Изображения страниц


Life of Gibbon as, "perhaps, the best specimen of autobiography in the English language.” Nevertheless,—with all due respect for such an authority, - we must venture to dissent, with all our faculties, from this high estimate. A most elaborate specimen of autobiography undoubtedly this is. But, as to its general merits, we are much of the same mind with Sir Egerton Brydges, the kinsman of Gibbon ; who, while he allows these Memoirs to be pleasing, denies that they belong to the highest class of memoirs. • They partake,” he observes, "little of the quaintness of the author's manners. He appears too much “in his full dress. They want energy, and simplicity, and frankness, “and high bursts of eloquence.”—High bursts of eloquence, indeed, it might be scarcely reasonable to expect in compositions of this nature. But the absence of energy, simplicity, and frankness, is utterly fatal to all lofty pretensions.

As little can we acquiesce in the outpouring of praise, by Dr. Whitaker, on the style and manner in which these Memoirs are executed :" Descending from the lofty level of history, and relaxing the stately march which he maintains throughout that work, into a more natural "and easy pace, this enchanting writer, with an ease, spirit, and vigour, " peculiar to himself, conducts his readers through a sickly childhood," &c. &c. Now, to us, the march appears to be well nigh as stately as ever. The cadence is nearly the same. The structure of the sentences the same. And,-as in the History, so in the Memoirs," ribbon or Raphael,” it is all one to the author. Take the following instance; the first which happens to occur: A young gentleman, of quick parts, goes to pass a few years at Lausanne. At first, he is utterly ignorant of the French language. In time, however, he learns to speak it, to write it, and even to think in it: a sort of process which, we may presume, is going on, at all times, in various places, and in hundreds of instances. But, mark the circuity and pomp with which this stupendous phenomenon is announced by our autobiographer:

My seclusion from English society was attended with the most solid benefits. In the Pays de Vaud, the French language is used with less imperfection than in most of the distant provinces of France. In Pavilliard's family, necessity compelled me to listen and to speak. And, if I was, at first, disheartened by the apparent slowness, in a few months, I was astonished at the rapidity of my progress. My pronunciation was formed by the repetition of the same sounds.

The variety of words and idioms, the rules of grammar, the distinctions of genders, were impressed upon my memory. Ease and freedom were obtained by practice : correctness and elegance by labour. And, before I was recalled home, French, in which I spontaneously thought, was more familiar than English, to my ear, my tongue, and my pen.— Pp. 90, 91.

Why,—here are words, many enough, and almost big enough, for the recapitulation of a grave argument de finibus bonorum et malorum; or, of the steps of some arduous course of scientific experiment! And, this is no solitary instance. It is merely a specimen. One or two such, might only provoke a smile. A succession of them produces an arching of the eye-brows, and a sardonic distortion of the countenance, and a feeling of impatience throughout the whole nervous system, and, at times, really something of a qualmish and uncomfortable sensation about the regions of the stomach!

It would appear from his Introduction, that Gibbon proposed to himself a style simple and familiar. “But style," he adds," is the " image of character; and the habits of correct writing may produce, " without labour or design, the appearance of art and study.' This is true enough; just as it is true that the professional dancer is, often, habitually a man of postures, and attitudes, and graces. His art has become a second nature to him. The very suppleness and flexibility of limb, acquired by long and laborious practice, is apt perpetually to display itself, in every ordinary movement. The movement, it is true, may be easy enough to the performer. But it does not always convey the notion of ease to the spectator: it more frequently reminds him of the stage.

This illustration appears to us not inapplicable to the mannerism of Gibbon. With him, probably, the great difficulty would have been to write otherwise than artistically.

But his art was, assuredly, not of that high order which conceals itself.

Closely connected with the above peculiarities, there is another, which grievously impairs the satisfaction with which we look upon this extraordinary man, and his undoubtedly stupendous Work : and that is, the intensity of his self-contemplation. It is impossible, for a moment, to forget the author, in his writings; and the reason of this is, that the author never, for a moment, forgets himself. And, if we are frequently thus haunted, in his History, of course we must expect no rest nor relaxation, in his Memoirs; for, here, the writer, like the Platonic deity, retires, deliberately, sic to avroũ nepuuanv. Now, an absence of this selfconsciousness has, we believe, been considered as one among the indications of genius of the very highest order : insomuch that a powerful and original thinker of the present day* has even ventured to affirm that no man ever felt conscious of doing a great thing, but what he was, all the wbile, most certainly doing but a small one. And, if we recollect right, the same writer has pronounced that the days of self-forgetful, unconscious, intellectual might, have long since passed away from us. Sayings like these, we are aware, must always be received with ample grains of cautionary allowance. But they contain the elements of a very interesting truth. And, viewed by the light of that truth, Gibbon, eminently wonderful as he was, will hardly appear worthy of the loftiest rank, among those who have laboured for the instruction of mankind. It is not, indeed, to be denied, that he did great things, and not small ones. But then, he never ceased to feel that he was doing them ; and he watched over the whole process by which they were done; and, when done, he sat down to look at them, and to tell the world how he had achieved them, and to point out the Alpine heights which he had climbed, and the almost bottomless pits which he had explored. It is, doubtless, impossible to regret that he has done so. For, to this very egotism,—this astonishing patience of selfcommunion,—we are indebted for a record of unflinching resolution, and untiring toil, more perfect and more curious than the world, probably, had ever seen before. But, yet, we retire from the spectacle, without that overpowering impression of greatness, which is left upon the mind by the giants of the elder time; the Titans, who seemed

