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Edward Gibbon Post by :lorraineben Category :Essays Author :Augustine Birrell Date :November 2011 Read :5468

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Edward Gibbon


'It was at Rome, on the 15th of October, 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the bare-footed fryars were singing vespers in the Temple of Jupiter that the idea of writing the Decline and Fall of the City first started to my mind.

'It was on the day, or rather night, of the 27th of June, 1787, between the hours of eleven and twelve, that I wrote the last lines of the last page, in a summer-house in my garden. After laying down my pen I took several turns in a berceau, or covered walk of acacias, which commands a prospect of the country, the lake and the mountains. The air was temperate, the sky was serene, the silver orb of the moon was reflected from the waters and all nature was silent. I will not dissemble the first emotions of joy on recovery of my freedom and perhaps of the establishment of my fame. But my pride was soon humbled and a sober melancholy was spread over my mind by the idea that I had taken an everlasting leave of an old and agreeable companion, and that whatever might be the future date of my history, the life of the historian must be short and precarious.'

Between these two passages lies the romance of Gibbon's life--a romance which must be looked for, not, indeed, in the volumes, whether the original quartos or the subsequent octavos, of his history--but in the elements which went to make that history what it is: the noble conception, the shaping intellect, the mastered learning, the stately diction and the daily toil.

Mr. Bagehot has declared that the way to reverence Gibbon is not to read him at all, but to look at him, from outside, in the bookcase, and think how much there is within; what a course of events, what a muster-roll of names, what a steady solemn sound. All Mr. Bagehot's jokes have a kernel inside them. The supreme merit of Gibbon's history is not to be found in deep thoughts, or in wide views, or in profound knowledge of human nature, or prophetic vision. Seldom was there an historian less well-equipped with these fine things than he. Its glory is its architecture, its structure, its organism. There it is, it is worth looking at, for it is invulnerable, indispensable, immortal. The metaphors which have been showered upon it, prove how fond people have been of looking at it from outside. It has been called a Bridge, less obviously an Aqueduct, more prosaically a Road. We applaud the design and marvel at the execution.

There is something mournful in this chorus of approbation in which it is not difficult to detect the notes of surprise. It tells a tale of infirmity both of life and purpose. A complete thing staggers us. We are accustomed to failure.

'What act proves all its thought had been?'

The will is weak, opportunities are barren, temper uncertain and life short.

'I thought all labour, yet no less,
Bear up beneath their unsuccess;
Look at the end of work: contrast
The petty done--the undone vast.'

It is Gibbon's triumph that he made his thoughts acts. He is not exactly what you call a pious writer, but he is provocative of at least one pious feeling. A sabbatical calm results from the contemplation of his labours. Succeeding scholars have read his history and pronounced it good. It is likewise finished. Hence this feeling of surprise.

Gibbon's life has the simplicity of an epic. His work was to write his history. Nothing else was allowed to rob this idea of its majesty. It brooked no rival near its throne. It dominated his life, for though a man of pleasure, and, to speak plainly, a good bit of a coxcomb, he had always the cadences of the Decline and Fall in his ears. It has been wittily said of him, that he came at last to believe that he was the Roman Empire, or, at all events, something equally majestic and imposing. His life had, indeed, its episodes, but so has an epic. Gibbon's episodes are interesting, abrupt, and always concluded. In his sixteenth year he, without the aid of a priest or the seductions of ritual, read himself into the Church of Rome, and was one fine June morning in 1753 baptized by a Jesuit father. By Christmas, 1754, he had read himself out again. Gibbon's conversion was perfectly genuine and should never be spoken of otherwise than respectfully, but it was entirely a matter of books and reading. 'Persons influence us,' cries Dr. Newman, 'voices melt us, looks subdue us, deeds inflame us. Many a man will live and die upon a dogma; no man will be a martyr for a conclusion.' It takes all sorts to make a world, and our plump historian was one of those whose actions are determined in libraries, whose lives are unswayed by personal influences, to whom conclusions may mean a great deal, but dogmas certainly nothing. Whether Gibbon on leaving off his Catholicism ever became a Protestant again, except in the sense that Bayle declared himself one, is doubtful. But all this makes an interesting episode. The second episode is his well-known love affair with Mademoiselle Curchod, afterwards Madame Neckar and the mother of that social portent, Madame de Stael. Gibbon, of course, behaved badly in this affair. He fell in love, made known his plight, obtained mademoiselle's consent, and then speeded home to tell his father. 'Love,' said he, 'will make me eloquent.' The elder Gibbon would not hear of it: the younger tamely acquiesced. His very acquiescence, like all else about him, has become classical. 'I sighed as a lover, I obeyed as a son.' He proceeds: 'My wound was insensibly healed by time, absence and the habits of a new life.' It is shocking. Never, surely, was love so flouted before. Gibbon is charitably supposed by some persons to have regretted Paganism, but it was lucky for both him and for me that the gods had abandoned Olympus, since otherwise it would have required the pen of a Greek dramatist to depict the horrors that must have eventually overtaken him for so impious an outrage; as it was, he simply grew fatter every day. A very recent French biographer of Madame Neckar, who has published some letters of Gibbon's for the first time, evidently expects his readers to get very angry with this perfidious son of Albion. It is much too late to get angry. Of all the many wrongs women suffer at the hands of men, that of not marrying them, is the one they ought to find it easiest to forgive; they generally do forgive. Madame Neckar forgave, and if she, why not you and I? Years after she welcomed Gibbon to her house, and there he used to sit, fat and famous, tapping his snuff-box and arranging his ruffles, and watching with a smile of complacency the infantine, yet I doubt not, the pronounced gambols of the vivacious Corinne. After Neckar's fall, Gibbon writes to Madame: 'Your husband's condition is always worthy of envy, he knows himself, his enemies respect him, Europe admires him, you love him.' I decline to be angry with such a man.

