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Art. I.— ]. Histoire de la Decadence el dc la Chute de 1'Empire Romain, fraduite de VAnglais d' Edouard Gibbon. Nouvelle edition, entierement revue et corrigee, precedke d'une Notice sur la Vie et le Caractere de Gibbon, et accompagnee de Notes critiques et historiques relatives powr la plupart a VFIistoire de la propagation du Christianisme. Par M. P. Guizot. Paris. 1828.
2. Etudes, ou Discours Historiques sur la Chute de 1'Empire Romain. Par M. de Chateaubriand. Paris. 1830. f^F the great historical works which distinguish the English literature of the last century, that of Gibbon has attained the most extensive European reputation, and appears the most likely to preserve its high station unendangered by rival or competitor. Some future historian of our own country may combine the grace of narrative, the undefiuable charm of style, by which Hume still retains undisputed possession of the popular ear, with profounder research, with more unquestionable impartiality, and a philosophy as calm, but more comprehensive and universal. Some fortunate writer may hereafter fuse together the antiquarian sagacity of Palgrave, and his searching knowledge of the mass of authentic materials for our history, which have been accumulating since the days of Hume; the intimate acquaintance of Turner with all the subsidiary information, which reflects light on the national manners and character at each period, with the sounder part of his views of the progress of society; he may strengthen the whole with the stern independence of Hallam, and enlighten it with the candour, the benevolence, the true philosophy of Mackintosh; he may attain that superiority over temporary influences, and party prejudices, which is indispensable to a writer for posterity—and of which, however he may give that able writer a fair hearing, he will not seek his example in Dr. Lingard :—he may even, without sacrificing the veracity of the historian, borrow from the romance of Scott the art of embodying the manners and feelings with the events of each succeeding age. We look back to the splendid ideal which we have ventured to sketch—if by no means in despair that the rich annals of our country may at length find their as eloquent and more trustworthy Livy—with a conviction that nothing less will disenchant the general taste from its long-cherished admiration of Vol. L. No. c. T Hume. Hume. At present, indeed, he is scarcely shaken upon his pedestal; yet we cannot suppose, that, even if his work should be illustrated, as it ought to be, in some future edition, and corrected by the new views and more extended information of his successors, he will permanently maintain his position as the historian of England.
Many detached passages of Robertson, and probably the whole historical episode of Charles V., will survive as models of chaste and elegant composition; but the ground occupied in these more successful essays is not very extensive: and, however, in some parts, his manner will not easily be surpassed, neither are his researches so profound and complete, nor his views so broad, as to secure his lasting possession of the greater provinces which he now holds by prescriptive right, those of America and Scotland.
But the vast design of Gibbon, the magnificent whole into which he has cast the decay and ruin of the ancient civilization, the formation and birth of the new order of things, will of itself, independent of the laborious execution of his immense plan, render the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire an unapproachable subject to the future historian :—' Within that circle none dare walk but he.'—In the eloquent language of his recent French editor:—
'The gradual decline of the most extraordinary dominion which has ever invaded and oppressed the world; the fall of the most vast of empires, erected on the ruins of so many kingdoms, republics, and states both barbarous and civilized; and forming in its turn, by its dismemberment, a multitude of states, republics, and kingdoms; the annihilation of the religion of Greece and Rome; the birth and the progress of the two new religions which have shared the most beautiful regions of the earth; the decrepitude of the ancient world, the spectacle of its expiring glory and degenerate manners; the infancy of the modern world, the picture of its first progress, of the new direction given to the mind and character of man—such a subject must necessarily fix the attention and excite the interest of men, who cannot behold with indifference those memorable epochs, during which, in the fine language of Corneille—
"Un grand destin commence, un grand destin s'acheve."'
An impartial estimate of the qualifications which Gibbon brought to the accomplishment of his great design, with a candid acknowledgment of the deficiencies under which he laboured, will lead to the same conclusion, as to the permanent and unassailable rank which his work will maintain, as the standard history of the period, in the literature of Europe. His immediate occupation, and his unshaken possession of the high place which he at once assumed in his own country, in defiance of the strong and sacred
feelings, feelings, the pnssions and even the interests which rose up in arms against him, are strong testimonies to the vitality of his history; the respect shown to his authority—the perpetual reference to his statements by the scholars and historians of the continent, no less than their deliberate and critical opinions, confirm the same judgment. The republication of the French translation, corrected' and illustrated by an author of such high character as M. Guizot, who has not scrupled to suspend his own valuable and original historical inquiries, to undertake the humbler office of an editor, still further evinces the demand for the History of the Decline and Fall from the continental press.* Gibbon, indeed, was at least half a Frenchman: if his laborious system of compilation, the depth and accuracy of his research, had more of the patient and plodding erudition of the north, both the merits and the defects of his manner of composition were essentially French; and we need not point out the influence of Voltaire and his school both upon the sarcastic periods and the philosophical views of the historian. It is well known that he composed with equal facility, and almost as much, in French as in English. Yet it is not in France alone, but likewise among the profound and inquiring scholars of Germany, that Gibbon maintains his ground. The learned modern editors of the later historians of Rome, of Ammianus Marcellinus, for instance, and of the Byzantine collection, defer to his interpretations, sometimes of the text, continually of the meaning, of their authors; and wherever their own researches have thrown further light on those periods comprehended within his work, their language is uniformly that of acknowledgment of his general accuracy, and respect for his elevated genius. In fact, Gibbon had almost anticipated that happy union, which we still hope to see even more perfectly consummated, of the indefatigable erudition of modern Germany with the lucid arrangement of the French, with their lively manner of developing their views, and of relating their facts ;—the whole condensed, as it were, and perfected by the masculine boldness and solidity of English judgment. In Gibbon there were wanting (great and grievous deficiencies, we acknowledge) a more free and natural style, a purer moral taste, and a philosophy superior to the narrow prejudices of its age— those prejudices which blinded him, not merely to the religious truth, but to the real influence of Christianity upon the political and social state of mankind, during the wide period embraced by his work ;—but, with these grand exceptions, there is everything to be admired in him as an historian.
