The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.
§ 16. Faults and shortcomings of the work
Gibbon’s diction, it may be added, was not formed on native models only; yet it would be in the highest degree unjust to describe it as Gallicising. His fine taste preserved him from the affectation of special turns or tricks of style not due to the individuality of a writer, but largely consisting in idioms borrowed from a tongue whose genius is not that of ours. Much as Gibbon, who, from an early date, wrote French with perfect ease and clearness, owed to that language and literature in the formation of his style as well as in his general manner as a historian, he merely assimilated these elements to others which he could claim as native. Notwithstanding the powerful presentment of the case by Taine, the influence of French works upon the style of English historians has probably been overrated. In the first place, the “triumvirate” Hume, Robertson and Gibbon should not be “lumped” together from the point of view of style any more than from other more or less adjacent points of view. The style of Hume, in some measure, was influenced by his reading of French philosophers, and that of Gibbon by his reading of the works of this and of other French literary schools—the sequence of great pulpit orators among them; in the style of Robertson, it is difficult to see much influence of French prose of any sort. And, if we are to trace the genesis of Gibbon’s prose style, we should take care, while allowing for French, not altogether to disregard native influences. Gibbon, as is well known, was a great admirer of Fielding, to whom (as it would seem, erroneously) he ascribed kinship with the house of Habsburg; and, though there can be no question of comparing the style of the great novelist to that of the great historian, it may be pointed out how Fielding, like Gibbon, excels in passages holding the mean between narrative and oratorical prose, and how, among great writers of the period, he alone (except, perhaps, in a somewhat different fashion, Goldsmith) shares with Gibbon that art of subdued irony which it was sought alone to characterise. Gibbon, then, has much of the magnificence of Burke, of the incisiveness of Hume and of the serene humour of Fielding, in addition to the ease and lucidity of the French writers who had been the companions of his youthful studies. The faults of his style have been summarised, once for all, in the celebrated passage in Porson’s exposure of Travis which has already been cited; they consist, in the first instance, of a want of terseness, and, at the same time, a want of proportion, to which our age is more sensitive than was Gibbon’s; he sometimes, says Porson, in Shakespearean phrase, “draws out the thread of his verbosity finer than the staple of his argument”; while, on other occasions, he recalls Foote’s auctioneer, “whose manner was so inimitably fine that he had as much to say upon a ribbon as a Raphael.” The other fault reprehended by Porson we may imitate Gibbon himself in veiling under the transparent cover of a foreign tongue—it is, in the scathing words of Sainte-Beuve, une obscénité érudite et froide.
Concerning yet another, and more comprehensive charge against Gibbon, on which, as has been seen, critic after critic, returning again and again to the fifteenth and sixteenth chapters, thought it necessary to insist, we need, in conclusion, say little or nothing. The day has passed for censuring him because, in this part of his work, he chose to dwell upon what he described as the secondary causes of the progress of the Christian religion, and the community which professed it, from the days of Nero to those of Constantine. Such a selection of causes he had a right to make; nor did he ask his readers to shut their eyes to the cardinal fact, as stated by Milman, that, “in the Christian dispensation as in the material world, it is as the First Great Cause that the Deity is most undeniably present.” Even the manner in which, in his first volume, at all events, he chose to speak of men and institutions surrounded by traditional romance cannot be made the basis of any charge against him as a historical writer. But it is quite obvious to any candid student of The Decline and Fall that its author had no sympathy with human nature in its exceptional moral developments—in a word, that his work was written, not only without enthusiasm, but with a conscious distrust, which his age shared to the full, of enthusiasts. Unlike Hume, who was at one with Gibbon in this distrust, the latter remained, in this respect, master of himself, and did not allow antipathies against those who stood on one side to excite his sympathies with those on the other. He would have treated the puritan movement in the spirit in which Hume treated it, and have had as little wish to penetrate into its depths, as, in contemporary politics, he tried to understand the early aspirations of the French revolution. But he would not, it may be supposed, have drawn a sympathetic picture of king Charles I—for it would be unjust to him to ascribe to any such mental process the conception of Julian the apostate, whereby he scandalised the orthodox. Nothing in the historian’s own idiosyncrasy responds to the passions which transform the lives of men and nations; and, to him, history, in his own words, is “little more than the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind.” This limitation deprives the greatest of English historical works of a charm which is more than a charm, and the absence of which, however legitimate it seemed to the historian himself, cannot be ignored by his readers.