His long residence in Switzerland, an unusual thing in those days, makes a third episode, which, in so far as it led him to commence author in the French language, and to study Pascal as a master of style, was not without its effects on his history, but it never diverted him from his studies or changed their channels. Though he lived fifteen years in Lausanne, he never climbed a mountain or ever went to the foot of one, for though not wholly indifferent to Nature, he loved to see her framed in a window. He actually has the audacity, in a note to his fifty-ninth chapter, to sneer at St. Bernard because that true lover of nature on one occasion, either because his joy in the external world at times interfered with his devotions, or, as I think, because he was bored by the vulgar rhapsodies of his monkish companions, abstained from looking at the lake of Geneva. Gibbon's note is characteristic, 'To admire or despise St. Bernard as he ought, the reader should have before the windows of his library the beauty of that incomparable landscape.' St. Bernard was to Gibbon, as Wordsworth to Pope,

'A forest seer,
A minstrel of the natural year,
A lover true who knew by heart
Each joy the mountain dales impart.'

He was proud to confess that whatever knowledge he had of the scriptures he had acquired chiefly in the woods and the fields, and that beeches and oaks had been his best teachers of the Word of God. One cannot fancy Gibbon in a forest. But if Gibbon had not been fonder of the library than of the lake, though he might have known more than he did of 'moral evil and of good,' he would hardly have been the author he was.

But the Decline and Fall was threatened from a quarter more likely to prove dangerous than the 'incomparable landscape.' On September 10th, 1774, Gibbon writes:

'Yesterday morning about half-past seven, as I was destroying an army of barbarians, I heard a double rap at the door and my friend Mr. Eliot was soon introduced. After some idle conversation he told me that if I was desirous of being in parliament he had an independent seat, very much at my service. This is a fine prospect opening upon me, and if next spring I should take my seat and publish my book--(he meant the first volume only)--it will be a very memorable era in my life. I am ignorant whether my borough will be Liskeard or St. Germains.'

Mr. Eliot controlled four boroughs and it was Liskeard that became Gibbon's, and for ten years, though not always for Liskeard, he sat in parliament. Ten most eventful years they were too, both in our national and parliamentary history. This might have been not an episode, but a catastrophe. Mr. Eliot's untimely entrance might not merely have postponed the destruction of a horde of barbarians, but have destroyed the history itself. However Mr. Gibbon never opened his mouth in the House of Commons; 'I assisted,' says he, in his magnificent way, 'at,' (mark the preposition,) 'at the debates of a free assembly,' that is, he supported Lord North. He was not from the first content to be a mute; he prepared a speech and almost made up his mind to catch Sir Fletcher Norton's eye. The subject, no mean one, was to be the American war; but his courage oozed away, he did not rise in his place. A month after he writes from Boodle's: 'I am still a mute, it is more tremendous than I imagined; the great speakers fill me with despair, the bad ones with terror.' In 1779 his silent assistance was rewarded with a seat at the Board of Trade, and a salary of between seven and eight hundred a year. Readers of Burke's great speech on Economical Reform will remember the twenty minutes he devoted to this marvellous Board of Trade, with its perpetual virtual adjournment and unbroken sitting vacation. Such was Gibbon's passion for style that he listened to the speech with delight, and gives us the valuable assurance that it was spoken just as it reads, and that nobody enjoyed either hearing or reading it more than he did. What a blessing it is to have a good temper! But Gibbon's constituency did not approve of his becoming a minister's man, and he lost his seat at the general election of 1783. 'Mr. Eliot,' this is Gibbon's account of it, 'Mr. Eliot was now deeply engaged in the measures of opposition and the electors of Liskeard are commonly of the same opinion as Mr. Eliot.' Lord North found him another seat, and for a short time he sat in the new parliament for the important seaport of Lymington, but his office being abolished in 1784, he bade parliament and England farewell, and, taking his library with him, departed for Lausanne to conclude his history.

Gibbon, after completing his history, entertained notions of writing other books, but, as a matter of fact, he had but one thing left him to do in order to discharge his duty to the universe. He had written a magnificent history of the Roman Empire. It remained to write the history of the historian. Accordingly we have the autobiography. These two immortal works act and react upon one another; the history sends us to the autobiography, and the autobiography returns us to the history.

