knight's Alfred: A Romance in Rhyme (1823), which, though dealing chiefly with fictitious incidents, contained the now customary tribute to Alfred as the founder of English liberties:
Again shall favouring Heaven befriend his cause, And fix in adamant great Alfred's laws. Yes! The proud fabric, which his hand shall nurse, Shall stand, the wonder of all future days; And endless gratitude, in endless fame, From happy millions bless the founder's name. (20)
Alfred appeared again in two out of five books of James Bird's mini-epic The Vale of Slaughden (1818). Perhaps one should also mention John Thelwall's The Trident of albion, an Epic Effusion (1805) which evoked "Britain's best boast, immortal ALFRED! ... / His country's truest Father! At whose name / What knee not bows?--what head is not inclin'd / In patriot adoration?" This "epic effusion" only runs to 246 lines, but Thelwall's Homeric ambitions are indicated by an incomplete epic on Edwin of Northumbria entitled The Hope of Albion which was sedulously touted as "this National, and, as it may be called, Constitutional Epic," but which was never published in its entirety, perhaps never completed. (21)
Though epic poems were very numerous in this period, few of them were popular with readers: Cottle's Alfred, with new editions in 1804, 1816, and 1850 (and an American edition, presumably pirated, in 1814) was one of the more commercially successful ones. "Poor Alfred!" exclaimed Cottle's friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge, not inclined to be impressed: it is quite possible that the subject matter was the chief factor in the poem's relative success, and it is worth noting that Cottle was himself a publisher (responsible for the first edition of Lyrical Ballads in 1798), and had practice in assessing a potential market. (22) The artists who chose King Alfred as a theme were in many cases considerably more distinguished than their literary counterparts. Samuel Wale drew Alfred making a code of laws, dividing the Kingdom into counties and encouraging the arts and sciences, and also Alfred capturing the Dane's raven standard, in 1771. Benjamin West painted him sharing his family's last loaf with a pilgrim while his family looked on with barely repressed consternation, in 1777-78. Richard Westall depicted two scenes from the hero's childhood, Prince Alfred before Pope Leo III (1794), and Queen Judith Reciting to Alfred the Great, When a Child, the Songs of the Bards, Describing the Heroic Deeds of his Ancestors (1799). An act of mercy (probably apocryphal) later in Alfred's life was celebrated in Henry Singleton's Alfred Liberating the Family of Hastings (1798), and Henry Pierce Bone's The Wives and Sons of Hastings the Danish Chief Brought Prison before King Alfred (1814). A very Roman-looking Alfred in the Danish camp was drawn up by John Thurston for the ten-volume octavo edition of Hume's History published by R. Scholey in 1818. The burning of the cakes whilst a fugitive was shown in Edward Edwards's "Alfred in the Neat-herd's Cottage," published in the Copper Plate Magazine in 1776, Francis Wheatley's painting Alfred in the Neatherd's Cottage (1795), David Wilkie's Alfred Reprimanded by the Neatherd's Wife (1806), and a picture by Arthur William Devis engraved as the frontispiece to the 1808 edition of Henry James Pye's Alfred. The Swedish painter Elias Martin exhibited a ten by fourteen foot canvas depicting Alfred--doing what is not recorded--in 1800. (23)
Wheatley's and Singleton's pictures, and Richard Westall's picture of Prince Alfred kneeling before the Pope, were commissioned by Robert Bowyer to accompany a deluxe folio edition of David Hume's History of England which eventually appeared in 1806: this edition also contained yet another rendering of the University College portrait, this time by William Skehon, together with a vignette showing Alfred attended by allegorical figures of Time and the Arts and a youth holding up an architectural plan, while the spire of St Mary the Virgin, the Radcliffe Camera and one of Hawkesmoor's towers at All Souls emerge from a cloud in the background. It cannot be said their contributions to Bowyer's project were among the best efforts either of Wheatley, who is best remembered for his "Cries of London" series, or of Westall, who was elected to the Royal Academy before he was thirty and was regarded by Richard Payne Knight as "equal to Raphael and Rubens united." (24) Wilkie on the other hand advanced his reputation with Alfred Reprimanded by the Neatherd's Wife, though one does wonder why both he and Wheatley depicted the fugitive king dressed in what seem to be white silk drawers. (25) West, of course, was President of the Royal Academy for even longer than his predecessor, Sir Joshua Reynolds, and for much longer than any of his successors, and according to one fellow academician "lived and died in the belief that he was the greatest painter that had ever appeared on the face of the earth": his Alfred the Great Dividing His Loaf with a Pilgrim, coming comparatively early in his career, had brought him favorable publicity, having been purchased for a City Livery Company and engraved by William Sharp. (26)
