November 27, 2012
ENGL 6400: The Nature of Poetry
Dr. Daneen Wardrop
I don’t wish to be harsh,
But two Anglo-Saxon lovers, in a damp,
Hardly talked such twiddle-twaddle, when he had
to fight the Dane,
As a couple of canoodlers in a Cockney Lovers’
There be ‘Patriots’ and ‘poets,’ my dear
ALFRED, wits and cits,
Who the muzzle and strait-jacket seem, at seasons,
(“Alfred to Alfred,” published anonymously in Punch, February 1896)
On January the 11th, 1896 the magazine Punch published a cartoon of poet laureate Alfred Austin wearing the classic poet’s garb, complete with sandals and laurels, reaching for a lyre, which is just out of reach. The caption reads:
Alfred the Little. Sir Edw-n Arn-ld (bitterly) “Fortunatus! Ha Ha!” Sir L-w-s M-rr-s (moodily): “England’s Darling? He! He!” “The Queen has been pleased to appoint Alfred Austin, Esq. to be Poet Laureate to Her Majesty” – Daily Papers, January 1, 1896. (Alfred the Little, 1896)
There are several reasons why the name Alfred the Little was a biting criticism of the new poet laureate, the most obvious being that he was very short, barely five feet tall. (Cromwell 203). But his size wouldn’t have drawn the attention of critics like the editors of punch, save that it didn’t match the grandeur of Austin’s ego. Norton Cromwell, who wrote the biography of Austin in the middle of the twentieth century, stated that Austin was a target because his “inimitable egotism, unrelieved by any trace of humor, sent the nation into guffaws of laughter.” (Cromwell 198) In addition, publications like Punch didn’t believe that Austin had anything to be egotistical about. Upon his death, the Washington Post, in Austin’s obituary, quoted a critical review of Austin’s work: “if he has written nothing that greatly thrills the reader, he has written many verses over which one would not willingly fall asleep.” (Washington Post) One of the major reasons his work attracted so much critical attention was because he followed Alfred Tennyson as poet laureate, which also contributed to the aptness of the nickname Alfred the Little. Upon his appointment to the position in January of 1896 the Critic, the British literary magazine, wrote in its ‘Notes’ section that “Mr. Austin has been a prolific writer, but at sixty he has made but little reputation as a poet. One thing, however, he has in common with his predecessor: his Christian name. Tennyson has occasionally been called Alfred the Great. He will be called so oftener hereafter.’” (Cromwell 156)
But the true irony of the nickname came from his publication, in the same year, of England’s Darling, a drama of Alfred the Great, the King of Wessex who ruled from 871-899, written in verse. (BBC British History) It was one of the most widely criticized of Austin’s works. (Cromwell 232) Not only did he publish it in the same year that he would subject himself to the most scrutiny, but it is acknowledged to make poor use of archaic language, lack any semblance of realism, and say nothing except generally acknowledged facts about Alfred. (Cromwell 234). No doubt Austin wrote it keeping in mind Tennyson’s Harold from 1876 or Becket from 1884. (Cromwell 254) England’s Darling was a sappy, nationalistic title for a mediocre play. In addition the commonality between the name of the poet and the Anglo-Saxon king gave critics like the editors of Punch a lot of fuel for their satires, including the cartoon and the satirical poem that appears above entitled Alfred to Alfred, which speaks with the voice of King Alfred the Great to cut down the work of Alfred the Little. (Cromwell 232)
The nickname also solidified Alfred’s association with the medieval, a permanent juxtaposition with the Anglo-Saxon king who was the subject of Austin’s verse. England’s Darling is an example of Alfred Austin’s use of medievalism. In the drama Austin uses a medieval setting and a medieval hero to communicate with his Victorian audience. The selection of the medieval is not chosen for the possibility of lavish sets or for period costumes. Instead it is chosen because of what the subject matter means to the audience and because of its utility as a tool Austin can use to showcase his political stances to the public.