The style of the autobiography is better than that of the history. The awful word 'verbose' has been launched against certain pages of the history by a critic, formidable and friendly--the great Porson. There is not a superfluous word in the autobiography. The fact is, in this matter of style, Gibbon took a great deal more pains with himself than he did with the empire. He sent the history, except the first volume, straight to his printer from his first rough copy. He made six different sketches of the autobiography. It is a most studied performance, and may be boldly pronounced perfect. Not to know it almost by heart is to deny yourself a great and wholly innocent pleasure. Of the history it is permissible to say with Mr. Silas Wegg, 'I haven't been, not to say right slap through him very lately, having been otherwise employed, Mr. Boffin;' but the autobiography is no more than a good-sized pamphlet. It has had the reward of shortness. It is not only our best, but our best known autobiography. Almost its first sentence is about the style it is to be in: 'The style shall be simple and familiar, but style is the image of character, and the habits of correct writing may produce without labour or design the appearance of art and study.' There is nothing artless or unstudied about the autobiography, but is it not sometimes a relief to exchange the quips and cranks of some of our modern writers, whose humour it is to be as it were for ever slapping their readers in the face or grinning at them from unexpected corners, for the stately roll of the Gibbonian sentence? The style settled, he proceeds to say something about the pride of race, but the pride of letters soon conquers it, and as we glance down the page we see advancing to meet us, curling its head, as Shakespeare says of billows in a storm, the god-like sentence which makes it for ever certain, not indeed that there will never be a better novel than Tom Jones, for that I suppose is still just possible, but that no novel can ever receive so magnificent a compliment. The sentence is well known but irresistible.

'Our immortal Fielding was of the younger branch of the Earls of Denbigh who draw their origin from the Counts of Hapsburg. Far different have been the fortunes of the English and German divisions of the family. The former, the knights and sheriffs of Leicestershire, have slowly risen to the dignity of a peerage, the latter, the Emperors of Germany and Kings of Spain, have threatened the liberty of the old and invaded the treasures of the new world. The successors of Charles the Fifth may disdain their brethren of England, but the romance of Tom Jones, that exquisite picture of human manners, will outlive the Palace of the Escurial, and the imperial eagle of the House of Austria.'

Well might Thackeray exclaim in his lecture on Fielding, 'There can be no gainsaying the sentence of this great judge. To have your name mentioned by Gibbon is like having it written on the dome of St. Peter's. Pilgrims from all the world admire and behold it.'

After all this preliminary magnificence Gibbon condescends to approach his own pedigree. There was not much to tell, and the little there was he did not know. A man of letters whose memory is respected by all lovers of old books and Elizabethan lyrics, Sir Egerton Brydges, was a cousin of Gibbon's, and as genealogies were this unfortunate man's consuming passion, he of course knew all that Gibbon ought to have known about the family, and speaks with a herald's contempt of the historian's perfunctory investigations. 'It is a very unaccountable thing,' says Sir Egerton, 'that Gibbon was so ignorant of the immediate branch of the family whence he sprang'; but the truth is that Gibbon was far prouder of his Palace of the Escurial, and his imperial eagle of the House of Austria, than of his family tree, which was indeed of the most ordinary hedge-row description. His grandfather was a South Sea director, and when the bubble burst he was compelled by act of parliament to disclose on oath his whole fortune. He returned it at £106,543 5s. 6d., exclusive of antecedent settlements. It was all confiscated, and then £10,000 was voted the poor man to begin again upon. Such bold oppression, says the grandson, can scarcely be shielded by the omnipotence of parliament. The old man did not keep his £10,000 in a napkin, and speedily began, as his grandson puts it, to erect on the ruins of the old, the edifice of a new fortune. The ruins must, I think, have been more spacious than the affidavit would suggest, for when only sixteen years afterwards, the elder Gibbon died he was found to be possessed of considerable property in Sussex, Hampshire, Buckinghamshire, and the New River Company, as well as of a spacious house with gardens and grounds at Putney. A fractional share of this inheritance secured to our historian the liberty of action so necessary for the accomplishment of his great design. Large fortunes have their uses. Mr. Milton, the scrivener, Mr. Gibbon, the South Sea director, and Dr. Darwin of Shrewsbury had respectively something to do with Paradise Lost, The Decline and Fall, and The Origin of Species.

The most, indeed the only, interesting fact about the Gibbon entourage is that the greatest of English mystics, William Law, the inimitable author of A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, adapted to the State and Conditions of all Orders of Christians, was long tutor to the historian's father, and in that capacity accompanied the future historian to Emanuel College, Cambridge, and was afterwards, and till the end of his days, spiritual director to Miss Hester Gibbon, the historian's eccentric maiden aunt.