It is notoriously difficult to do justice even to a 400-page novel in a two-hour feature film: one cannot expect a painter's depiction of a single scene to cover all the ground of a 131,000 line narrative poem. Audiences might nevertheless look for some sort of consonance in style or mood: although Henry Fuseli used Lessing's ideas in a Royal Academy lecture in 1801, Laokoon was not translated into English (and then only in part) till the mid-1820s and the standard view in England in the 1800s continued to be the one Lessing objected to, which emphasized the similarity, not the divergence, of poetry and painting. (27) The art patron Sir George Beaumont seemed to take this view when he told Wilkie: "You will recollect that much glory surrounds the character of Alfred--that any situation, however mean in itself, receives dignity from him: the story, if I may so express myself, should be told in blank verse." In his reply however Wilkie emphasized an aspect that is at the very heart of the dissimilarity of painting and poetry:
I am perfectly sensible of the difficulties I have to encounter in representing the king in the habit of a peasant, for it has been observed that painters even of eminence have had more assistance from the outward display of rich robes and jewels in giving dignity to their characters, than from any intrinsic greatness they had in themselves ... It will however be necessary for me in the present instance to contrast the cottagers as much with Alfred as may prevent him from being mistaken for one of the family. (28)
It is not simply that a written text is in direct contrast to a visual representation in giving more prominence to what characters say or think than to what they wear: the sequential nature of written narrative means that the assumption by a king of the identity of a yokel will relate dramatically to previous or subsequent passages in which he appears in his royal character. In the case of Alfred in the neatherd's cottage there was an additional complication in that it was unclear whether the neatherd's wife knew the identity of the young man who had let her cakes burn. Describing how Alfred sought refuge with the two country-folk, Spelman states, "Whether as a Souldier only, and unknown, or whether as King and known unto the Neatherd himself, appeareth not," whereas Smollett, following a footnote in Rapin's History that described the neatherd as "One belonging to him," wrote that Alfred "engaged in the service of his own cowherd"--"cowherd" being the more normal term for what in the Alfred legend is almost always called a "neatherd." (29) The point is, if the neatherd's wife was ignorant of Alfred's true identity the situation may be seen as similar to other depictions of fallen greatness such as Marius amongst the ruins of Carthage, also a favorite theme for paintings in this period, whilst if the wife did know Alfred's identity there would be a rather sharper political point, regarding the comprehensive uselessness of kings who have managed to lose their kingdoms. (30) Wilkie seems not to have been aware of these alternative possibilities, and in their poems Cottle, Pye and Fitchett assumed the neatherd's wife did not know who Alfred was. (In West's King Alfred Dividing his Loaf with a Pilgrim, Alfred's kingly identity is emphasized as part of the drama: Alfred has an ermine-edged robe draped over his arm and lap and falling negligently on the floor, and his crown is close to hand.)
Though no doubt superior to Wheatley's rendering of the same scene, Wilkie's Alfred Reprimanded by the Neatherd's Wife was not entirely successful in its handling of the problem of visually portraying disguised greatness, and perhaps its real interest, along with the depictions of Edwards, Collyer, Wheatley, and Devis, was the emphasis given to the same incident by writers. Already the subject of a juvenile poem published in 1787 by Charlotte Elizabeth Sanders, it featured in Cottle's Alfred:
ACCA perceiv'd full oft the wayward man Pursuing fancies wild, indifferent grown, To each accustomed charge of household sort Committed to him. Often, bitter words She heaped, and hard reproaches ... "There on his wicker chair he sat, his eyes Fix'd on the floor, his knife beside, while near Lay many a half-formed bow. But sad to tell! My cakes, for thy return, prepared to show A wife's affection, lay involved in smoke! Burnt to a coal...."