Popular Medievalisms in Romantic Era Britain 81) Through the medievalism in his poetry, Alfred Austin
communicates his politics. He also uses medievalism to make political statements
to other poets about the nature of good poetry. Finally, through the
medievalism in his poems Alfred Austin communicates what he feels the poet
laureate, as a political position, ought to communicate to an eager, and
sometimes not so eager, public. The medieval, in Austin’s poems, is a
manifestation of the political position of the poet laureate.
Politics and the Poet Laureate
Clearly the position of poet laureate is a political one, but it was particularly so during Alfred Austin’s tenure. William Morris, after Austin’s appointment said of the position: “the poet laureateship is a court office that has been accidentally held by two great poets – Dryden and Tennyson … It is the queen’s right to choose whom she likes; nobody cares very much whom she selects.” (Washington Post) Having a poet laureate is a political move. Some of the possible political functions of the position include associating the state with culture and tradition and providing the state with a source of propaganda. The appointment of Alfred Austin was definitely political, particularly after Tennyson’s death. Many people, poets and politicians alike, felt that Tennyson so aptly filled the role that perhaps the title should be retired. Answering a questionnaire in the Idler as to who should be laureate, Grant Allen replied “I have great difficulty in answering the question, because I don’t think we ought to have a laureate at all.” George Manville Fenn answered the same questionnaire “Better that the old office should die with the nineteenth century.” (Cromwell 139-140) Yet there was also sentiment that a candidate should be found to replace Tennyson, to commemorate important events and decisions with poetry. (Cromwell 140) The government found a willing supporter in Alfred Austin.
In 1883 Alfred Austin was one of two founders of the Conservative paper, The National Review. (Cromwell 18) Austin’s appointment was considered by his contemporaries to be a political appointment because of his existing relationship with Conservative Prime Minister Lord Salisbury and with the Tory party.
(Alfred Austin) Austin also had
developed a relationship with Queen Victoria. In 1887, the year of her first
jubilee, Austin dedicated his work Prince
Lucifer to her. In his autobiography Austin says that Victoria spoke to him
at a party, thanking him for his “beautiful poem.” (Austin, The Autobiography of Alfred Auston Poet
Laureate: 1835-1910 II: 208) In later years, when
asked why he appointed Austin to the position of poet laureate, Lord Salisbury
is reported to have replied “For the best possible reason, because he wanted
it.” (Cromwell 157) But Austin’s political friends couldn’t
keep back the criticism and it was piled on high and deep. Cromwell notes “to
the Queen, for instance, he addressed only eight laureate poems, and yet to
read the criticism of the period, one would gather that he wrote them almost
weekly during her reign.” (Cromwell 266)
In part the criticism Austin suffered was undeserved – a matter of unfortunate timing and serious ambition. However, Austin’s outward political stance, in addition to the mediocrity of the poetry, became the basis of the attacks, which seemed deserved because of how seriously he seemed to take the role of poet laureate. Stuart P. Sherman, writing for The Nation said of Austin that he was “the last minstrel of Toryism. As he writes, he feels himself soothed, sustained, and magnified by the support of the landed gentlemen of England. He is not, he fancies, dipping his pen into the shallow well of egotism, but into the inexhaustible springs of English sentiment.”
(Alfred Austin) As poet laureate Austin felt he
represented the nation, though his critics would have considered that a poor
Of Austin’s politics, Cromwell states that “beginning as a Liberal (he was a radical for a short while), he soon became a militant Tory of the old school and defended the policies and acts of his party with the same consistency with which he energetically condemned those of his opponents, whom he detested with a blind mistrust born of fear of change and of popular rule.” (Cromwell 12) Austin ran twice for the Tory party and was defeated both times.
(Austin, The Autobiography of Alfred Auston Poet Laureate: 1835-1910
However, as poet laureate Austin found his true political calling. Throughout
his career as laureate, from 1896 until his death in 1913, Austin tried to
“guide the thinking of the nation into the paths that make it great: [the poet
laureate] must, then, instill the spirit of patriotism into each heart.”