It is an unpleasing impertinence for anyone to assume that nobody save himself reads any particular book. I read with astonishment the other day that Sir Humphry Davy's Consolations in Travel; or, The Closing Days of a Philosopher's Life, was a curious and totally forgotten work. It is, however, always safe to say of a good book that it is not read as much as it ought to be, and of Law's Serious Call you may add, 'or as much as it used to be.' It is a book with a strange and moving spiritual pedigree. Dr. Johnson, one remembers, took it up carelessly at Oxford, expecting to find it a dull book, 'as,' (the words are his, not mine,) 'such books generally are; but,' he proceeds, 'I found Law an overmatch for me, and this was the first occasion of my thinking in earnest.' George Whitfield writes, 'Soon after my coming up to the university, seeing a small edition of Mr. Law's Serious Call in a friend's hand, I soon purchased it. God worked powerfully upon my soul by that excellent treatise.' The celebrated Thomas Scott, of Aston Sandford, with the confidence of his school, dates the beginning of his spiritual life from the hour when he 'carelessly,' as he says, 'took up Mr. Law's Serious Call, a book I had hitherto treated with contempt.' When we remember how Newman in his Apologia speaks of Thomas Scott as the writer 'to whom, humanly speaking, I almost owe my soul,' we become lost amidst a mazy dance of strange, spectral influences which flit about the centuries and make us what we are. Splendid achievement though the History of the Decline and Fall may be, glorious monument though it is, more lasting than brass, of learning and industry, yet in sundry moods it seems but a poor and barren thing by the side of a book which, like Law's Serious Call, has proved its power

'To pierce the heart and tame the will.'

But I must put the curb on my enthusiasm, or I shall find myself re-echoing the sentiment of a once celebrated divine who brought down Exeter Hall by proclaiming, at the top of his voice, that he would sooner be the author of The Washerwoman on Salisbury Plain than of Paradise Lost.

But Law's Serious Call, to do it only bare literary justice, is a great deal more like Paradise Lost than The Washerwoman on Salisbury Plain, and deserves better treatment at the hands of religious people than to be reprinted, as it too often is, in a miserable, truncated, witless form which would never have succeeded in arresting the wandering attention of Johnson or in saving the soul of Thomas Scott. The motto of all books of original genius is:

'Love me or leave me alone.'

Gibbon read Law's Serious Call, but it left him where it found him. 'Had not,' so he writes, 'Law's vigorous mind been clouded by enthusiasm, he might be ranked with the most agreeable and ingenious writers of his time.'

Upon the death of Law in 1761, it is sad to have to state that Miss Hester Gibbon cast aside the severe rule of female dress which he had expounded in his Serious Call, and she had practised for sixty years of her life. She now appeared like Malvolio, resplendent in yellow stockings. Still, it was something to have kept the good lady's feet from straying into such evil garments for so long. Miss Gibbon had a comfortable estate; and our historian, as her nearest male relative, kept his eye upon the reversion. The fifteenth and sixteenth chapters had created a coolness, but he addressed her a letter in which he assured her that, allowing for differences of expression, he had the satisfaction of feeling that practically he and she thought alike on the great subject of religion. Whether she believed him or not I cannot say; but she left him her estate in Sussex. I must stop a moment to consider the hard and far different fate of Porson. Gibbon had taken occasion to refer to the seventh verse of the fifth chapter of the First Epistle of St. John as spurious. It has now disappeared from our Bibles, without leaving a trace even in the margin. So judicious a writer as Dean Alford long ago, in his Greek Testament, observed, 'There is not a shadow of a reason for supposing it genuine.' An archdeacon of Gibbon's period thought otherwise, and asserted the genuineness of the text, whereupon Porson wrote a book and proved it to be no portion of the inspired text. On this a female relative who had Porson down in her will for a comfortable annuity of £300, revoked that part of her testamentary disposition, and substituted a paltry bequest of £30: 'for,' said she, 'I hear he has been writing against the Holy Scriptures.' As Porson only got £16 for writing the book, it certainly cost him dear. But the book remains a monument of his learning and wit. The last quarter of the annuity must long since have been paid.

Gibbon, the only one of a family of five who managed to grow up at all, had no school life; for though a short time at Westminster, his feeble health prevented regularity of attendance. His father never won his respect, nor his mother (who died when he was ten) his affection. 'I am tempted,' he says, 'to enter my protest against the trite and lavish praise of the happiness of our boyish years which is echoed with so much affectation in the world. That happiness I have never known.' Upon which passage Ste. Beuve characteristically remarks 'that it is those who have been deprived of a mother's solicitude, of the down and flower of tender affection, of the vague yet penetrating charm of dawning impressions, who are most easily denuded of the sentiment of religion.'

Gibbon was, however, born free of the 'fair brotherhood' Macaulay so exquisitely described in his famous poem, written after the Edinburgh election. Reading became his sole employment. He enjoyed all the advantages of the most irregular of educations, and in his fifteenth year arrived at Oxford, to use his celebrated words, though for that matter almost every word in the Autobiography is celebrated, with a stock of erudition that might have puzzled a doctor, and a degree of ignorance of which a schoolboy would have been ashamed--for example, he did not know the Greek alphabet, nor is there any reason to suppose that he would have been taught it at Oxford.

