Home  »  Volume XII: English THE ROMANTIC REVIVAL The Nineteenth Century, I  »  § 1. The influence of Niebuhr

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XII. The Romantic Revival.

XIV. Historians

§ 1. The influence of Niebuhr

WITH the eighteenth century, or, more precisely, in its concluding decade, the last two of its three great British historians had passed away; and it was as if, beneath the shadow of the imposing names of Hume, Robertson and Gibbon, no growth of rival dignity and splendour could venture to rear its head. During the ensuing years of long-sustained national effort, few minds cared to concentrate themselves upon a close study of past public life. Yet, when this period came to an end with the Napoleonic, that had grown out of the revolutionary, wars, it was not, in the first instance, a patriotic impulse which turned attention back to historical studies. Nor, although in our literature the efforts of the romantic school were then at their height, and although, both here and in other countries, the influence of Scott, more powerfully than that of any other poet or prose writer, changed alike the spirit and the form of historical composition, were the revival of the study of history and the reassertion of the claim of historians to a place of honour among English writers due, primarily at all events, to an intellectual reaction. The motive force which, first and foremost, inspired the new progress of English historical literature in the nineteenth century is to be sought in what has been aptly called the second revival of classical learning in Europe, but what may be more exactly described as the beginnings of later critical scholarship. In the field of history, the search for materials and the examination of them now first became an integral part of the historian’s task, without pretending to supersede composition, or, in other words, the literary or artistic side of his labours. F. A. Wolf had led the way on which, in Greek historical studies, Otfried Müller and Boeckh followed; but it was Niebuhr who placed historical writing on an entirely new basis; and it was his immortal History of Rome which first conveyed to his English contemporaries a clear perception of the uses of the critical method in the treatment of history. We shall, therefore, not go far wrong in starting in our present summary from near the point at which we closed that of English historical literature in the eighteenth century, speaking, in the first instance, of English contributions to ancient history in the nineteenth.

Niebuhr’s title to hold a high and enduring place among historians rests, above all, on his having been the first to apply, on a grand scale and to an important subject (the growth of the national life of a great popular community), the critical method which had become indispensable to the discovery of historical truth. Of this method he made use in his masterpiece, the Roman History, which was something very different from a mere assault on the traditional view of his subject; nor was he, by any means, the first to impugn the authority of the accepted narrative. On the other hand, his explanation of that account as mainly due to the influence of a popular ballad literature cannot be said to have ultimately established itself as sufficient. The permanent strength of Niebuhr’s great work lay elsewhere—in the force of his imagination and in his steadfast adherence to the belief in the moral principles which underlie legal institutions freely adopted by freemen, as determining the continuance and prosperity of a political community.

So much it seemed necessary to premise, in order to account for the impression made by Niebuhr upon Englishmen who, in the first and second quarters of the nineteenth century, were shaking off the isolation which, in the preceding period of the great wars, had kept English learning and letters more or less apart from continental, and who were eager to breathe the free air of research and enquiry. One of these was Julius Hare, perhaps best known to posterity by Guesses at Truth (1827), written by him in conjunction with his brother Augustus. Julius Hare was an early lover of German literature, with which he had first become familiar at Weimar in the classical days of 1804–5. In 1828–32, he united with his schoolfellow and brother fellow of Trinity, Connop Thirlwall, in publishing a translation of Neibuhr’s Roman History. Their first volume was vehemently denounced in The Quarterly Review, as the product of scepticism; so that, in 1829, Julius Hare put forth a Vindication of Niebuhr’s History from these charges. Another follower of Niebuhr was Thomas Arnold, headmaster of Rugby from 1827, to whom Niebuhr himself ascribed the first introduction of his Roman History to the British public. Arnold, on first becoming acquainted, in his studious days at Laleham, with Niebuhr’s work, had been reluctant to accept all his conclusions, but had gradually grown unwilling to dissociate himself from any of them. In 1827, he paid a memorable visit to the master at Bonn, where he formed a lasting friendship with Bunsen, Niebuhr’s successor at Rome and the zealous transmitter of many of his historical ideas. Arnold had by this time resolved upon testifying, after an enduring fashion, to his almost unbounded admiration for a historian with whose genius his own had certain affinities—notably, the union of deep religious conviction with a sturdy liberalism, due, in Niebuhr’s case, to the influence of descent, while, in Arnold’s, it was nowhere stronger than in his view of priestcraft as the fellow antichrist to utilitarian unbelief.