(Cromwell 188) In the Quarterly Review
in January, 1880 Austin stated that:
there never must come a time when the rulers of this country think it within the province of their duty, even to contemplate as a possibility the smallest diminution of the territories of the British Empire, or to shrink from their forcible extension, if the only choice lies between advance and retreat. They should perpetually bear in mind that to the English race, as to the Roman, an imperial commission has been given. (Cromwell 189)
To keep England on this course the poet laureate also must remind people about their heritage, and fight the “lassitude” that Austin felt was part of his age (Cromwell 190, 192).
In 1870 Austin wrote in The Poetry of the Period, a critique of contemporary literary works, that “nobody will deny that ours is a particularly vainglorious age; and, being such, it would be painful to confess that it has not produced a first-rate specimen of what it has hitherto been the universal creed to believe the highest mental type of humanity – viz. a really great poet.“
(Austin, The Poetry of the Period 37) Austin, trying to
correct the lassitude of his age, went after contemporary poets, though mostly
before he was appointed to the position of poet laureate. However, with these
kind of inflammatory statements Austin placed himself forever in the realm of
literary politics, a realm that was clearly unkind to him. In works of poetry
theory Austin used Byron as an example of good poetry. In his work, The Vindication of Lord Byron Austin
states “literary criticism has long been dead amongst us, and the current
opinions of fashionable conventionalists have fondly attached themselves to the
more feminine and academical verse of their own smaller day.” (Austin, A
Vindication of Lord Byron 11-12) According to Austin,
Byron alone is the equal of Shakespeare. Austin’s devotion, and the fact that
his poetry fell far short of Byron’s, in the end was another source of pleasure
for his contemporary detractors.
The Poetry of the Period was filled with inflammatory essays about contemporary poets, such as Tennyson, the then poet laureate. Austin argued that he failed to write a magnum opus or give “frequent or even occasional utterance to really great poetical thoughts, or to poetical images really sublime.”
(Austin, The Poetry of the Period 12) In the second essay
he goes after Robert Browning harshly. In response Browning dubbed Austin the “Banjo-Byron
that twangs the strum-strum there.” (Cromwell 24) ‘Banjo-Byron’ was another
nick-name that stuck. (Cromwell vii, 107) In the fourth essay in the collection
he went after Matthew Arnold and William Morris, ironically for seeking escape
in the past. Austin critiqued Arnold for escaping to the classical period and
Morris for escaping to the Viking period. (Cromwell 124) Austin says of Morris
“he finds no life in anything living, in anything round and about him; and he
feels no impulse to strive vainly to vitalize them.” (Austin, The Poetry of the Period 145) As poet laureate
Austin does not attempt to engage in what Cromwell calls ‘frontal assaults’ on
poets. (Cromwell 130) Instead he tries to become the embodiment of what he
claims is good poetry, never completely changing his theoretical standpoint he
expressed in his earlier essays despite the passage of years. His poetry does,
however, become more political as the poet aged and it is not until after he is
made poet laureate that the medieval becomes a staple subject of his poetry.
In Austin’s poetry there is a conflation between his political views and his stance on what makes a good poem. Much of his criticism of other poets is about how what they write is too feminine. (Cromwell 133) This is one of his major criticisms of Tennyson. In his Autobiography Austin tells a story of playing croquet and finding his friend quite agreed with him that “Tennyson’s muse was rather a feminine than a masculine one in tone and power.”
(Austin, The Autobiography of Alfred Auston Poet
Laureate: 1835-1910 I: 1-2) He both hung to the
belief that poetic achievement was a “matter of spontaneous achievement” and
that good poetry was crafted in a masculine way. (Cromwell 9) It is hard then
to separate his poetical theory from his political anti-feminism. In his essay
entitled “Female Suffrage, Society and State,” published in the Times on
January 7, 1909, Austin asked “Will anyone deny
that, in great emergencies, men are, as a rule and collectively, calmer and
more submissive to sound judgment than women, whose virtues reside rather in
another direction?’” (Cromwell 14) In light of the so-called ‘masculinity’ of his
poetry, as tenuous a statement as the reader might consider that today, it makes
sense that much of Austin’s poetry would contain grand statements of jingoism.
Intense patriotism would be both a political stance, as well as a fulfillment
of what Austin would consider to be good poetry. And the medieval would be a
perfect subject matter.