Mr. Carlyle.

scarcely sensible of the effort by which the monuments of their strength had been upreared.

The personal history of Gibbon is pretty well known. His family was ancient, highly respectable, and rather wealthy. His childhood was sickly; and, consequently, his education was desultory and neglected : but, from his earliest years, his appetite for books was almost insatiably voracious. At the age of fifteen he was sent as a gentleman commoner to Magdalen College, Oxford ; taking with him

a stock of erudition, which might have puzzled a doctor, and a degree of ignorance of which a school-boy would have been ashamed." We fear it must be admitted that he found the University in an awfully apoplectic condition ; " dull as the fat weed on Lethe's wharf.” So deep was the lethargy, that he absolutely despaired of her recovery. It does not appear, however, that he regarded the infirmities of his gracious mother with much filial tenderness or reverence.

He did not avert his eye from her shame, or seek to conceal it from exposure. And, even towards the close of his life, we find him almost chuckling over the remembrance of her seeming dotage. He was left, as he tells us, by the dim light of his catechism to grope his way to the chapel and the communion-table ; till, at length, he blundered into the pitfall of Romanism. The consternation of his relatives was extreme. The honour of the family was compromised. The paternal authority was slighted. It was not merely a case of heresy, but of downright rebellion. His father, who seems to have been a mighty shallow sort of personage, was determined that the wanderer should, at all events, be reclaimed. He, accordingly, removed the young apostate from Oxford, and delivered him over, for a time, to the care of Mallet, who was notoriously a deist, and probably, something more. And, then, in order to disenchant him more effectually from the splendours of Popery, with exquisite felicity of judgment, he plunged him headlong into the Trophonian cavern of high Calvinism! It was in the summer of 1753, that young Gibbon left England for Lausanne, and was consigned to the custody and tuition of Mr. Pavilliard, a Calvinist minister. Here, he “ exchanged his elegant apartment in Magdalen College, for a “ narrow gloomy street, an inconvenient house, and a chamber ill“ contrived and ill-furnished ;” and, what was still worse, he exchanged the luxury and comfort of English life for “ the uncleanly avarice" of Madame Pavilliard. And, here, too, he had an opportunity of comparing the conveniently flexible discipline of Rome, with the unbending rigour of Geneva. Nevertheless, strange as it may seem, the experiment was so far successful, that, on Christmas day, 1754, in the eighteenth year of his age, Gibbon publicly abjured the errors of Rome, by receiving the sacrament in the Calvinistic Church at Lausanne. And right glad he was, according to his own account, to find himself “ a good Protestant.” To Mr. Pavilliard he “ allows a handsome share in the honour of his conve

nversion;" but, he claims by far the larger portion, as the effect of his own private inquiries and reflections. He dwells, more particularly, on "his solitary transport " at the discovery of one philosophical argument against transubstan" tiation ;"—an argument of such measureless absurdity, that, truly, his great master of logic-fence, Crousaz, must have had but an unpromising disciple, if such reasoning could afford him a single grain of satisfaction ! “The text of Scripture "—he alleges—" which seems to incul

cate the real presence, is attested only by a single sense-our sight; “while the real presence itself is disproved by three of our senses—the

sight, the touch, and the taste !" Now, is it possible that Gibbon, even boy as he was, should have failed to see that the whole dispute relates, not to the existence of the text, but to the interpretation of the text? In bearing testimony to the existence of the text, the sight does nothing more for one party, than it does for the other; seeing that neither party questions its existence. All that the sight does, in the first instance, is, to present the text to our notice ; and, in so doing, its office is altogether neutral. But, having done this, it joins the other two senses in protesting against the doctrine built upon that text, by the theology of Rome; and so, it leaves the controversy just where it was before. In order to be worth one rush, either way, the argument ought to show that certain of our senses reject the Romish interpretation, while only one of them is in favour of it: and, to the Protestant, such an argument as this would be worse than no argument at all. It would, if any thing, enfeeble rather than strengthen, his side of the question, by dividing the testimony of the senses, though unequally, between the two beliefs: whereas, now, the undivided testimony of the senses is claimed by the Protestant; while the Romanist takes refuge from it in mystery and prodigy. And yet, this was the Ithuriel's spear, which dispersed all delusion by a touch!