In no writer is the personal character so much identified with that of the author—the life of Gibbon is a purely literary bio
* The edition before ua is the second, with M. Guizot's notes and corrections. The first appeared, we believe, in 1819.
T 2 graphy.
graphy. We turned to the sketch prefixed to the edition of M. Guizot, with much interest, particularly when we found that it bore the signature of M. Suard. The name of that honourable and accomplished writer, the translator of Robertson, carries us back with very agreeable reminiscences to that most brilliant period of Parisian society, when Gibbon met on familiar terms all the distinguished men of letters of his day; among these was M. Suard himself, who had enjoyed his society in London, at Paris, and at Lausanne. We had, indeed, expected more original anecdote, particularly of his residence in Prance, but M. Suard seems to have felt that Gibbon's narrative of his own life had effectually precluded the attempt of any future biographer. The details of his studies contain in fact the history of his mind; and the few important events of his personal history, his early conversion to the Roman Catholic faith, his recantation, his youthful love-adventure with Mad. Necker, and his silent parliamentary career, are all nearly as characteristic of the author, as of the man.* The rest of his life could only be filled with the account of his gradually accumulating treasures of knowledge, which occupy his journals ; and the peaceful amusements of his social hours. In truth, Gibbon's autobiography as completely anticipates any later endeavour to recompose his life, as his great history, that of the Decline and Fall of Rome. As a composition, in point of pure and finished execution, it is inimitable. The style, though still carefully rounded, and occasionally, perhaps, betraying the consummate art by which it would appear natural, has relaxed from the stately march, and the sometimes tumid pomp which it assumes in the history. 'Projicit ampullas et sesquipedalia verba.' The calm and equable tone in which he philosophises about the events of his life, admits his weaknesses without meanness, and asserts his literary dignity without ostentation; the warmth and fidelity of his friendships—perhaps the most ardent feeling of which his mind was capable;—even the calm contempt, without acrimony, which he contrives to evince towards some of his unworthy adversaries; the high intellectual character of his occupations-^-for ' the early and unconquerable love of reading,' which he declares that 'he would not part with for the treasures of India,' continued to be the unfailing solace of his age; and even that of his amusements—the
* M. Suard has the following note relating to the love-affair with Mademoiselle Curchod, afterwards Madame Necker:—
'The letter in which Gibbon communicated to Mademoiselle Curchod the opposition of his father to their marriage still exists in manuscript. The first psges are tender and melancholy, as might be expected from an unhappy lover ; the latter become by degrees calm and reasonable, and the letter concludes with these words:—Cest pouryuoi, MademoitfUe,fai tkonneur d'etre voire tres humble et ires obfossant terviteur, Edouard Gibbon. He truly loved Mademoiselle Curchod; but every one loves according to his character, and that of Gibbon was incapable of a despairing passion.'
society society and the correspondence of accomplished and of enlightened men,—all is in the same harmonious and admirable keeping. Philosophy can afford few more delightful, more enviable pictures of human life, than the industrious youth, the brilliant maturity, the placid, the contented, the honoured age of Gibbon—had but the Christian's firm and glowing hope of immortality lent its dignity to the closing scene!
M. Suard's memoir, therefore, contains little more than an abstract of Gibbon's 'own life,' in very graceful language, accompanied by a few observations full of candour and good feeling. The impression produced by Gibbon's conversation on one so accustomed to live in an atmosphere, as it were, of clever and brilliant talking, cannot fail to interest our readers:—
'As to his manners in society, without doubt the agreeableness (amabilite) of Gibbon was neither that yielding and retiring complaisance, nor that modesty which is forgetful of self; but his vanity (amour-propre) never showed itself in an offensive manner: anxious to succeed and to please, he wished to command attention, and obtained it without difficulty by a conversation animated, sprightly, and full of matter: all that was dictatorial (tranchant) in his tone betrayed not so much that desire of domineering over others, which is always offensive, as confidence in himself; and that confidence was justified both by his powers and by his success. Notwithstanding this, his conversation never carried one away (neutral nail jamais); its fault was a kind of arrangement, which never permitted him to say anything unless well. This fault might be attributed to the difficulty of speaking a foreign language, had not his friend, Lord Sheffield, who defends him from this suspicion of study in his conversation, admitted at the least, that before he wrote a note or a letter he arranged completely in his mind what he wished to express. He appears, indeed, always to have written thus. Dr. Gregory, in his Letters on Literature, says that Gibbon composed as he was walking up and down his room, and that he never wrote a sentence without having perfectly formed and arranged it in his head. Besides, French was at least as familiar to him as English; his residence at Lausanne, where he spoke it exclusively, had made it for some time his habitual language; and one would not have supposed that he had ever spoken any other, if he had not been betrayed by a very strong accent, by certain tics of pronunciation, certain sharp tones, which to ears accustomed from infancy to softer inflexions of voice, marred the pleasure which was felt in listening to him.'
In this elaborate articulation,* in this artificial composition of
* Gibbon, on the whole, made a very favourable impression on Madame du IX-fiand. But his elaborate endeavours to be agreeable, and to assume the perfect tone of French manners, did not escape that clever and fastidious woman, whom Voltaire calls the 'wotugle ciair-voyanlc.' In one of her letters to Walpule she writes thus:—' As to