I do not propose to refer to what he says about his university. I hate giving pain, besides which there have been new statutes since 1752. In Gibbon's time there were no public examinations at all, and no class-lists--a Saturnian reign which I understand it is now sought to restore. Had Gibbon followed his father's example and gone to Cambridge, he would have found the Mathematical Tripos fairly started on its beneficent career, and might have taken as good a place in it as Dr. Dodd had just done, a divine who is still year after year referred to in the University Calendar as the author of Thoughts in Prison, the circumstance that the thinker was later on taken from prison, and hung by the neck until he was dead being no less wisely than kindly omitted from a publication, one of the objects of which is to inspire youth with confidence that the path of mathematics is the way to glory.

On his profession of Catholicism, Gibbon, ipso facto ceased to be a member of the university, and his father, with a sudden accession of good sense, packed off the young pervert, who at that time had a very big head and a very small body, and was just as full of controversial theology as he could hold, to a Protestant pastor's at Lausanne, where in an uncomfortable house, with an ill-supplied table and a scarcity of pocket-money, the ex-fellow-commoner of Magdalen was condemned to live from his sixteenth to his twenty-first year. His time was mainly spent in reading. Here he learnt Greek; here also he fell in love with Mademoiselle Curchod. In the spring of 1758 he came home. He was at first very shy, and went out but little, pursuing his studies even in lodgings in Bond Street. But he was shortly to be shaken out of his dumps, and made an Englishman and a soldier.

If anything could provoke Gibbon's placid shade, it would be the light and airy way his military experiences are often spoken of, as if, like a modern volunteer, he had but attended an Easter Monday review. I do not believe the history of literature affords an equally striking example of self-sacrifice. He was the most sedentary of men. He hated exercise, and rarely took any. Once after spending some weeks in the summer at Lord Sheffield's country place, when about to go, his hat was missing. 'When,' he was asked, 'did you last see it?' 'On my arrival,' he replied. 'I left it on the hall-table; I have had no occasion for it since.' Lord Sheffield's guests always knew that they would find Mr. Gibbon in the library, and meet him at the dinner-table. He abhorred a horse. His one vocation, and his only avocation, was reading, not lazy glancing and skipping, but downright savage reading--geography, chronology, and all the tougher sides of history. What glorious, what martial times, indeed, must those have been that made Mr. Gibbon leap into the saddle, desert his books, and for two mortal years and a half live in camps! He was two months at Blandford, three months at Cranbrook, six months at Dover, four months at Devizes, as many at Salisbury, and six more at Southampton, where the troops were disbanded. During all this time Captain Gibbon was energetically employed. He dictated the orders and exercised the battalion. It did him a world of good. What a pity Carlyle could not have been subjected to the same discipline! The cessation, too, of his habit of continued reading, gave him time for a little thinking, and when he returned to his father's house, in Hampshire, he had become fixed in his determination to write a history, though of what was still undecided.

I am rather afraid to say it, for no two men could well be more unlike one another, but Gibbon always reminds me in an odd inverted way of Milton. I suppose it is because as the one is our grandest author, so the other is our most grandiose. Both are self-conscious and make no apology--Milton magnificently self-conscious, Gibbon splendidly so. Everyone knows the great passages in which Milton, in 1642, asked the readers of his pamphlet on the reason of Church government urged against prelacy, to go on trust with him for some years for his great unwritten poem, as 'being a work not to be raised from the heat of youth or the vapour of wine, like that which flows at waste from the pen of some vulgar amorist or the trencher fury of a rhyming parasite, nor to be obtained by the invocation of Dame Memory and her seven daughters, but by devout prayer to that Eternal Spirit who can enrich with all utterance and knowledge, and sends out His seraphim with the hallow'd fire of His Altar to touch and purify the lips of whom He pleases: to this must be added industrious and select reading, study, observation and insight into all seemly opinions, arts, and affairs.' Different men, different minds. There are things terrestrial as well as things celestial. Certainly Gibbon's Autobiography contains no passages like those which are to be found in Milton's pamphlets; but for all that he, in his mundane way, consecrated himself for his self-imposed task, and spared no toil to equip himself for it. He, too, no less than Milton, had his high hope and his hard attempting. He tells us in his stateliest way how he first thought of one subject, and then another, and what progress he had made in his different schemes before he abandoned them, and what reasons induced him so to do. Providence watched over the future historian of the Roman Empire as surely as it did over the future author of Paradise Lost, as surely as it does over everyone who has it in him to do anything really great. Milton, we know, in early life was enamoured of King Arthur, and had it in his mind to make that blameless king the hero of his promised epic, but

'What resounds
In fable or romance of Uther's son,
Begirt with British and Amoric knights,'

can brook a moment's comparison with the baffled hero of Paradise Lost; so too, what a mercy that Gibbon did not fritter away his splendid energy, as he once contemplated doing, on Sir Walter Raleigh, or squander his talents on a history of Switzerland or even of Florence!