The Medieval as an Expression of the Political
How can Austin criticize William Morris for escaping into a heroic Viking past, and then write a poem entitled Death of Harold Hardrada, about the king of Norway, or Viking, who battled Harold Godwinson at Stamford Bridge during the Norman Conquest? Clare Simmons, analyzing the use of the medieval in nineteenth century literature in her book Popular Medievalisms in Romantic Era Britain, says that “medievalism is persistently comparative, compelling some level of conscious contrast between the reader’s (or observer’s) present and the recreated medieval past” and “although it may generalize the Middle Ages, it particularizes the present, making the reader aware of the specific conditions of his or her historical moment.”
Popular Medievalisms in Romantic Era Britain 12) Austin’s
perspectives on poetry changed as he matured, became more jingoistic, so that
may have allowed him to take on the medieval subject after dismissing it in
other poets. Cromwell states that he changed because his conservatism grew,
because he was satisfied with his temporal lot, but largely because he was
driven by imperialist and patriotic zeal. (Cromwell 96) But also, even in his
completely medievalist works, where the setting and subject are entirely
medieval, he is referring to his own historical moment.
For instance, embedded within the poem Austin wrote as the poet laureate for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, Austin makes a comparison with Alfred the Great: “Thus with grave utterance and majestic mien/ She with her eighteen summers filled the Throne/Where Alfred sate: a girl, withal a Queen,/ Aloft, alone!” (XIV, 1-4) Alfred, the great Anglo-Saxon (read English) king, is a model that the Queen lives up to. Austin feels that this is a reference that will mean something in the present to his readers. In Alfred’s Song, a poem within England’s Darling, the poem flips back and forth between images of Alfred himself and then what may be Alfred’s vision: “And strong on his oars the sea-borne Saxon,/ And now the Norsemen/ Who hard with Alfred/ Wrestle for England./ But onward and forward,/ In far days fairer,/ I see this England/ Made one and mighty: Mighty and master/ Of men high-seated,/ Of free-necked labour,/ Lowland and upland,/And corn and cattle/…This is the England,/ In fair days forward,/ I see and sing of.” (26-47) In Austin’s poems the medieval is used as a lens through which the reader sees their own period, as well as Austin’s take on current events.
Alfred Austin could choose from a wide range of British medieval history as a subject of his poetry. His choices reflect his political leanings. Austin had a preoccupation with Alfred, as is seen from his play England’s Darling, his comparison of Queen Victoria to King Alfred in the Diamond Jubilee poem and in another poem entitled The Spotless King, written in 1901 for the Millenary Celebrations at Winchester. (Lyra Historica 20) Austin also wrote poems about the Conquest, including Harold and Tostig and Death of Harold Hardrada. Overwhelmingly, Austin’s medieval subject matter is Anglo-Saxon. In the Victorian age Simmons has identified the establishment of a binary between Norman and Saxon, between invader and ‘English.’ This is a time when scholars called the language of the Anglo Saxons Old English, having called it Anglo-Saxon up to that point.
(Simmons, Reversing the Conquest: History and Myth in Nineteenth Century
British Literature 184) Simmons, in her book Reversing the Conquest, states that the
Victorian period was a time “when moral judgments and heroes and villains were
seen to be a valid part of history.” (Simmons, Reversing the Conquest: History and Myth in Nineteenth Century
British Literature 12) She also states that “contrasts between
individual characters and the sense of what constituted a Saxon or a Norman
retained a flexibility dependent on both ideology and creativity.” (Simmons,
Reversing the Conquest: History and Myth in Nineteenth Century British Literature
From Austin’s perspective the ancestors of the English were the Anglo-Saxons.
Cromwell suggests that “the word [ancestral] grows in importance in [Austin’s]
vocabulary as the years come upon him.” (Cromwell 71) In Austin’s take on
medieval history the Anglo-Saxons are privileged due to their inherently
indigenous nature (as compared to other people within the history) and so are
good stand-ins for all of England.