Hence oft, with flippant tongue, the busy dame The reckless stranger's apathy would blame, Who careless let the flames those viands waste, His ready hunger ne'er refused to taste,
and in Fitchett's version too. (31) The young Alfred being encouraged to read by his stepmother became something of a favorite topos a little later: the incident is mentioned neither in the text nor in the notes of the first editions of Cottle's Alfred (written about the time of the first exhibition of Westall's Queen Judith Reciting to Alfred the Great). But in the third edition of 1816 a revised footnote repeats Asser's account of Judith encouraging her stepsons to learn to read by proposing to give a book of Anglo-Saxon poems to the first boy that learnt to read it, and this incident is dealt with at some length in Fitchett's Alfred. (32)
Both the paintings and the epic poems about Alfred emphasize his reflective, domestic, intellectual side, rather than his persona as a war leader. It is not actually known if Alfred was a distinguished warrior in the way Harold II or, later still, Richard I or Robert I of Scotland undoubtedly were: he seems to have been frequently unwell from a chronic inflammation of the bowels, and the cognomen of one of the Danish leaders opposed to him, Ivarr Beinlausi, Ivarr the Boneless, though it has never been explained, does rather suggest that one of the most active directors of the Danish onslaught was gruesomely crippled, perhaps even unable to stand, so that it may be that prominence in the forefront of battle was not actually a necessary qualification for leadership in the ninth century. None of the pictures of Alfred so far mentioned show Alfred actually wielding a weapon, other than the bow which he is shaping in Wilkie's painting; even Samuel Wale's Alfred taking the Danish Standard shows him without weapons or armor, though a shield and helmet are visible on the ground and some of the other figures have swords; in Singleton's Alfred Liberating the Family of Hastings, Alfred wears late thirteenth-century style armour and one can see the hilt of his sword at his side, but Singleton seems to have thought this was the normal everyday dress of medieval royalty. The same view of Alfred appears later in the nineteenth century, in such paintings as Richard Dadd's Alfred the Great Reflecting on the Misfortune of his Country (1840), Alfred Stevens's King Alfred and his Mother (1848), Daniel Maclise's Alfred, the Saxon King disguised as a Minstrel in the Tent of Guthrum the Dane (1852), and in Frederick Scott Archer's statue of Alfred the Great with the Book of Common Law in Westminster Hall (1844). The different sensibility of the Victorian period, however, which preferred to see Alfred as a Christian hero combating pagan invasion with a weapon in his hand, is epitomized in the three best-known portrayals of the Saxon king: George Frederick Watts's prize winning Alfred Inciting the English to Resist the Danes (1847), in the House of Commons, which depicts Alfred sword in hand as he directs his followers to launch one of the Royal Navy's first ships; Count Gleichen's statue at Wantage (1877), which shows Alfred grasping a scroll in one hand and the handle of his battle-axe in the other, and Hamo Thornycroft's eighteen-foot-high statue at Winchester (1901), which shows Alfred triumphantly raising aloft a sword held by its blade so that the hilt and cross-guard appear as a cross. This is a quite different Alfred from the one celebrated in the early nineteenth century.
The early nineteenth century's underplaying of the martial and military aspects of Alfred's career was paralleled in its treatment of other historical protagonists. There is exactly the same emphasis on the non-military side of the life of Charlemagne in the epic poems and paintings that appeared about the time of the thousandth anniversary of his death in 814, thirty-five years before the birth of Alfred. Camuccini painted him summoning Italian and German scholars to found the University of Paris, Charles Meynier showed him ordering the consecration of the church of Saint Denis, and a little later Johann Michael Mettenleiter showed him having old songs read out to him. Lucien Bonaparte's epic on Charlemagne is subtitled "l'Eglise Delivree"--the church rescued--while Friedrich de la Motte Fouque's Karls des Grossen Geburt und Jugendjahre deals with his upbringing. In fact if one analyzes the epic poetry of the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth centuries one finds that the favored protagonists were not great warriors as such but great nation-builders: Alfred (seven epics), Charlemagne (five epics), Peter the Great of Russia (five epics not counting Mikhail Lomonsov's 1186-line "mini-epic" of 1760 and Charles Abbot's Oxford University prize poem "Petrus Magnus" of 1777), Gustav Vasa of Sweden (five epics). (33) Perhaps one should also include Moses, after Christ the most popular biblical subject, with at least six epics. (34) Of the five historical personages Wordsworth considered as protagonists for a possible epic poem in the first Book of The Prelude, four were associated with a national tradition of resistance to oppression and the fifth devoted himself to avenging a massacre.