After the disbanding of the militia Gibbon obtained his father's consent to spend the money it was originally proposed to lay out in buying him a seat in Parliament, upon foreign travel, and early in 1763 he reached Paris, where he abode three months. An accomplished scholar whose too early death all who knew him can never cease to deplore, Mr. Cotter Morison, whose sketch of Gibbon is, by general consent, admitted to be one of the most valuable books of a delightful series, does his best, with but partial success, to conceal his annoyance at Gibbon's stupidly placid enjoyment of Paris and French cookery. 'He does not seem to be aware,' says Mr. Morison, 'that he was witnessing one of the most singular social phases which have ever yet been presented in the history of man.' Mr. Morison does not, indeed, blame Gibbon for this, but having, as he had, the most intimate acquaintance with this period of French history, and knowing the tremendous issues involved in it, he could not but be chagrined to notice how Gibbon remained callous and impervious. And, indeed, when the Revolution came it took no one more by surprise than it did the man who had written the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Writing, in 1792, to Lord Sheffield, Gibbon says, 'Remember the proud fabric of the French monarchy: not four years ago it stood founded, and might it not seem on the rock of time, force, and opinion, supported by the triple authority of the Church, the Nobility, and the Parliament?' But the Revolution came for all that; and what, when it did come, did it teach Mr. Gibbon? 'Do not, I beseech you, tamper with Parliamentary representation. If you begin to improve the Constitution, you may be driven step by step from the disfranchisement of Old Sarum to the King in Newgate; the Lords voted useless, the bishops abolished, the House of Commons sans culottes.' The importance of shutting off the steam and sitting on the safety-valve was what the French Revolution taught Mr. Gibbon. Mr. Bagehot says: 'Gibbon's horror of the French Revolution was derived from the fact that he had arrived at the conclusion that he was the sort of person a populace invariably kills.' An excellent reason, in my opinion, for hating revolution, but not for misunderstanding it.

After leaving Paris Gibbon lived nearly a year in Lausanne, reading hard to prepare himself for Italy. He made his own handbook. At last he felt himself fit to cross the Alps, which he did seated in an osier basket planted on a man's shoulders. He did not envy Hannibal his elephant. He lingered four months in Florence, and then entered Rome in a spirit of the most genuine and romantic enthusiasm. His zeal made him positively active, though it is impossible to resist a smile at the picture he draws of himself 'treading with a lofty step the ruins of the Forum.' He was in Rome eighteen weeks; there he had, as we saw at the beginning, his heavenly vision, to which he was not disobedient. He paid a visit of six weeks' duration to Naples, and then returned home more rapidly. 'The spectacle of Venice,' he says, 'afforded some hours of astonishment.' Gibbon has sometimes been called 'long-winded,' but when he chooses, nobody can be shorter with either a city or a century.

He returned to England in 1765, and for five rather dull years lived in his father's house in the country or in London lodgings. In 1770 his father died, and in 1772 Gibbon took a house in Bentinck Street, Manchester Square, filled it with books--for in those days it must not be forgotten there was no public library of any kind in London--and worked hard at his first volume, which appeared in February, 1775. It made him famous, also infamous, since it concluded with the fifteenth and sixteenth chapters on Christianity. In 1781 two more volumes appeared. In 1783 he gave up Parliament and London, and rolled over Westminster Bridge in a post-chaise, on his way to Lausanne, where he had his home for the rest of his days. In May, 1788, the three last volumes appeared. He died in St. James's Street whilst on a visit to London, on the 15th of January, 1794, of a complaint of a most pronounced character, which he had with characteristic and almost criminal indolence totally neglected for thirty years. He was buried in Fletching Churchyard, Sussex, in the family burial-place of his faithful friend and model editor, the first Lord Sheffield. He had not completed his fifty-eighth year.

* * * * *

Before concluding with a few very humble observations on Gibbon's writings, something ought to be said about him as a social being. In this aspect he had distinguished merit, though his fondness of, and fitness for, society came late. He had no schooldays, no college days, no gilded youth. From sixteen to twenty-one he lived poorly in Lausanne, and came home more Swiss than English. Nor was his father of any use to him. It took him a long time to rub off his shyness; but the militia, Paris, and Rome, and, above all, the proud consciousness of a noble design, made a man of him, and after 1772, he became a well-known figure in London society. He was a man of fashion as well as of letters. In this respect, and, indeed, in all others, except their common love of learning, he differed from Dr. Johnson. Lords and ladies, remarked that high authority, don't like having their mouths shut. Gibbon never shut anybody's mouth, and in Johnson's presence rarely opened his own. Johnson's dislike of Gibbon does not seem to have been based upon his heterodoxy, but his ugliness. 'He is such an amazing ugly fellow,' said that Adonis. Boswell follows suit, and, with still less claim to be critical, complains loudly of Gibbon's ugliness. He also hated him very sincerely. 'The fellow poisons the whole club to me,' he cries. I feel sorry for Boswell, who has deserved well of the human race. Ironical people like Gibbon are rarely tolerant of brilliant folly. Gibbon, no doubt, was ugly. We get a glance at him in one of Horace Walpole's letters, which, sparkling as it does with vanity, spite, and humour, is always pleasant. He is writing to Mr. Mason:

'You will be diverted to hear that Mr. Gibbon has quarrelled with me. He lent me his second volume in the middle of November; I returned it with a most civil panegyric. He came for more incense. I gave it, but, alas! with too much sincerity; I added: "Mr. Gibbon, I am sorry you should have pitched on so disgusting a subject as the Constantinopolitan history. There is so much of the Arians and Eunomians and semi-Pelagians; and there is such a strange contrast between Roman and Gothic manners, that, though you have written the story as well as it could be written, I fear few will have patience to read it." He coloured, all his round features squeezed themselves into sharp angles; he screwed up his button-mouth, and rapping his snuff-box, said, "It had never been put together before"--so well he meant to add, but gulped it. He meant so well, certainly, for Tillemont, whom he quotes in every page, has done the very thing. Well, from that hour to this, I have never seen him, though he used to call once or twice a week; nor has he sent me the third volume, as he promised. I well knew his vanity, even about his ridiculous face and person, but thought he had too much sense to avow it so palpably.' 'So much,' adds Walpole, with sublime nescience of the verdict of posterity upon his own most amusing self, 'so much for literature and its fops.'

Male ugliness is an endearing quality, and in a man of great talents it assists his reputation. It mollifies our inferiority to be able to add to our honest admiration of anyone's great intellectual merit, 'But did you ever see such a chin!'

Nobody except Johnson, who was morbid on the subject of looks, liked Gibbon the less for having a button-mouth and a ridiculous nose. He was, Johnson and Boswell apart, a popular member of the club. Sir Joshua and he were, in particular, great cronies, and went about to all kinds of places, and mixed in every sort of society. In May, June, and July, 1779, Gibbon sat for his picture--that famous portrait to be found at the beginning of every edition of the History. Sir Joshua notes in his Diary: 'No new sitters--hard at work repainting the "Nativity," and busy with sittings of Gibbon.'

If we are to believe contemporary gossip, this was not the first time Reynolds had depicted the historian. Some years earlier the great painter had executed a celebrated portrait of Dr. Beattie, still pleasingly remembered by the lovers of old-fashioned poetry as the poet of The Minstrel, but who, in 1773, was better known as the author of an Essay on Truth. This personage, who in later life, it is melancholy to relate, took to drinking, is represented in Reynolds's picture in his Oxford gown of Doctor of Laws, with his famous essay under his arm, while beside him is Truth, habited as an angel, holding in one hand a pair of scales, and with the other thrusting down three frightful figures emblematic of Sophistry, Scepticism, and Infidelity. That Voltaire and Hume stood for two of these figures was no secret, but it was whispered Gibbon was the third. Even if so, an incident so trifling was not likely to ruffle the composure, or prevent the intimacy, of two such good-tempered men as Reynolds and Gibbon. The latter was immensely proud of Reynolds's portrait--the authorised portrait, of course--the one for which he had paid. He had it hanging up in his library at Lausanne, and, if we may believe Charles Fox, was fonder of looking at it than out of the window upon that incomparable landscape, with indifference to which he had twitted St. Bernard.

But, as I have said, Gibbon was a man of fashion as well as a man of letters. In another volume of Walpole we have a glimpse of him playing a rubber of whist. His opponents were Horace himself, and Lady Beck. His partner was a lady whom Walpole irreverently calls the Archbishopess of Canterbury.(5) At Brooks's, White's, and Boodle's, Gibbon was a prime favourite. His quiet manner, ironical humour, and perpetual good temper made him excellent company. He is, indeed, reported once, at Brooks's, to have expressed a desire to see the heads of Lord North and half a dozen ministers on the table; but as this was only a few days before he accepted a seat at the Board of Trade at their hands, his wrath was evidently of the kind that does not allow the sun to go down upon it. His moods were usually mild:

'Soon as to Brooks's thence thy footsteps bend,
What gratulations thy approach attend!
See Gibbon rap his box, auspicious sign
That classic wit and compliment combine.'


(5) By which title he refers to Mrs. Cornwallis, a lively lady who used to get her right reverend lord, himself a capital hand at whist, into great trouble by persisting in giving routs on Sunday.

To praise Gibbon heartily, you must speak in low tones. 'His cheek,' says Mr. Morison, 'rarely flushes in enthusiasm for a good cause.' He was, indeed, not obviously on the side of the angels. But he was a dutiful son to a trying father, an affectionate and thoughtful stepson to a stepmother who survived him, and the most faithful and warm-hearted of friends. In this article of friendship he not only approaches, but reaches, the romantic. While in his teens he made friends with a Swiss of his own age. A quarter of a century later on, we find the boyish companions chumming together, under the same roof at Lausanne, and delighting in each other's society. His attachment to Lord Sheffield is a beautiful thing. It is impossible to read Gibbon's letters without responding to the feeling which breathes through Lord Sheffield's preface to the miscellaneous writings:

'The letters will prove how pleasant, friendly, and amiable Mr. Gibbon was in private life; and if in publishing letters so flattering to myself I incur the imputation of vanity, I meet the charge with a frank confession that I am indeed highly vain of having enjoyed for so many years the esteem, the confidence, and the affection of a man whose social qualities endeared him to the most accomplished society, whose talents, great as they were, must be acknowledged to have been fully equalled by the sincerity of his friendship.'