This makes Austin’s medievalism a perfect outlet for his jingoism. Austin’s jingoism had more weight than it would have had he not been poet laureate. (Cromwell 196) However, he might not have been such a jingoist if he had not felt that the position of poet laureate called for it. Cromwell suggests that the association of imperialism and patriotism with the past was a natural one:
for one cannot understand the romantic, sentimental Victorian imperialism unless one keeps in mind that it did not become hysterically popular until people had made the association of the grand old aristocratic England – the England of tradition and legend – with imperialism. The whole movement is closely tied up with nostalgic patriotism, love of everything which time had demonstrated to be thoroughly British. (Cromwell 178)
As we have already seen Austin associated Queen Victoria with King Alfred. He made her the embodiment of English monarchy by showing her connection to the Saxons and allowing her to stand in for England.
(Simmons, Reversing the Conquest: History and
Myth in Nineteenth Century British Literature 177)
As the embodiment of England, Alfred the Saxon king can do no wrong. In The Spotless King Alfred is just that, spotless: “Some lights there be within the Heavenly Spheres/ Yet unrevealed, the interspace so vast: / So through the distance of a thousand years/ Alfred’s full radiance shines on us at last.” (1-4). In addition to representing the country as the nation ‘the spotless king teaches us to love our country: “Of valour, virtue, letters, learning, law,/ Pattern and prince, His name will now abide,/ Long as of conscience Rulers live in awe, / And love of country is their only pride.” (9-12). Austin used medievalism to exhort the people of England to act and to love their country. He used the medieval as an example of England’s glorious past and rich heritage but also as an example that should be followed.
The medieval poems are a sub-genre of Austin’s martial poems, implying courage and honour and traditional masculine values. In Austin’s construction of a medieval image he uses exclusively martial ones. Almost all of his medievalist poems include battle scenes, like in Harold and Tostig: “FORTH from/ England’s ranks a score of horsemen/ Ride, their chargers mailed, and mailed their riders./ Near the Northmen’s steel array up-reining.” (1-3) Many images Austin uses are such formulaic descriptions of battle that it could be implying medieval warfare, though it is impossible to prove that that was the intention of the poet or the understanding of the reader. But his martial images were used throughout his poetic career. In 1871 Austin wrote The Golden Age, a satire, including poetic verse such as: “When gallant Denmark, now the spoiler’s prey,/ Flashed her bright blade, and faced the unequal fray,/ And all abandoned both by men and gods,/ Fell, faint with wounds, before accursed odds, - / Where, where was England’s vindicating sword,/ Her promised arm, to stop the invading horde; / Bid the rude German drop his half-clutched spoil,/ And scare the robber from ancestral soil?” (Cromwell 70). The use of words like ‘ancestral’, which Cromwell said was Austin’s ‘shibboleth,’ or ‘invading horde’ suggest medieval themes, especially in comparison with Austin’s other clearly medieval poems. He may have been influenced by the medieval, but this poetic description of the attack on Denmark by Prussia and Austria, again, may not have been understood that way by author or audience (Cromwell 70)
Likewise, Austin re-uses his militaristic metaphors throughout his career. Images that represent England and ‘Britannia,’ many of which have roots in the Middle Ages, are often repeated. The overuse of the same imagery is one of the many criticisms of Austin’s poetry; he repeats “the British lion ‘crisping his mane’: the rolling ramparts; the bastion of the brine; the fawning foam; England smiling in victory, hand on undrawn sword; the girding of loins, etc.” (Cromwell 195) If we take the sword as an example, this is an image that is repeated in the volume Songs of England at least fourteen times in twenty-four poems. Austin personally presented Songs of England to soldiers headed to the Boer War. (Cromwell 196) The poems within the volume all celebrate England and martial prowess. And the image of the sword is everywhere, for instance in Who Would Not Die for England he uses the image “Let me go,/ Go where they go, Her world-researching race,/ That slumber pillow on the half-drawn sword,” (22-24). In Why England is Conservative the image is “what though no more we brandish sword and shield, reason’s keen blade is ready at our side.” (II, 5-6). In his later poems Austin embraces the blatantly medieval, but throughout his career the military imagery was a stand-in for England’s militaristic might.