Fame or notoriety as such had little appeal. Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and (in England at least) Oliver Cromwell were household names, but Alexander was celebrated only in in one short epic of fewer than 3,000 lines, Nepomucene Louis Lemercier's Alexandre (1800), which begins disapprovingly: "Je chante ce guerrier de la race d'Alcide / Qui, soumettant l'Asie a son gloire homicide ..." Oliver Cromwell inspired anti-establishment plays by Balzac and Victor Hugo--the former not published till 1925--but no epics, and a common view of him was that expressed in a fictional work, Memoirs of Oliver Cromwell and his Children, which described him as having a leading part in the "Grand Rebellion against the amiable, but unfortunate, Charles the First, and which ended in the infamous murder of that Prince, and the total overthrow of the Constitution." (35) Julius Caesar, also disdained by epic poets, featured in a celebrated canvas by Vincenzo Camuccini, which showed him as a tyrant and usurper being butchered by patriotic senators. In fact the only military leader to be a frequent subject for epics primarily as a military leader is one whose actual military role is as unclear as that of Ivarr the Boneless: Joan of Arc. Though the earliest of the Joan of Arc poems in this period was an anti-nationalist anti-epic by the English writer Robert Southey, published in December 1795 by none other than Joseph Cottle, the other authors (Pierre Dumensnil, Louis Antoine Francois Marchangy, Habert de Bourdeaux, Pierre Caze, Le Brun de Charmettes, Alexandre Soumet) were Frenchmen who were writing in the period after the fall of Napoleon and who evidently found in Joan of Arc an emphatically nationalist theme that was agreeably remote from recent national humiliations and embodied an endorsement of hereditary monarchy without any excessive identification with the newly restored Bourbons, in that Joan's Charles VII belonged to the earlier Valois dynasty: one notes too that reprintings of Voltaire's early eighteenth-century epic L'Henriade, about Henri IV, the first Bourbon King of France, were also particularly numerous after the Bourbon restoration. (36)
Europe was at peace for only about three years in the period 1791-1815: in Britain, where the successive wars seemed to run into one another to forma single "Great War with France," the almost endless hostilities were seen as "the most extensive and expensive war that ever raged," and "unprecedented in the annals of the world." The Earl of Liverpool, who led Britain to final victory over Napoleon, later asked rhetorically, "Who contemplated the character of the late war could for a moment think of comparing the events of that war, and the state of things growing out of it, with the events and effects of any former war?" (37) This was a moral and political crisis on the scale of the Second World War, prolonged to almost four times the Second World War's duration. The sheer burden of the war in fiscal, economic, social, and psychic terms challenged the most basic assumptions about the nature of government and the relationship between governors and governed. Yet even after twenty-two years of struggle and disaster most of the issues were still essentially those that had preoccupied the politically aware more than two decades earlier, and to a large extent related to developments apparent from the mid-eighteenth century onward, with the French Revolution and the moral, intellectual and political upheavals that followed no more than stages of a continentwide movement towards the rethinking and modernization of institutions. Napoleon, law-maker, administrative reformer, and dreamer when not a soldier and a conqueror, was not an aberration but an epitome of his times. The emphasis on the hero as nation-builder, as exemplified in the epic poems and history paintings dealing with King Alfred, was merely symptomatic of the cultural priorities of the day.
The art and literature of any particular era involve not hundreds but thousands of practitioners operating in a variety of cultural and political contexts and do not lend themselves to being reduced to a simplified diagrammatic form. Though the epics on Alfred might be prefaced by tributes such as Pye's to "the Founder of the Jurisprudence, the Improver of the Constitution and the Patron of the Literature of my Country," and even a painter like David Wilkie could write of him "as one of the most distinguished characters in our history ... the founder of our monarchy and adored constitution," and though it was not difficult to see aspects of relevance in his story to a wide range of latter-day concerns, some commentators saw exploitation of subjects from medieval history as instances of an almost ludicrous escapism. Walter Scott, for example, wrote:
There is no point in which our age differs more from those which preceded it, than in the apparent apathy of out poets and rhymers to the events which are passing over them; some of them roam back to distant and dark ages; others wander to remote countries, instead of seeking a theme in the exploits of a Nelson, an Abercromby, or a Wellesley; others amuse themselves with luscious sonnets to Bessies and Jessies; and we cannot help thinking they would keep fiddling their allegros and adagios, even if London was on tire, or Buonaparte landed at Dover. (38)
It was not Alfred or Charlemagne, but a group of personages from an even more "distant and dark age" that constituted the most striking instance of a theme equally beloved of painters and epic poets. A listing published in 1974 identifies no fewer than 126 artistic depictions of the ancient Gaelic bard Ossian or scenes from his poems, although most of the latter were simply concocted by James Macpherson in the 1760s. These pictures include paintings by artists as important as Paul Duqueylar, Francois Gerard, Anne-Louis Girodet, and Jean-Dominique Ingres, though the listing is by no means to be regarded as definitive, omitting as it does a couple of works by the American John Trumbull, a small study circa 1792, and a larger "Lamderg and Gelchossa" of 1814, which are of particular interest as the artist's cousin and namesake published an Ossianic poem--admittedly a parody--entitled McFingallin 1799. (39) James Macpherson had printed his largely fabricated text as a kind of prose poem but there were half a dozen book-length renderings into English verse, and translations into all the major languages of Europe. Seven of the redactors or translators of Ossian wrote original epics of their own. (40)
John Nash, one of the early nineteenth century's most successful architects, is notoriously difficult to fit into a historiography of architecture that presents neo-classicism and neo-gothic as opposed tendencies; similarly, the vogue of Ossian, which above all other features united the epic poetry and the visual art of this period, sits uncomfortably with the vogue of Alfred and Charlemagne seen as political exemplars, despite the shared characteristics of beards and bared knees. One might even conclude, from the greater interest in Ossian, that poems and paintings of Alfred and Charlemagne were primarily variations on an escapist theme which Ossian exemplified even more strikingly, and only secondarily part of a political discourse. It is perhaps significant that the well-publicized (and far from unexpected) conclusion of the Highland Society of Scotland in 1805 that none of Macpherson's Ossianic poems corresponded with authentic poems attributable to the historical Ossian hardly affected interest in Ossianic subjects; it may well be that historical fictions are always essentially escapist even (perhaps especially) when they labor parallels with the events of the author's own life. Be that as it may, considerations of what one should regard as primary and what secondary when it comes to assigning literary-historical pigeonholes miss the point that there was an underlying political agenda in poems and paintings about Alfred and Charlemagne even if there was not in the more numerous depictions of Ossianic themes. One reason for not putting too much weight on similarities between genres is that once one starts comparing essentially unlike things there is almost no end to the possible similarities that might be adduced. Nevertheless, similarities do exist, and if we step back from the poet and his painting, and try to see them in some sort of historical context, these similarities are at least suggestive, and are not necessarily canceled out by not being reproduced right across the whole spectrum of art and literature.