To have been pleasant, friendly, amiable and sincere in friendship, to have written the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and the Autobiography, must be Gibbon's excuse for his unflushing cheek.

To praise Gibbon is not wholly superfluous; to commend his history would be so. In May, 1888, it attained, as a whole, its hundredth year. Time has not told upon it. It stands unaltered, and with its authority unimpaired. It would be invidious to name the histories it has seen born and die. Its shortcomings have been pointed out--it is well; its inequalities exposed--that is fair; its style criticised--that is just. But it is still read. 'Whatever else is read,' says Professor Freeman, 'Gibbon must be.'

The tone he thought fit to adopt towards Christianity was, quite apart from all particular considerations, a mistaken one. No man is big enough to speak slightingly of the constructions his fellow-men have from time to time put upon the Infinite. And conduct which in a philosopher is ill-judged, is in an historian ridiculous. Gibbon's sneers could not alter the fact that his History, which he elected to style the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, might equally well, as Dean Stanley has observed, have been called the 'Rise and Progress of the Christian Church.' This tone of Gibbon's was the more unfortunate because he was not of those men who are by the order of their minds incapable of theology. He was an admirable theologian, and, even as it is, we have Cardinal Newman's authority for the assertion, that Gibbon is the only Church historian worthy of the name who has written in English.

Gibbon's love of the unseemly may also be deprecated. His is not the boisterous impropriety which may sometimes be observed staggering across the pages of Mr. Carlyle, but the more offensive variety which is overheard sniggering in the notes.

The importance, the final value, of Gibbon's History has been assailed in high quarters. Coleridge, in a well-known passage in his Table Talk--too long to be quoted--said Gibbon was a man of immense reading; but he had no philosophy. 'I protest,' he adds, 'I do not remember a single philosophical attempt made throughout the work to fathom the ultimate causes of the decline and fall of the empire.' This spoiled Gibbon for Coleridge, who has told us that 'though he had read all the famous histories, and he believed some history of every country or nation, that is or ever existed, he had never done so for the story itself--the only thing interesting to him being the principles to be evolved from and illustrated by the facts.'

I am not going to insult the majestic though thickly-veiled figure of the Philosophy of History. Every sensible man, though he might blush to be called a philosopher, must wish to be the wiser for his reading; but it may, I think, be fairly said that the first business of an historian is to tell his story, nobly and splendidly, with vivacity and vigour. Then I do not see why we children of a larger growth may not be interested in the annals of mankind simply as a story, without worrying every moment to evolve principles from each part of it. If I choose to be interested in the colour of Mary Queen of Scots' eyes, or the authorship of the Letters of Junius, I claim the right to be so. Of course, if I imagine either of these subjects to be matters of importance--if I devote my life to their elucidation, if I bore my friends with presentation pamphlets about them--why, then, I am either a feeble fribble or an industrious fool; but if I do none of these things I ought to be left in peace, and not ridiculed by those who seem to regard the noble stream of events much as Brindley did rivers--mainly as something which fills their ugly canals of dreary and frequently false comment.

But, thirdly, whilst yielding the first place to philosophy, divine philosophy, as I suppose, when one comes to die, one will be glad to have done, it is desirable that the text and the comment should be kept separate and apart. The historian who loads his frail craft with that perilous and shifting freight, philosophy, adds immensely to the dangers of his voyage across the ocean of Time. Gibbon was no fool, yet it is as certain as anything can be, that had he put much of his philosophy into his history, both would have gone to the bottom long ago. And even better philosophy than Gibbon's would have been, is apt to grow mouldy in a quarter of a century, and to need three new coats of good oily rhetoric, to make it presentable to each new generation.

Gibbon was neither a great thinker nor a great man. He had neither light nor warmth. This is what, doubtless, prompted Sir James Mackintosh's famous exclamation, that you might scoop Gibbon's mind out of Burke's without missing it. But hence, I say, the fitness of things that chained Gibbon to his library chair, and set him as his task, to write the history of the Roman Empire, whilst leaving Burke at large to illuminate the problems of his own time.

Gibbon avowedly wrote for fame. He built his History meaning it to last. He got £6,000 for writing it. The booksellers netted £60,000 by printing it. Gibbon did not mind. He knew it would be the volumes of his History, and not the banking books of his publishers, who no doubt ran their trade risks, which would keep their place upon men's shelves. He did an honest piece of work, and he has had a noble reward. Had he attempted to know the ultimate causes of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, he must have failed, egregiously, childishly. He abated his pretensions as a philosopher, was content to attempt some picture of the thing acted--of the great pageant of history--and succeeded.

(The end)
Augustine Birrell's essay: Edward Gibbon

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