Page images
PDF
EPUB
[merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small][ocr errors][merged small][merged small]

On an October evening in the year 1764, a young English gentleman of twenty-seven resolved to write a book of history. His own words tell us of the romantic circumstances in which the great resolve was made :

“ As I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted friars were singing vespers in the Temple of Jupiter, the idea of writing the Decline and Fall of the city first started to my

mind.” The same man, Edward Gibbon, has thus described the completion of his great work at Lausanne, when he had passed his fiftieth year :

“ 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 the recovery of my freedom, and perhaps 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, whatsoever might be the future date of my History, the life of the historian must be short and precarious."

364

EARLY LIFE OF GIBBON.

Gibbon was born in the year 1737, at Putney in Surrey. The delicate boy received much of his early education from his aunt; and when he went to Westminster School at the age of twelve, ill health prevented him from giving very close attention to his studies. In 1752 he became a gentleman commoner of Magdalen College, Oxford,-arriving at that seat of learning, as he tells us himself, “ with a stock of erudition that might have puzzled a doctor, and a degree of ignorance of which a school-boy would have been ashamed.” The key to this statement we find in the fact, that, while too ill for study during his school-days, he had been devouring works of all sorts, especially enjoying with the keenest relish books of history and geography. As was the case with Walter Scott, the mind of the youthful invalid never lost the colouring with which these sick-bed readings had saturated its fibres. At Oxford, Gibbon led a wild and idle life for fourteen months, when, as the result of his private reading, he turned to the Roman Catholic Church. This change closed his university career. After spending a year in the house of a Protestant clergyman at

Lausanne in Switzerland, where his father had placed 1754 him, he returned to the Protestant Church, expressing his A.D. belief in the commonly accepted truths of Christianity.

But there is reason for more than fear that any change he made was made as a mere matter of form. The truth seems to be, that Gibbon had read himself into infidelity; and in his History he makes very light indeed of Christianity as a motive power in the civilization of man.

His five years at Lausanne made him a perfect master of French, and considerably advanced his neglected Latin studies. Some time after his return to England he published his first work, a little French treatise, entitled Essai sur l'Etude de la Littérature; which, in England at least, was soon forgotten. Acting for a while as captain in the Hampshire Militia, he gained considerable insight into modern military tactics; and we can easily fancy the great historian of the Roman Empire pausing, pen in hand, as he sat in after years in his summer-house by the blue waters of Lake Leman, writing the story of some mediæval battle, to think

THE DECLINE AND FALL.”

365

A.D.

of the days when he used to drill his grenadiers in the barrackyards of England.

When his father died in 1770, leaving him an estate much hampered with debt, he settled in London, and began to write. From the outset of the work he felt the magnitude and difficulty of the theme. All was dark and doubtful. Three times he composed the first chapter, and twice he composed the second and third, before he felt satisfied with them; but, as he advanced, what seemed to be a chaos of tangled facts, mixed in hopeless confusion, grew under his shaping hand into an orderly and beautiful narrative; and before he had gone very deep into his subject, his gorgeous and stately style had grown so familiar to his pen, that he made no second

copy of what he wrote, but sent the first manuscript direct to the printer. In 1776, when he had been already two years in Parliament as member for Liskeard, the first volume of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire 1776 was published; and the author sprang at once into literary fame. In five years (1781) the second and third volumes made their appearance; soon after which the historian, disappointed in his hopes of a permanent government post, retired to the house of a literary friend at Lausanne, where he wrote the rest of the work.

His life at Lausanne was simple and studious. Rising before eight, he was called from his study to an English breakfast at nine. He then shut himself up among his books and papers

till half-past one, when he dressed for the two o'clock Swiss dinner, at which a friend or two often joined the table. Light reading, chess, or visiting filled up the interval between dinner and the assemblies. A quiet game of whist and a supper of bread and cheese passed the evening hours, and eleven o'clock saw all in bed. This life, with slight interruption, Gibbon lived for the four years which he spent in the completion of his great work. After the publication of the last volumes, which he saw through the press in 1788, he returned to Lausanne, and did not leave it until the death of Lady Sheffield in 1793 brought him hastily to London, in order to console the bereaved husband, who was his

[blocks in formation]

most intimate friend. In little more than six months after he had left his Swiss retirement, he died in London, of a disease which had long been preying on his strength (January 16, 1794).

