Abbildungen der Seite
PDF
EPUB

heart with the daughter of a pastor, — the same lady asterwards known as the wife of Neckar and mother of Madame de Staël. He resorted to the desperate measure of throwing himself on his knees before her, - a most unguarded act, since he could not rise of himself by reason of his weight, and she was not able, if disposed, to lift him ; so that it was not till the servants came in, that he was released from his unhappy posture, and enabled to depart in peace.

When he returned from abroad, he was kindly received by his father, who had married a second wife ; a person who became to Gibbon a kind and faithful friend. A military taste infested the country at that time, and people the most unfit for such extravagances hurried away from their harmless employments to share the excitement of war at a comfortable distance from its dangers. Gibbon, among others, was glorified with the rank of captain in the regiment of which his father was major ; but he found no enjoyment in what he called his military life; he complained of the loss of time which it occasioned, and the rude companionship to which it exposed him ; it was altogether unsuited to his taste, which did not fit him even for literary warfare, save when there was no enemy arrayed against him, — as when he published his work on the study of literature, in which he vindicates, as he says, his favorite, though who had attacked it or thrown any reproach upon it since the Battle of the Books, it was not easy to tell. His essay, being written in French, was not read at all in England ; abroad, it excited some attention from the singularity of French correctly written by a foreigner. He apologized for what seemed like an affectation, by saying that he had hopes of some diplomatic appointment, which it might help to secure him ; but it was probably more from display than any other reason that he undertook to “ babble the dialect of France.” There are very few who are acquainted with a foreign language, who can resist the temptation to flourish it in the eyes and ears of men.

The natural bent of Gibbon's mind inclined him strongly to historical investigations, and while engaged in the bloodless campaigns of the militia, he had been revolving various subjects in his mind, such as the expedition of Charles the Eighth into Italy, the wars of the English barons, and the short and brilliant lives of the Black Prince, of Sir Philip Sidney, and Montrose. He had almost determined to engage in a biography of Raleigh, and read with deep interest all the records of his romantic and adventurous life. But among so many fine subjects, he was perplexed with the variety and number; and it was not till he had made a visit to Rome that his mind took fast hold of any one. There, in October, 1764, as he sat musing in the ruins of the Capitol, he heard the barefooted friars singing vespers in the 'Temple of Jupiter, - a sound which, as one might have supposed, brought up affecting and powerful associations of the changes and revolutions that had passed over the Eternal City, and which was itself a sufficient illustration of the decline and fall of the glory that had passed away. But the mere passing thought was not sufficient to inspire him ; it was not till he felt the want of steady and systematic employment to keep his mind in tune and to prevent the exertion of its self-tormenting power, that he was able to nerve himself for the great enterprise before him. He found that nothing is more afflicting than the literary leisure which intellectual men so earnestly desire. It was once stated in a Western print, that “ the operation of the · Relief laws' had been found very burdensome"; and so in life, relieve a man from the obligation to labor with his mind or hands, and he can hardly bear the weight of existence ; if he is not under any such necessity, he must supply the want of it for himself; and this was done by Gibbon, with equal wisdom and success.

His great work was commenced in 1772, with diligent and efficient preparation. He appears to have been aware that his weak point would be the style, and so anxious was he to guard from failure in this respect, that the first chapter was written three times, and the next two twice over, before they gave him satisfaction. But even then he was too easily satisfied; for after all, he never gained the power of melting down his various materials into a harmonious, consistent, and flowing story. There are constant intimations of what the reader has no means of knowing, awkward and squinting allusions to facts and incidents which are behind the scenes, and a way of introducing subjects indirectly and by implication, which, if produced at all, should come full before us in the march of the history, each in its place and order. Many sentences seem intended for riddles to try the ingenuity of the reader ; over others we ponder quite as long as is worth while to make sure that we understand them, a natural and rea

