Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
Critical Introduction by George Saintsbury
Edward Gibbon (17371794)
[Edward Gibbon was born at Putney on 27th April 1737. His father was a man of some fortune, and belonged to a fair family, though his own wealth was derived from speculation. Gibbon was a very weakly boy, the sole survivor of several children. He was very uncomfortable at Westminster, but picked up a good deal of miscellaneous information; and when he was rather prematurely sent to Oxford at the age of fifteen, his disgust with his college (Magdalen) seems to have been as much due to priggishness, shyness, and irregular mixture of learning and ignorance in the scholar, as to incapacity or unworthiness in the teachers. He turned Roman Catholic at sixteen, left Oxford, found, for the time at least, nothing palateable in the Bolingbrokian philosophy of Mallet, and was sent to Lausanne to board with a pastor, M. Pavillard. Here he stayed five years. His unromantic romance with Suzanne Curchod, afterwards Madame Necker, when he sighed as a lover but obeyed as a son, is one of the most universally known things in his life. The special purpose of his visit was so far achieved that he took the sacrament in Protestant form, and, as he characteristically remarks, suspended his religious enquiries, which it may be observed had begun, even before his Roman stage, under the ominous auspices of Conyers Middleton. He came home in 1758, joined the Hampshire militia, got on well enough with father and stepmother (his own aunt Catherine Porten, who had brought him up, was the only person for whom he had any family, perhaps the only woman for whom he had any real, affection), returned to the Continent, and on 15th October 1764 conceived, as he has himself told, the idea of his great history. Thirty years more of life remained to him, in which, besides some minor work, he carried out the scheme of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. This took something more than twenty of them; and he has celebrated the completion in a passage as stately and as famous as that which records the conception. Meanwhile he lived partly in England, partly and by preference at Lausanne, sat in Parliament for some time, and was a Lord of Trade and Plantations. The first volume of the Decline was published in 1776, the last in 1788. Gibbon himself died on 16th January 1794. His friend Holroyd, Lord Sheffield, subsequently collected and published his Miscellaneous Works, of which by far the most important is his masterly and characteristic autobiography.]
ALTHOUGH upon the whole Gibbon is one of the rare examples of a writer whose reputation, great and deserved at once, has deservedly increased as time went on, it cannot be said that he has at any time escaped unjust or at least irrelevant detraction. At the time of its appearance, though it could not fail to make its mark, the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was exposed to misconception from two causes. In respect of one of these the author was justly to be blamed; while in respect of the other he was guiltless. There can be no doubt that Gibbons attitude towards Christianity and religion generally, was even from the lowest point of view a mistake. It prejudiced one large section of his readers against him; it introduced a disturbing and deluding influence into his own manner of view; and what is more it was already something of an anachronism. Gibbon took it up when it was already losing its hold upon the brighter and more original spirits in all countries, when it was a fashion and not even a very new fashion. Again, the generation for whose benefit the book was written was in the habit of considering the ages with which all the best and most characteristic part of it deals as dark, sordid, uninteresting, and unworthy the attention of any but pedants and monks. Gibbons genius indeed compelled them to read; but they cannot but have felt a certain grudge against him for the compulsion. Nor did things improve when a new generation and a new century came into being. The offence to orthodoxy remained, and if the distaste for the subject slowly yielded to the pressure of Romantic feelings, it was replaced by an even stronger distaste for the style, and a sort of double-edged political odium. Tories disliked Gibbon because of his subversive religious opinions; Whigs made as little of him as they could because he was a Tory in politics. Accordingly a collection of curious uncritical omissions or aggressions might be made from the greater critics of the first quarter of this century about him. The remarks of Coleridge, the most scholarly and philosophical, and of Leigh Hunt, the most impulsive and popular, of the Romantic critics on his style are almost equally unfavourable; Sydney Smith, in a context which makes oversight almost impossible, excludes him from the list of our greatest historians; Jeffrey, so far as I remember, leaves him severely alone. The massive splendour of his manner had ceased to please a time which was seeking after more fantastic literary ornament; and the incomparable richness and art of his matter did not yet fully appeal to a time which was only beginning the history of the document.