(1) Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Laocoon: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry, ed. Edward Allen McCormick (Johns Hopkins U. Press, 1984), first published as Laokoon: Oder Uber die Grenzen der Malerey und Poesie in 1766; cf. Svetlana and Paul Alpers, "Ut Pictura Noesis? Criticism in Literary Studies and Art History," New Literary History 3 (1971-72): 437-58.
(2) There is no comprehensive survey of history painting in this period but A. D. Harvey, Literature into History (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1988), 132-37, gives a list of "166 epic poems or large parts thereof published from 1790 to 1826," and G. Headley, "The Early Nineteenth-Century Epic: The Harvey Thesis Examined," Journal of European Studies 21 (1991) : 201-8, though very critical of Literature into History's approach to the subject, adds two dozen more. The full number of epics published at least in part in this period may well be over 300.
(3) For a more complete statement of this view see Harvey, Literature into History, 160-66.
(4) The denotation "the Great" is certainly not earlier than the seventeenth century and was popularized by Sir John Spelman's The Life of Aelfred the Great (Oxford, 1709), and by Paul de Rapin-Thoyras, The History of England, 15 vols. (London, 1728-31).
(5) John Milton, The History of Britain, Complete Prose Works of John Milton, ed. Don M. Wolfe, 8 vols. (Yale U. Press, 1953-82), 5:292.
(6) John Mihon, Of Reformation Touching Church Discipline in England, Complete Prose Works 1: 616; Milton, "Mansus," The Poetical Works of John Milton, ed. Helen Darbishire (Oxford U. Press, 1958), 558; and see also Milton, Paradise Lost 1.579-81, and Paradise Regained 2.359-61; John Dryden, "Dedication" to his translation of Juvenal, The Works of John Dryden, ed. Edward Niles Hooker, H. T. Swedenberg, Jr., 20 vols. (U. of California Press, 1956-2000), 4:22; and cf. "Dedication" to Aurung-zebe, 12:154. Dryden wrote a play on King Arthur (1691). See also Roberta Florence Brinkley, Arthurian Legend in the Seventeenth Century (Johns Hopkins U. Press, 1932), 126-27. When, in The Prelude (1895 version, book 1, lines 179-80), Wordsworth refers to "some old / Romantic tale by Milton left unsung" as a possible subject for an epic, he probably had in mind the story of Arthur.
(7) Richard Blackmore, Alfred, An Epick Poem. In Twelve Books (London, 1723), xli. Blackmore actually names not Spelman but Obadiah Walker, the editor of the 1678 edition of Spelman's Latin text.
(8) James Sambrook, James Thomson 1700-1748: A Life (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), 139, 200; Rupert Gunnis, Dictionary of British Sculptors 1660-1851 (rev. ed., London: Abbey, 1969), 203, 334, 337.
(9) Annual Register (1772), 133, cf. Kenneth Woodbridge, Landscapes and Antiquity: Aspects of English Culture at Stourhead 1718 to 1838 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970), 53-55.
(10) An Historical Essay on the English Constitution (London, 1771), 9. For the vogue of this anonymous pamphlet see Christopher Hill, "The Norman Yoke," Puritanism and Revolution (London: Secker & Warburg, 1958), 50-122. See also Colin Kidd, British Identities before Nationalism: Ethnicity and Nationhood in the Atlantic World, 1600-1800 (Cambridge U. Press, 1999), 86-98.
