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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

§ 7. Choice of a Theme

There cannot be any reason for doubting his statement that, during all this time, he was looking to the future rather than to the present, and that the conviction was gaining upon him of the time having arrived for beginning his proper career in life. It was in the direction of history that Gibbon’s reading had lain almost since he had been able to read at all; and, by 1760 or thereabouts, Hume and Robertson were already before the world as historical writers who commanded its applause, and the reproach of having failed to reach the level of Italian and French achievement in this branch of literature could no longer be held to rest upon English writers. Gibbon, as a matter of course, was familiar with the chief historical productions of Voltaire, and, during his visit to Paris, in 1763, became personally acquainted with more than one French historian of note. Thus, he could not fail to agree with Hume that “this was the historical age.” But, though he had no doubt as to the field of literature in which it behoved him to engage, he hesitated for some time with regard to the particular historical subject upon which he should fix his choice. Charles VIII’s Italian expedition (which subject he rejected for the good reason that it was rather the introduction to great events than important in itself), the English barons’ war, a Plutarchian parallel between Henry V and Titus and the biographies of more than one British worthy—that of Sir Walter Ralegh in especial—attracted him in turn. Gradually, he arrived at the conclusion that the theme chosen by him must not be narrow, and must not be English. The history of Swiss liberty, and that of Florence under the Medici, hereupon, for a time, busied his imagination—the former, he afterwards actually began, in French, but abandoned after, in 1767–8, the first book of it had been read to “a literary society of foreigners in London,” and unfavourably received by them. But if, like Milton, he was embarrassed by the wealth of themes which presented themselves to his literary imagination, he ended, again like Milton, by choosing what, in its development, proved the grandest and noblest of them all.