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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

§ 12. Gibbon’s return to Lausanne; Publication of the concluding Volumes; Other Historical Writings; Gibbon’s death

This summary account of the attacks upon The Decline and Fall published in the lifetime of its author at least illustrates the narrowness of the limits within which the sea of criticism was, after all, almost entirely confined. Gibbon’s treatment of them, on the other hand, shows how little importance he attached to such censure except when it impugned his general qualifications as a historian. How little he cared for immediate applause is shown by the fact that, though the popular welcome extended to his second and third volumes (1781) was, at first, fainter, it was only now that he finally resolved to carry on the work from the fall of the western to that of the eastern empire—an interval of about a thousand years. Not long afterwards, he at last made up his mind to exchange conditions of existence which, as he asserts, had become wearisome to him and which he, certainly, could no longer afford to meet, for the freedom of a purely literary life; and, in the autumn of 1783, he broke up his London establishment and carried out the long-cherished plan of settling with his tried friend George Deyverdun at Lausanne. Here, in a retirement which was anything but “cloistered,” he, by the end of 1787, brought to a close the main work of his life, of which the three concluding volumes (IV–VI) were carried by him to England and published in April, 1788. The passage in the Memoirs relating the historian’s actual accomplishment of his task is one of the commonplaces of English literature, and records one of the golden moments which redeem the endless tale of disappointments and failures in the annals of authorship.

After, in 1788, Gibbon had again returned to Lausanne, where, in the following year, he lost the faithful Deyverdun, he made up his mind—once more setting an example which but few men of letters have found themselves able to follow—to undertake no other great work, but to confine himself henceforth to essays or “Historical excursions.” It was as one of these that he designed his Antiquities of the House of Brunswick. What he wrote of this work amounts to more than a fragment; for, of the three divisions contemplated by him, the first (The Italian Descent) and part of the second (The German Reign), were actually carried out, though the third (The British Succession of the House of Brunswick), for which Gibbon could have but very imperfectly commanded the material preserved in Hanover and at home, was not even approached by him. Whatever temporary value Gibbon’s treatment of the material amassed by Leibniz and Muratori might have possessed vanished with the tardy publication, in 1842, of Leibniz’s own Annales imperii occidentis Brunsvicenses. But Gibbon’s narrative has a few purple patches, nor would posterity willingly forego the tribute which, near its opening, he pays to “the genius and unparalleled intellect” of Leibniz as well as to the industry and critical ability of the indefatigable Italian scholar with whom the great German was associated in his researches.

In 1791, Gibbon bade farewell to Lausanne, and the rest of his life was spent in England, where he almost continuously enjoyed the paternal hospitality of his most intimate English friend, the earl of Sheffield (John Baker Holroyd), at Sheffield place, Sussex, and in London. Lord Sheffield’s name is as enduringly associated with that of the great historian as Boswell’s is with Johnson’s, but in a more equal way—as is shown by Lord Sheffield’s unique treatment of Gibbon’s Memoirs and by his admirable posthumous editions of the Miscellaneous Works. The last addition which Gibbon lived to make to these, the Address recommending the publication of Scriptores Rerum Anglicanarum, under the editorship of the Scottish antiquarian and historian John Pinkerton—a noble design which was to remain long unaccomplished—was interrupted by death. Thus, his last literary effort appropriately directed itself to the promotion of historical research. He died on 16 January, 1794, and was buried in the Sheffield mausoleum in Fletching church, by the side “of his dear friend, we may almost say, of his brother by adoption.” In the Memoirs, which he left behind him as the best monument of his long literary life, he confesses himself “disgusted with the affectation of men of letters, who complain that they have renounced a substance for a shadow; and that their fame (which sometimes is no insupportable weight) affords a poor compensation for envy, censure, and persecution.” Whatever crowning grace Gibbon’s life may have missed, it brought him a long intellectual triumph and a fame which the course of time has left undimmed.