(11) Alexander Bicknell, The Life of Alfred the Great, King of the Anglo-Saxons (London, 1777), iii. Albrecht von Haller's Alfred, Konig der Angel-Sachsen was reprinted half a dozen rimes by 1783 and also appeared in a French translation by C. Polier de Bottens which had been reprinted twice by 1775; an English translation was published only in 1849. It was Haller's work which probably inspired such musical treatments as Paul Ledoux's Alfred-le-Grand, ou le Roi Troubadour (Paris, 1817), and Jean Aumer's Alfred-le-Grand, ballet-pantomime en trois actes (Paris, 1822). Bicknell's The Patriot King. or, Alfred and Elvida was translated into German by J. W. Cowmeadow as Alfred, Konig der Angelsachsen, oder der patriotische Konig, and Josef Hayden wrote choruses sung at a performance of this version in 1796. See also Ebenezer Rhodes, Alfred: An Historical Tragedy (Sheffield, 1789).
(12) Freeman O'Donoghue, Catalogue of Engraved British Portraits Preserved in the Department of Prints and Drawings in the British Museum, 6 vols. (London: British Museum, 1908-25), 1:34-35, lists eight prints made from the University College portrait between 1732 and 1797, though it was the first, by George Vertue, that was the best known. In the version published in Rapin's History, Alfred's portrait stands on a table loaded with books, lyre, crown, dividers, sheet music, Raven standard, bow and arrows, with ships in a bay in the background and, on the hanging folds of the tablecloth, a scene of battle and a camp with neatly arranged tents. It was presumably a version of the University College portrait to which Keats was referring in "Sleep and Poetry" (1816): "Sappho's meek head was there half smiling down ... / Great Alfred's too, with anxious, pitying eyes, / As if he always listened to the sighs / Of the goaded world" (lines 381, 385-87). David Hume, History of England, 8 vols. (London, 1763), Tobias Smollett, A Complete History of England, 4 vols. (London, 1757), and Oliver Goldsmith, A History of England in a Series of Letters from a Nobleman to His Son, 2 vols. (London, 1764).
(13) John Home, Alfred. A Tragedy (Dublin, 1777), iii; Charles Beecher Hogan, ed., The London Stage. Part 5: 1776-1800, 3 vols. (Southern Illinois U. Press, 1968), 1:142-43. Alfred's sojourn in the Danish camp while seeking to rescue Ethelwitha takes up nearly a seventh of an anonymous thirty-six-page pamphlet Alfred the Great: In which is related his conquests over the Danes (London, 1809).
(14) See for example Three Letters to the People of Great Britain, signed "Alfred" (London, 1785). In 1789 one Philip Withers, a critic of government policy at the time of George III's first mental breakdown, published six editions of Alfred: or, a Narrative of the Daring and Illegal Measures to Suppress a Pamphlet, at least three editions of Alfred's Apology, and also Alfred to the Bishop of London and Alfred's Appeal, and provoked a response, Alfred Unmasked: or, the New Cataline. The State Trials of 1794, when the acquittal of reformers charged with High Treason was seen as a vindication of trial by jury, as supposedly established by King Alfred, brought forth Letters of the Ghost of Alfred (London, 1798), and William Hayley's poem The National Advocates (London, 1795), in which there appears the couplet: "The heart of Alfred still our love excites, / He lives, he breathes, in ev'ry Jury's rights" (3). A reformist newspaper calling itself The Alfred--later The Alfred and Westminster Evening Gazette--appeared in 1810, and another under the title The Alfred: West of England Journal and General Advertiser in 1815. On the other hand, the pseudonymous author of Alfred's Letters, or, A Review of the Political State of Europe (London, 1793), was a junior government minister, James Bland Burges. This "Alfred" is not to be confused with the "Alfred" of Alfred's Letters. An Essay on the Constitution of England (London, 1804), who had rather different political views.
(15) William Laird Clowes, The Royal Navy: A History from the Earliest Times to the Present, 6 vols. (London, 1899), 4:10, 226; The National Archives, SP 78/304-305, SP 89/82; The Gentleman's Magazine 48 (1778): 547; The National Archives, ADM 51/34, ADM 51/4409.
(16) The Gentleman's Magazine 70 (1800): 975. There is no collected edition of Thomas D'Urfey's works and I have been unable to find a copy of his "Historical Ballad of Alfred" or any other reference to it; nor can I conceive where the reviewer in The Gentleman's Magazine could have seen it.
(17) John Holland and James Everett, Memoirs of the Life and Writings of James Montgomery, 7 vols. (London, 1854-56), 1:63-65. Montgomery is today remembered mainly as a writer of hymns: eight of his hymns appear in The New English Hymnal, published in 1986 and frequently reprinted.
(18) Henry James Pye, Alfred (London, 1801), i-ii, Dedication to Henry Addington, 29 May 1801. Horace had recommended that poetry should be kept back for revision till the ninth year--Ars Poetica line 388. Pye became Poet Laureate in 1790 and a police magistrate in 1792. The second volume of Sharon Turner's The History of the Anglo-Saxons from their First Appearance above the Elbe, to the Norman Conquest, 4 vols. (London, 1799-1805), which devoted more than two hundred pages to Alfred, was first published in 1802, too late to be of assistance either to Pye or (at least as far as the first edition of his epic was concerned) to Cottle.