The various articles of the Romish creed disappeared like a dream. It was here that I suspended my religious inquiries; acquiescing, with implicit faith, in the tenets and mysteries, which are adopted by the general consent of Catholics and Protestants.-P. 94.

With all Gibbon's real or affected distrust of mathematics, as a safe discipline for the reasoning faculty, we cannot help thinking that an ample course of geometry, patiently pursued, might have wonderfully improved his intellectual powers. We can scarcely imagine that an argument such as the above could ever find its way into the head of a sound mathematician. And, if it did chance to enter, it would only be, to be instantly ejected.

Having thus secured the inestimable advantage of being able to suspend his religious inquiries, he appears to have pretty well dismissed the subject of religion from his mind; and to have taken his ease upon the pillow of "an implicit belief in the doctrines and mysteries, " which are adopted by the general consent of Catholics and Pro

testants." He was, now, therefore, at full liberty to prosecute those secular studies, which were the objects of his most unteigned and passionate devotion. It was during his residence at Lausanne, a period of nearly five years, that he formed those habits of intense and regulated application, which he never afterwards lost, and which eventually won for him such high literary renown. In the spring of 1758, he returned to England : and, from that time forward, his life was one of incessant meditation and research ; with no interruption, save that arising from his connexion with the Hampshire Militia. This martial episode in his biography gave him an opportunity of contemplating, though in bloodless fields, something of the “naked deformity of Bellona :” who, if she did not mangle his limbs, made fearful havoc with his time and patience. And, nowhere, perhaps, did the goddess appear more hateful to him, than in the orgies of the tavern and the mess-room. But evil is never wholly unmixed with good. The discipline and evolutions of a modern battalion [he confesses) gave

him a clearer notion of the phalanx and the legion: and, the captain of the Hampshire Grenadiers (the reader might smile) had not been useless to the historian of the Roman empire.—P.151.

Having, successively, taken up, and abandoned, a variety of literary enterprises, he settled down, at last, upon the gigantic design which he lived to execute. The moment of its conception is thus fixed by himself:

It was at Rome, on the 15th of October, 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the bare-footed friars were singing vespers in the Temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the Decline and Fall of the City first started into my mind.-P. 184.

And this, too, it has been conjectured, was the moment which fixed him in his implacable and deadly hatred of the Christian faith. His mind was full of “the decline and fall of the City:"_its decline and fall from what ?—from the gorgeous solemnities of the triumph and the sacrifice, to the poor and melancholy mummeries of the cloister! Here was an outrageous wrong to be resented. The gospel was not only a delusion ; but, it was a mean delusion ; and it supplanted the noble and imaginative superstitions of the classic times. This was not to be forgiven. And, therefore, war to the gospel; and,-if open, generous, heroic war should be too hazardous,—then, war, by stratagem, and ambuscade ; nay, if need be, let the wells be poisoned, if so the enemy may be best destroyed. But, at all events, and by all means, écrasez l'infame!

That thoughts of this vindictive complexion did actually pass across the mind of Gibbon, cannot, of course, be known with any certainty. Thus much, however, at least, is indisputable,—that, if he had sat down to meditate revenge, he could not have carried his purpose into more destructive execution. His great work is pervaded and saturated with the most subtle venom. It is impossible to expel the poison, or to wring it out. By no process of lopping, or of expurgation, could the evil be very sensibly diminished. One might as well attempt to make the Upas wholesome, by a partial amputation of its branches. Whole notes might be expunged, and whole sentences might be torn away : but the malignant and deadly savour would remain. There is a mal-uria spread over the whole region, (superb and brilliant as it appears), which defies all the arts of drainage, or of fumigation. Now, what shall be said of an enemy who could do this? Is it too much to affirm that he was a dastardly, insidious, and low-minded enemy; and that the laurels of his literary fame are as unlovely as the most pernicious weed that grows ?

Originally, the mind of Gibbon does not appear to have been deficient in probity and candour. But, he was one of those who have been called “the devil's penitents.". As he grew older, he repented him of the virtuous simplicity of his earlier days. By what exact process it was that his understanding became so strangely vitiated,

« ПредыдущаяПродолжить »