The martial/medieval poems are guaranteed to be masculine poetry, by what we can perceive as Austin’s standards. The medieval, as part of the martial, is then an excellent tool that Austin can use to demonstrate both his anti-feminism and his anti-feminist poetry. Austin insisted that women’s influence on art “has been unmitigatedly mischievous.”
(Austin, The Poetry of the Period 79-94) In the medieval
poems women have no role, except in Death
of Harold Hardrada where he says “Long his Queen shall watching look to
westward,/ Look across the long waves for his coming.” (5-6)
Women have no role, and neither does anyone with status less than that of an earl. The medieval world of Austin’s poetry is an aristocratic one. Alfred, Harold Hardrada and Harold Godwinson are all kings and Tostig is an earl. Throughout Austin’s poetry he maintains a social hierarchy: “the disaffected, the iconoclasts, the radicals in his books may be hero or villain; but those who submit to their destiny and remain content in their station, high or low, are happy, harmonious, and socially constructive.” (Cromwell 160) Medieval imagery in Victorian England was widely used to evoke people’s ancient rites and to confirm “present-day privilege.”
Popular Medievalisms in Romantic Era Britain 194) This is another
reason why the medieval was an ideal choice of subject matter for Austin who
actively and intentionally expressed his political views through his poetry.
As an example of Austin’s medievalism examine the following poem:
Death of Harold Hardrada
Like the tall mast snapped before the storm-wind
Falls he, like the pine cleft by the woodman.
Never more the strong shall fall before him,
While behind him pours the flood of battle.
Long his Queen shall watching look to westward,
Look across the long waves for his coming.
Round him fight and fall the heaped-up corpse-ring,
Scorning Harold’s proffered peace and mercy.
Falls fierce Tostig, grimly as the bear falls,
Fell, at bay, amid the shouting huntsmen.
Falls at last the beacon of the war-field;
The Land-waster sinks, the Raven-Standard.
‘Plight your troth, no more your ocean riders,
Viking-filled, shall come with fire and slaughter.
So bear hence your kingly dead, O Olaf,
In your long ships, home, O heroes, bear him.
And with holy rites, in far-off Norway,
Tomb him, peaceful after all his battles.
Forth to seawards sweep the Northmen’s galleys,
Bearing home the restful son of Sigurd.
So fell Harold, last of all the Vikings,
Scald, by scalds sung, Harold of the fair hair.
(June 20 1897)
It is a ‘masculine’ poem in the sense that it discusses traditionally masculine subject matter. Different from the other poems, the setting is medieval, but the protagonist is not English. Perhaps that is why he has to die, and does so, as a noble antagonist. The episode described, the Battle of Stamford Bridge, takes place on English soil, and was a great success for the Saxon king, Harold. The Battle of Hastings, a disastrous Saxon loss, directly followed the Battle of Stamford Bridge and resulted in the Conquest, making that last victory at Stamford Bridge an even more important victory. Even though it is about the noble death of a warrior (a masculine endeavor), the poem is still about Saxon victory and a great early English ruler.
This paper developed out of a larger project - tracing the characterizations of Harold Hardrada through literature. In the above poem Hardrada is a sympathetic political and military other, a centre point that England and the English can itself focus around. Likewise, Alfred Austin conceived of the poet laureate as a centre point, one that can galvanize the public into action or influence their opinion. Or maybe you could, if you had a better reputation as a poet. When speaking at the opening of a new school of science and art Austin told the students: “If any student believed himself to be an artist in the true sense of the word, the incredulity of others should not shake his faith or in the faintest degree discourage him; for they too would believe when the student had proved himself to be one.” (Cromwell 208) It is good that Austin didn’t let the medievalism-tinged epithet ‘Alfred the Little’ get to him. Austin’s biographer said of him that “had he written fewer and less hysterical poems his reputation would today be far higher than it is.” (Cromwell 194) However, write them he did, and in them he poured everything that he thought poetry should be. Throughout his career, but especially as the poet laureate, Austin used the medieval to express his political views about the country and about poetry. In the end, what Austin was embroiled in was a political mess
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