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The present is a fleeting moment; the past is no more ; and our prospect of futurity is dark and doubtful. This day may possibly be my last; but the laws of probability, so true in general, so fallacious in particular, still allow about fifteen years.* I shall soon enter into the period which, as the most agreeable of his long life, was selected by the judgment and experience of the sage Fontenelle. His choice is approved by the eloquent historian of nature, who fixes our moral happiness to the mature season in which our passions are supposed to be calmed, our duties fulfilled, our ambition satisfied, our fame and fortune established on a solid basis.t In private conversation that great and amiable man added the weight of his own experience; and this autumnal felicity miglit be exemplified in the lives of Voltaire, Hume, and many other men of letters. I am far more inclined to embrace than to dispute this comfortable doctrine. I will not suppose any premature decay of the mind or body; but I must reluctantly observe that two causes, the abbreviation of time, and the failure of hope, will always tinge with a browner shade the evening of life. I
* Mr Buffon, from our disregard of the possibility of death within the four-and-twenty hours, concludes that a chance which falls below or rises above ten thousand to one, will never affect the hopes or fears of a reasonable
The fact is true, but our courage is the effect of thoughtlessness, rather than of reflection. If a public lottery were drawn for the choice of an immediate victim, and if our name were inscribed on one of the ten thousand tickets, should we be perfectly easy?
+ See Buffon.
# The proportion of a part to the whole is the only standard by which we can measure the length of our existence. At the age of twenty, one year is a tenth, perhaps, of the time which has elapsed within our consciousness and memory: at the age of fifty it is no more than the fortieth, and this relative value continues to decrease till the last sands are shaken by the hand of death. This reasoning may
seem inetaphysical; but on a trial it will be found satisfactory and just. The warm desires, the long expectations of youth, are founded on the ignorance of themselves and of the world: they are gradually damped by time and experience, by disappointment and possession; and after the middle season, the crowd must be content to remain at the foot of the mountain ; while the few who have climbed the summit aspire to descend or expect to fall. In old age this consolation of hope is reserved for the tenderness of parents who commence a new life in their children ; the faith of enthusiasts who sing hallelujahs above the clouds; and the vanity of authors who presume the immortality of their name and writings.
TO THE LIFE OF GIBBON,
BY LORD SHEFFIELD.
When I first undertook to prepare Mr Gibbon's Memoirs for the press, I supposed that it would be necessary to introduce some continuation of them from the time when they cease, namely, soon after his return to Switzerland in the year 1788; but the examination of his correspondence with me suggested, that the best continuation would be the publication of his letters from that time to his death. I shall thus give more satisfaction, by employing the language of Mr Gibbon instead of my own; and the public will see him in a new and admirable light, as.a writer of letters. By the insertion of a few occasional sentences, I shall obviate the disadvantages that are apt to arise from an interrupted narration. A prejudiced or a fastidious critic may condeinn, perhaps, some parts of the letters as trivial; but many readers, I flatter myself, will be gratified by discovering even in these my friend's affectionate feelings, and his character in human life. His letters in general bear a strong resemblance to the style and
turn of his conversation, the characteristics of which were vivacity, elegance, and precision, with knowledge astonishingly extensive and correct. He never ceased to be instructive and entertaining; and in general there was a vein of pleasantry in his conversation, which prevented its becoining languid, even during a residence of many months with a family in the country.
It has been supposed that he always arranged what he intended to say before he spoke ; his quickness in conversation contradicts this notion : but it is very true, that before he sat down to write a note or letter, he completely arranged in his mind what he meant to express. He pursued the same method in respect to other composition; and he occasionally would walk several times about his apartment before he had rounded a period to his taste. He has pleasantly remarked to me, that it sometimes cost him many a turn before he could throw a sentiment into a form. that gratified his own criticism. His systematic habit of arrangement in point of style, assisted, in his in. stance, by an excellent memory and correct judgment, is much to be recommended to those who aspire to perfection in writing.
Although the Memoirs extend beyond the time of Mr Gibbon's return to Lausanne, I shall insert a few letters written immediately after his arrival there, and combine them so far as to include even the last note which he wrote a few days previously to his death. Some of them contain few incidents; but they connect and carry on the account either of his opinions or of his employment.
Lausanne, July 30, 1788.
Wednesday, 3 o'clock. I have but a moment to say, before the departure of the post, that after a very pleasant journey I arrived here about half an hour ago; that I am as well arranged as if I had never stirred from this place ; and that dinner on the table is just announced. Severy I dropt at his country house about two leagues off. Í just saluted the family, who dine with me the day after tomorrow, and return to town for some days, I hope weeks, on my account. The son is an amiable and grateful youth; and even this journey has taught me to know and to love him still better. My satisfaction would be complete, had I not found a sad and serious alteration in poor Deyverdun: but thus our joys are chequered! I embrace all; and at this moment feel the last pang of our parting at Tunbridge. Convey this letter or information, without delay, from Sheffield place to Bath. In a few days I shall write more amply to both places.
October 1, 1788. After such an act of vigour as my first letter, composed, finished, and dispatched, within half an hour