(19) [R. B. Seeley], Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Michael Thomas Sadler (London, 1842), 14; Holland and Everett, Life and Writings of James Montgomery 1:63-64.
(20) Richard Payne Knight, Alfred. A Romance in Rhyme (London, 1823), 335.
(21) John Thelwall, The Poetical Recreations of the Champion (London, 1822), 228. Thelwall's The Trident of Albion (Liverpool, 1805), is printed together with an oration referring to Alfred as "the author of our most venerated Institutions! ... the father of his country's mind ... our redeemer from a foreign yoke; and the creator of that navy.... which has long protected, and will still protect our shores!" (55-56).
(22) Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. Earl Leslie Griggs, 6 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956-57), 1:645, Coleridge to Josiah Wedgwood, 1 Nov. 1800.
(23) Prints from Samuel Wale's drawings were published in William Henry Montague, A New and Universal History of England, from the Earliest Authentic Accounts to the End of the Year 1770, 2 vols. (London, ), opposite 1:54 and 57. Devis's picture, whether a painting or a drawing, is not included in the listing of A. W. Devis's works in Sydney H. Paviere, The Devis Family of Painters (Leigh on Sea: E Lewis, 1950), 120-139. Martin's painting seems now to be lost but see Kenneth Garlick, Angus MacIntyre, and Kathryn Cave, eds., The Diary of Joseph Farington, 16 vols. (Yale U. Press, 1978-84), 4:1409-1410, 23 and 26 June 1800. Both Benjamin West in 1778 and the German artist Philipp Friedrich Hetsch painted pictures of an apocryphal King Alfred of Mercia being shown three naked girls by their father, named by West as William of Albanac and by Hetsch as Albonak. The incident depicted had nothing to do with the historical Alfred of Wessex.
(24) William Hazlitt, Conversations with James Northcote (London, 1830), 243: Hazlitt says of Westall, "I did not think him equal to Raphael and Rubens united as Payne Knight contended."
(25) Alan Cunningham, The Life of Sir David Wilkie, 3 vols. (London, 1843), 3:524, states that previous to his "Alfred," for which he received 157 [pounds sterling] 10s, he had sold only four paintings, for a total of 115 [pounds sterling].
(26) Hazlitt, Conversations of James Northcote, cancelled version of page 64 in a copy of the 1830 edition to be found in the British Library, shelf mark 787g 49 (Northcote's opinion of West); Helmut von Erffa and Allen Stanley, The Paintings of Benjamin West (Yale U. Press, 1986), 187-88, catalog no. 48.
(27) Niklaus Rudolf Schweizer, The Ut pictura poesis Controversy in Eighteenth Century England and Germany (Bern: Herbert Lang, 1972), 87-88, citing Nicholson Wornum, ed., Lectures in Painting, by the Royal Academicians, Barry Opie and Fuseli (London, 1848), 407, and Blackwoods Edinburgh Magazine 20 (1826): 728-44, and 21 (1827): 9-21 (translation by Thomas De Quincey); Prince Hoare, "The Office of Painting," The Artist, ed. Prince Hoare, 2 vols. (London 1810), 2:255-90, esp. 283-90. The Artist originally appeared as a periodical in the years 1807-09; Prince Hoare was the son of a Royal Academician and himself honorary Foreign Secretary to the Royal Academy.
(28) Cunningham Life of Sir David Wilkie, 1:125-26.
(29) Spelman, Life of Aelfred, 54, cf. Rapin, History of England, 1:92 n4 and Smollett, A Complete History of England 1:142.
(30) Marius in the ruins of Carthage was painted by John Hamilton Mortimer, 1774, by Pierre Nolasque Bergeret, 1807, John Vanderlyn, 1808; and Phillipp Friedrich Hetsch, 1816; Marius at Minturno inviting a slave to kill him was painted by Jean-Germain Drouais, 1786.
(31) Joseph Cottle, Alfred. In Twenty-four Books (London, 1800), 93-95, book 4, lines 240-44, 273-78; Henry James Pye, Alfred (London, 1801), 63, book 2, lines 428-31; John Fitchett, King Alfred: A Poem, 6 vols. (London, 1841-42), 1: 404, book 7, lines 3148-79. See also Charlotte Sanders, Poems on Various Subjects (London, 1787), 137-41.
(32) Cottle, Alfred, 2 vols. (London, 1816), 1:101 n; Fitchett, King Alfred 1:431-32, book 8, lines 973-96.