Yet even against these drawbacks Gibbons wonderful merits made their way; and of late his fame on the side of matter has risen higher than ever, and on that of form has recovered much and will I think recover more appreciation. The estimate now held by all the best historians of his historical merits is something unique in literary history. For the greater part of the century since his death, and for the whole of its latter half, one unceasing process of unearthing original authorities, and of correcting (not always too critically or generously) the treatment of their subjects by previous writers has been going on. Historian after historian whose name was great with our forefathers, has been justly or unjustly relegated from the shelf of history to that of belles lettres if his literary merits happen to have been considerable, and to the garret or the cellar if they were not. Yet every critic who, himself competent to speak even on parts of the subject, has examined these parts with fairness, has confessed with astonishment the adequacy of Gibbons treatment; while those who are competent to judge the work as a whole have spoken with even greater astonishment of his coordination of the several parts into that whole. In the union of accuracy and grasp indeed Gibbon has absolutely no rival in literature ancient and modern. It constantly happens that a most learned, industrious, and accurate scholar will show himself hopelessly incompetent for the task of arranging his knowledge of something much less than the history of the whole of the western and part of the eastern world for fifteen hundred years. It happensnot much less oftenthat a man of real historical range and grasp is unequal to the toil, or unprovided with the faculty of ascertaining and stating details with accuracy. But Gibbon is equally great at both these things. It may be that he was not a little indebted to a gift which may be called the gift of sagaciously letting alone; but he certainly did not abuse this gift, and one of his most remarkable characteristics is his faculty of making slight references, which on fuller knowledge of the subject are found to be perfectly exact as far as they go. Every careful critic of his own and other mens work knows that there is no more dangerous point than this one of slight reference or allusion to subjects imperfectly known, nor any in which sciolism or imposture is more certain to be found out. Yet it is scarcely too much to say that Gibbon has never been thus found out. There were some thingsnot manywhich he did not and could not know; but almost everything that there was for him to know he knew.
The merits of his manner must of necessity be far more matters of taste, of opinion, and of variations in both. The simile of the Hampshire militiaman, which has sometimes been supposed to be justified by his own very innocent remark that his training in drill and tactics had been of use to him on the military side of history is smart enough of course. All that can be said is that it is a very high compliment to the Hampshire militia. To those who insist upon extreme ornamentation, or extreme simplicity of style, Gibbons, of course, must be distasteful. But to those who judge a thing by its possession of its own excellences, and not by its lack of the excellences of others, it must always be the subject of an immense admiration. In the first place it is perfectly clear, and for all its stateliness so little fatiguing to the reader that true Gibbonians read it, by snatches or in long draughts, as others read a newspaper or a novel for mere pastime. Although full of irony and epigram it is never uneasily charged with either; and the narrative is never broken, the composition never interrupted for the sake of a flourish or a point. It may be thought by some to abuse antithesis of sense and balance of cadence; but I should say myself that there is fully sufficient variety in the sentences and in the paragraph arrangement to prevent this. Here, no doubt, the ultima ratio of individual taste comes in. What is not disputable is that in the style of the balanced sentence, in which antithesis was the chief figure used, and in which the writer depends upon an ironic or declamatory flavouring, as the case might be, to save his manner from stiffness, Gibbon has achieved the farthest possible. That this was so, may be seen, better perhaps than in any other way by comparing the practice of Macaulay, who may be called a popular nineteenth-century Gibbon. That most ingenious and widely read historian in reality did little more than shorten the Gibbonian antithesis, substitute a sharp quick movement for the former stately roll, exchange irony for a certain kind of wit, and the declamation of oratory for the declamation of debate.
These remarks of necessity apply most to the Decline and Fall, but the manner of Gibbon is one and indivisible, and the Autobiography, the Miscellaneous Works, and even the letters, exhibit no very different characteristics. It would indeed have been surprising if they had. For Gibbon was one of those fortunate and rare men of letters, who early conceiving a great and definite scheme of literary attempt have had the leisure and the means to perfect their literary undertakings. He spent about twenty years on the completion of the work which he was born to do; and everything that as by-work and addition he felt himself inclined to grapple with, had in its preparation and execution an equally unhurried maturity. There may be, and no doubt there were, other instances of faculty which had equal opportunities of developing itself, and failed. In his case the faculty was there, the scheme was there, and the opportunities were there, with the result of a perfect accomplishment. It rests with those who hold that the faculty and the scheme being present but the opportunities absent, the same or any approximately equal result is attainable, to produce an instance justifying their theory.