sonable desire, in which we are sometimes disappointed after all. And yet we must allow, that, while his manner of writing is neither easy nor graceful, it is more in keeping with his subject than it would be with any other, resembling the lordly march of a Roman emperor in his flowing purple, stately and majestic, though restricting the free movements of the form. But while it had some obvious defects, its merits were superlatively great ; the two great historians of the time delighted to honor it, - Hume with friendly and sympathizing interest, Robertson with gentlemanly praise. Moreover, it had the honor of being dedicated to a royal duke, and history has recorded the exclamation of distaste which fell from the Mæcenas, when he saw the historian heaving in sight with “his great square book.” Thus heralded, the work was received with great applause ; while Hume's history was left on the bookseller's shelves, the first edition of this was sold almost in a day ; it was found in the studies of the learned, and in the saloons of fashion. One can hardly tell how it happened that such a work, with all its great merit, should have gained favor with those who had no taste for the delightful narrative of Hume. But the voice of applause was not the only sound which the author heard on this occasion. The church militant, always sufficiently warlike for a religion of peace, was at this time up in arms. Various divines, with Bishop Watson at their head, assailed him for the unfairness and malignant spirit of those parts in which Christianity is mentioned, and confronted him with charges which he was not able to disprove. When they accused him of incorrect statement and false quotation, he was prepared to meet them; his regard to his character as a historian was enough to save him from those errors and crimes. But he could not deny that he wrote in the character of a Christian, with an evident design to throw contempt on the religion; that he intimated, in language sharp and sneering, what he dared not openly advance ; that he made his history a means of gratifying a spiteful and resentful feeling, which he seemed to want courage to avow; and that, under some strange perversion of feeling, he seemed to enjoy and defend the persecution of the early martyrs, making light of their patient fortitude, and

oppressor's crimes. It is not easy to explain how this venomous feeling against the religion originated in his breast. It does not seem so much like a doubt of its truth

Gibbon ap

and divinity, as an aversion to the name. But he finds his retribution now; his credit as a historian is far lower than if he had come out with an open declaration of his unbelief; and, instead of exciting admiration by his vast power of irony, he gives the impression of something unsound in his beart.

In the two years between the publication of the first and the commencement of the second volume, he employed himself in his attendance as a member of parliament, and in a visit to his friends, the Neckars, in Paris, where his familiarity with the French language made him generally welcome. Hume, who was a favorite there, was laughed at for bis ignorance of French and his awkward simplicity of manners. pears to have been more respected than beloved. In parliament, he gained credit by drawing up a memorial in defence of the British government against the French claims, in 1778. For this he was rewarded with the sinecure place of Lord of Trade, which he held till the board was abolished, in 1784, when, finding his income unequal to the expense of living in London, he determined to spend the rest of his days at Lausanne. He longed to take a part in the debates of parliament, but as often as he thought of the horrors of a failure he shrank back with dismay. He was not aware how many empty vessels in all public bodies make the welkin ring with their abundance and endlessness of sound. Extemporaneous speaking in its ordinary forms is easily acquired, — too easily, indeed, for the comfort and respectability of our halls of state. Even now the silent members are the chief ornaments of such places, and the country would not lament if a prevailing lockjaw should suppress the eloquence of many who might as well be still.

After the completion of his second and third volumes, which, as he was well aware, were not received as warmly as the first, not, however, on account of the matter or style, but simply because the great majority of readers have no delight in books that are long, he was in doubt whether to proceed, or to close the history with the fall of the Western Empire. But the same necessity which urged him to begin required him to persevere ; indeed, it was more difficult, when once accustomed to the routine, to sink back into listless repose. He therefore kept on, and nearly completed his fourth volume before leaving England, after narrowly escaping a controversy He was pre;

with Dr. Priestley, to which he was earnestly invited by that excellent but somewhat warlike divine. pared to hear his treatment of Christianity condemned, and was not surprised when the censure came, though rather stunned by its depth and loudness; but he does not seem to have been in the least aware that the indecency of his notes would be matter of reproach. One can hardly conceive what his habits of thought must have been, to see nothing objectionable in his account of Theodora, for example. Even when Porson thundered out his anathema, Gibbon seemed more disposed to smile at such a person officiating in the capacity of moralist, than to resent, or even to feel, the reproach. The only excuse he thinks it necessary to make is that the narrative is what it should be, and only the notes are licentious; whereas it is evident that this very consciousness, and the thin veil of another language, only serve to excite attention which the reader without them never would have thought of giving. It implies an enlightened knowledge of human nature, like that of one who should inclose what he wished to conceal in a thin covering, writing on it a request to the public that no one would look in.

The history was completed in 1787, and most readers are familiar with the striking description of his feelings as he wrote the closing words in a summer-house in his garden, at the hour of midnight, when the air was mild, the sky serene, and the moonlight sweetly reflected from the waters. His first thought was that of joy at recovering his freedom, and perhaps establishing his fame. But on reflection, he felt that he had parted with an old and agreeable companion, which had been a source of high and intellectual interest for years, and that, however the history might endure, the days of the writer were wasting to their close. The question of the duration of the history was soon decided. Every intelligent reader felt that only a most uncommon sagacity could have seen through the confusion of the chaotic variety of his materials, estimating their claims and merits, and their often obscure relations with each other. So far from complaining of any want of clearness in the narrative, the wonder is, that he should ever have been able to subdue them into tolerable harmony and order. He seems never to have been weary of searching into the endless range of subjects presented, balancing authorities and determining their accuracy with a

« ZurückWeiter »