(33) For epics on Charlemagne, see Charles Hubert Millevoye, Charlemagne (Paris, 1812), revised and reduced from ten cantos to six in Charlemagne a Pavie (Paris, 1814); Lucien Bonaparte, Charlemagne, ou l'Eglise Delivree (London, 1814), Guillaume Theveneau, Charlemagne--two cantos only of uncompleted poem (Paris, 1816); Friedrich de la Motte Fouque, Karls des Grossen Geburt und Jugendjahre (Nuremberg, 1816), Charles-Victor Prevot, vicomte d'Arlincourt, Charlemagne, ou la Caroleide (Paris, 1818). There were also at least four epics about Roland at Roncesvalles, by Friedrich Schlegel, Richard Wharton, John Herman Merivale and Angelo Maria Ricci, in which Charlemagne had a supporting role. For epics about Peter the Great see Genu Soalhat, chevalier de Mainvillers, Petreade (Amsterdam, 1762); Girolamo Murari della Corte, Pietro il Grande (Verona, 1803); Angelo Corti, Pietro di Russia (Turin, c. 1810); Aleksandr Nikolaevich Gruzintsev, Petriada (St. Petersburg, 1812), and also a prose poem by Carlo Denina, Della Russiade canti dieci (Berlin, 1796), which purported to be a translation of a Greek epic poem. For epics about GustavVasa, see Erik Skjoldebrand, Gustaviade (Stockholm, 1768), an anonymous Swedish Gustaf Wasa (Stockholm, 1774), William Sydney Walker, Gustaf Vasa (London, 1813), Anders Fredrik Skjoldebrand, Gustav Erikson, eller det frelsade Sverge (Stockholm, 1822), Sibilla Hatfield, The Wanderer in Scandinavia (London, 1826). Anders Frederik Skjoldebrand was, incidentally, Erik Skjoldebrand's son. Gustaf's remote descendant Gustave III wrote a tragedy based on his ancestor in the 1780s; "how Gustavus found / Help in his need in Dalecarlia's mines" was also one of the possible subjects the young Wordsworth had considered for an epic (The Prelude, 1805 version, book 1, lines 211-12). Jean-Claude Bonnet, Naissance du Pantheon (Paris: Fayard, 1998), 46-49 suggests that it was the writings of the Abbe Fenelon (1651-1715) that initiated the shift from rulers who were great conquerors to rulers who were fathers of their people.
(34) Naphthali Hartwig Wesseley, Die Moseide (Berlin, 1795), James Bland Burges and Richard Cumberland, The Exodiad (London, 1807); Charles Hoyle, Exodus (London, 1807); Charles Smith, The Mosiad (London, 1815); Nepomucene-Louis Lemercier, Moyse (Paris, 1823); Antonmaria Robiola, Mose (Paris, 1823).
(35) Memoirs of Oliver Cromwell and His Children, 3 vols. (London, 1816), 1: vii-viii. Benjamin West painted Cromwell Dissolving the Long Parliament in 1783, presumably an unconstitutional rather than a constructive or heroic act as far as West was concerned.
(36) There were thirteen editions of L'Henriade 1806-15 and twenty-seven 1816-25. For Joan of Arc, see Marie-Claude Chaudonneret, Lapeinture troubadour: Fleary Richard et Pierre Revoil (Paris: Arthena, 1980), 26, and Francois Pupil, Le style troubadour (Nancy: Presses Universitaires de Nancy, 1985), 484-85.
(37) John Baker Holroyd, Earl of Sheffield, Remarks on the Bill of the Last Parliament for the Amendment of the Poor Laws (London, 1819), 80; Annual Register (1799), iii; Parliamentary Debates, n. s. 7:1663.
(38) Walter Scott, Quarterly Review 2 (1809): 426-27; cf. Pye Alfred, i; and Cunningham, Life of Sir David Wilkie, 1:127 (Wilkie to Alexander Davison). Wellesley was the future Duke of Wellington, already commanding British forces in Spain; Sir Ralph Abercromby, mortally wounded at the outset of the British invasion of Egypt in 1801, had been the most successful British military commander during the 1790s.
(39) Werner Hofmann, Ossian und die Kunst um 1800 (Munich: Prestel, 1974), cf. Theodore Sizer, The Works of John Trumbull: Artist of the American Revolution (Yale U. Press, 1967), 104 and figures 212, 213.
(40) For example, Richard Hole, who produced a versified version of Ossian, also published a long narrative poem, Arthur: or, The Northern Enchantment, a Poetical Romance (London, 1789).…
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Publication information: Article title: Alfred in the Neatherd's Cottage: History Painting and Epic Poetry in the Early Nineteenth Century. Contributors: Harvey, A. D. - Author. Journal title: Philological Quarterly. Volume: 86. Issue: 1-2 Publication date: Spring 2007. Page number: 143+. © 1998 University of Iowa. COPYRIGHT 2007 Gale Group.
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