Edward Gibbon : Literary Contribution

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      His Life : Edward Gibbon, (1737-1794) who was born at Putney, was a sickly child and, according to his own grateful acknowledgment, he owed his life to the exertions of his aunt, Catherine Porten. He had little regular schooling, but from his early years he was an eager reader of history. At the age of fifteen he entered Magdalen College, Oxford, an institution of which he always spoke afterwards with aversion and contempt. "To the University of Oxford," he writes, acknowledge no obligation, and she will as readily renounce me for a son, as I am willing to disclaim her for a mother." His private historical studies led him to become a Roman Catholic when he was sixteen years old, to the great horror of his father, and resulted in his expulsion from the university. His father packed him off to Lausanne, in Switzerland, in the hope that the Protestant atmosphere of the place would wean him from his new faith.

Edward Gibbon's first projected book, A History of Switzerland (1770), was never finished. Then appeared the first volume of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776). At nearly regular intervals of two years each of the other five volumes was produced, the last appearing in 1788. His Autobiography, which contains valuable material concerning his life, is his only other work of any importance, and it is written with all his usual elegance and suave, ironic humour.
Edward Gibbon

      From his stay in Lausanne began Gibbon's long and affectionate acquaintance with French language and learning, two sources from which he was to draw the chief inspiration for his masterpiece. He returned to England in 1758, and had a brief and mixed experience in the Militia; afterward he toured the Continent, visiting the famous salons of Paris and seeing Rome. Returning to England after some years, he entered Parliament (1774), hoping for political preferment. In this he was only moderately successful, for he was a lukewarm and rather cynical politician. He returned to Lausanne, where he completed his great work in June 1787. He finally came back to England, and died in lodgings in London.

      His Works : Edward Gibbon's first projected book, A History of Switzerland (1770), was never finished. Then appeared the first volume of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776). At nearly regular intervals of two years each of the other five volumes was produced, the last appearing in 1788. His Autobiography, which contains valuable material concerning his life, is his only other work of any importance, and it is written with all his usual elegance and suave, ironic humour.

      To most judges The Decline and Fall ranks as one of the greatest of historical works, and is a worthy example of what a history ought to be. In time it covers more than a thousand years, and in scope it includes all the nations of Europe. It sketches the events leading up to the dissolution of the Roman Empire, and traces the rise of the states and nations that previously formed the component parts of the Roman world, concluding with the fall of Constantinople in the fifteenth century. For this great task Gibbon's knowledge is adequate; recent specialized research has rarely been able to pick holes in his narrative. Moreover, he had also that infallible sense of proportion which is the mark of the born historian: he knows what and when to omit, to condense, or give in full. In consequence his gigantic narrative has the balance and the beauty that result from a single and indivisible mind directing it, and suggests in plan and workmanship a vast cathedral.

      Exception has been taken to Gibbon's humour, and with some reason. His sceptical bias, the product of his studies in French, pervades the entire work. This mental attitude need be no disadvantage to the historian, for it leads him to scrutinize his evidence very severely. But in the case of Gibbon it is troublesome at times, especially when he deals with the rise of the Christian faith. In the chapters devoted to the early Christians he sets the facts down solemnly, but all the time he is subtly and sneeringly ironical, a characteristic that aroused the great indignation of Johnson. At many other points when recording disagreeable incidents Gibbon reveals a sniggering nastiness of humour unworthy of so great a writer.

      His prose style, deliberately cultivated as being most suited to his subject, is peculiar to himself. It is lordly and commanding, with a full, free, and majestic rhythm. Admirably appropriate to its gigantic subject, the style has nevertheless some weaknesses. Though it never flags, and rarely stumbles, the very perfection of it tends to monotony, for it lacks ease and variety.

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