Viewed simply as a literary performance, "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" must be regarded, in spite of its defects and errors, as the noblest historical work in the English language. When we remember the immensity of the subject,--the history, during nearly thirteen centuries, not only of the two great branches of the Roman Empire, but of all the various nations that played a part in the grand drama of which Rome and Constantinople were the central scenes—we are struck with astonishment at the courage of the mind that could grapple with a theme so gigantic. We think of Gibbon, sitting down to compose that memorable first chapter for the first time, as of some strapping woodsman, who, on the outskirts of a spreading forest, strikes his bright axe deep into the bark of the first tree. A wilderness of tangling boughs and thorny underwood, pathless and unexplored, lies stretching out before his gaze. But day by day the clearing grows wider. The fallen timber is shaped for use and beauty. The corn-patch waves its golden plumes every season in a larger circle. Gardens and cultured farms smile, where before the sunlight could scarcely shine through a rank, unfruitful thicket.

From the reign of the Antonines to the fall of Constantinople the narrative extends, filling much of that great gap which long severed the history of ancient Rome from the history of modern Europe. The style is lofty, musical, sometimes pompous in its gorgeous stateliness. No man has better understood the power of the picturesque in historical composition ; and throughout the entire work the law of historical perspective, by which events and characters receive their due proportion of space, is wonderfully maintained. From the range of his deep and varied reading he drew materials for the splendid panorama he has unfolded to our view. The manners and customs of peoples, the geography of countries, the science of war, the systems of law, the progress of the arts, are all woven with masterly skill into the brilliant tissue of events.

GIBBON'S “ SOLEMN SNEER.

367

But in this great book there are deep-rooted and terrible evils. Without denying the evidences of Christianity, the historian loses no opportunity of slighting its power and sneering at its purity. Utterly ignoring the work of a Divine hand in the wonderful spread of the gospel of Christ, he traces the development of the Christian system only to secondary causes, and dwells at length, and with a seeming pleasure, on the corruptions of the early Church, as if these had grown out of the system itself, instead of being the foul funguses of human sin. His chapters on the spread of Christianity have nothing in them of the fire with which he describes the blood-stained marches of Mahomet and Tamerlane. Then he has not only the sneer of the Voltaire school, but that deep depravity of imagination which made them revel in licentious and disgusting details. Such faults as these, coupled with the fact that his acquaintance with the Byzantine historians is considered to have been but superficial, are abiding blots on this great literary achievement.

THE ATTACK ON CONSTANTINOPLE.

At daybreak, without the customary signal of the morning gun, the Turks assaulted the city by sea and land ; and the similitude of a twined or twisted thread has been applied to the closeness and continuity of their line of attack. The foremost rank consisted of the refuse of the host,-a voluntary crowd, who fought without order or command; of the feebleness of age or childhood, of peasants and vagrants, and of all who had joined the camp in the blind hope of plunder and martyrdom. The common impulse drove them onwards to the wall: the most audacious to climb were instantly precipitated; and not a dart, not a bullet, of the Christians was idly wasted on the accumulated throng. But their strength and ammunition were wasted in this laborious defence. The ditch was filled with the bodies of the slain,—they supported the footsteps of their conipanions; and of this devoted vanguard the death was more serviceable than the life. Under their respective bashaws and sanjaks the troops of Anatolia and Romania were successively led to the charge : their progress was various and doubtful; but, after a conflict of two hours, the Greeks still maintained and improved their advantage; and the voice of the Emperor was heard encouraging his soldiers to achieve, by a last effort, the deliverance of their country. In that fatal moment the janizaries arose, fresh, vigorous, and invincible. The Sultan himself on horseback, with an iron mace in his hand, was the spectator and judge of their valour. He was surrounded by ten thousand of his domestic troops, whom he reserved for the decisive occasion; and the tide of battle was

« PreviousContinue »