Home  »  Volume X: English THE AGE OF JOHNSON  »  § 15. Lucidity of style

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

XIII. Historians

§ 15. Lucidity of style

Inspired, as it were, by the muse of history herself in the magnificence of his choice of subject and in the grandeur of his determination to treat it with a completeness in harmony with its nature, Gibbon displayed a breadth of grasp and a lucidity of exposition such as very few historians have brought to the performance of a cognate task. Whether in tracing the origin and growth of a new religion, such as Mohammedanism, or in developing in comprehensive outline the idea of Roman jurisprudence, the masterly clearness of his treatment is equal to the demands of his philosophic insight; nor does the imaginative power of the historian fall short of the consummate skill of the literary artist.

But there is another requirement which the historian, whatever may be his theme, is called upon to satisfy, and which, in plain truth, is antecedent to all others. Any work claiming to be a contribution to historical knowledge should, within the limits of human fallibility and the boundaries at different times confining human knowledge, be exactly truthful. It was on this head only that Gibbon avowed himself sensitive, and on this alone that he condescended to reply to antagonists of any sort. It is worse than needless to attempt to distinguish between the infinitely numerous shades of inveracity; and Gibbon would have scorned any such endeavour. His defence, of which, in the opinion of those capable of rising above the method adopted by more than one of his censors, the validity is indisputable, is a real vindication. He allows that a critical eye may discover in his work some loose and general references. But he fairly asks whether, inasmuch as their proportion to the whole body of his statements is quite inconsiderable, they can be held to warrant the accusation brought against him. Nor is he unsuccessful in explaining the circumstances which, in the instances impugned, rendered greater precision of statement impossible. The charge of plagiarism—the last infirmity of sagacious critics—he rebuts with conspicuous success, and courageously upholds his unhesitating plea of not guilty:

  • If my readers are satisfied with the form, the colours, the new arrangement which I have given to the labours of my predecessors, they may perhaps consider me not as a contemptible thief, but as an honest and industrious manufacturer, who has fairly procured the raw materials, and worked them up with a laudable degree of skill and success.
  • The verdict of modern historical criticism has approved his plea. “If,” writes Bury, “we take into account the vast range of his work, his accuracy is amazing, and, with all his disadvantages, his slips are singularly few.” It is an objection of very secondary importance, though one to which even experienced writers are wont to expose themselves, that Gibbon is apt to indulge in what might almost be called a parade of authorities.

    Complete, lucid and accurate, Gibbon, finally, is one of the great masters of English prose. His power of narrative is at least equalled by his gift of argumentative statement, and, in all parts of his work, his style is one which holds the reader spellbound by its stately dignity, relieved by a curious subtlety of nuance, and which, at the same time, is the writer’s own as much as is that of Clarendon, Macaulay or Carlyle. Gibbon’s long sentences, which, at times, extend over a whole paragraph or page, but are never involved, resemble neither those of Johnson nor those of Robertson; if his style is to be compared to that of any other master of English prose, it is to Burke’s. Built with admirable skill and precision, his sentences are coloured by a delicate choice of words and permeated by a delightful suggestion of rhythm in each case—too pleasing to seem the effect of design. Gibbon’s irony differs greatly from that of Swift, who deliberately fools his reader and, thereby, increases the enjoyment that arises from the perception of his real meaning, and still more from that of Carlyle, the savage purpose of whose sarcasm never leaves the reader in doubt. The irony of Gibbon is almost always refined, but not at any time obscure. It reveals itself in the choice of an epithet, in the substitution of a noun of more ordinary usage for another of a more select class; it also appears in the inversion of the order in which, commonly, reasons are assigned or motives suggested, and often makes use of that most dangerous of all rhetorical devices—insinuation. This, however, already carries us beyond mere questions of style. Where this insinuation is directed against assumed ethical principles, it has been admirably characterised “as sub-cynical.”