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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.

XIII. Historians

§ 1. Gibbon’s mind a type of the Literary mind; Completeness of his Historical achievement

THE MIND of Gibbon, like that of Pope, from which, in many respects, it widely differed, was a perfect type of the literary mind proper. By this, it is not meant that either the historian or the poet was without literary defects of his own, or of weaknesses—one might almost say obliquities—of judgment or temperament which could not fail to affect the character of his writings. But, like Pope and very few others among great English men of letters, Gibbon had recognised, very early in his life, the nature of the task to the execution of which it was to be devoted, and steadily pursued the path chosen by him till the goal had been reached which he had long and steadily kept in view. Like Pope, again, Gibbon, in the first instance, was virtually self-educated; the intellectual education with which he provided himself was more conscientious and thorough, as, in its results, it was more productive, than that which many matured systems of mental training succeed in imparting. The causes of his extraordinary literary success have to be sought, not only or mainly in the activity and the concentration of his powers—for these elements of success he had in common with many writers, who remained half-educated as well as self-educated—but, above all, in the discernment which accompanied these qualities. He was endowed with an inborn tendency to reject the allurements of hand-to-mouth knowledge and claptrap style, and to follow with unfaltering determination the guidance which study and reason had led him to select. Thus, as culminating in the production of his great work, Gibbon’s literary labours were very harmonious, and, so far as this can be asserted of any performance outside the field of pure literature, complete in themselves. While carrying them on, he experienced the periods of difficulty and doubt which no worker is spared; but, though the flame flickered at times, it soon recovered its steady luminosity. After transcribing the caliph Abdalrahman’s reflection, how, in a reign of fifty years of unsurpassed grandeur, he had numbered but fourteen days of pure and genuine happiness, he adds in a note:

  • If I may speak of myself (the only person of whom I can speak with certainty) my happy hours have far exceeded the scanty numbers of the caliph of Spain; and I shall not scruple to add, that many of them are due to the pleasing labour of the present composition.
  • Thus, while he was continuously engaged in occupations which never ceased to stimulate his energies and to invigorate his powers, he was also fortunate enough to achieve the great work which proved the sum of his life’s labours, to identify himself and his fame with one great book, and to die with his intellectual task done. Macaulay, the one English historian whose literary genius can be drawn into comparison with Gibbon’s, left the history of England which he had “purposed to write from the accession of King James II down to a time which is within the memory of men living” a noble fragment. Gibbon could lay down his pen, in a summer-house in his garden at Lausanne, “in the day, or rather night, of the 27th of June, 1787,” after writing this final sentence of his completed book:

  • It was among the ruins of the Capitol, that I first conceived the idea of a work which has amused and exercised near twenty years of my life; and which, however inadequate to my own wishes, I finally deliver to the curiosity and candour of the public.
  • Though what Gibbon calls “the curiosity of the public” may have exhausted itself long since, the candid judgment of many generations and of almost every class of readers has confirmed the opinion formed at once by Gibbon’s own age. His great work remains an enduring monument of research, an imperishable literary possession and one of the highest encouragements to intellectual endeavour that can be found in the history of letters.