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century in works of imagination, in one great branch of literature it faded nobly away. Both in the Life of Johnson and in the Autobiography of Edward Gibbon, it "left something so written to after-times as they should not willingly let it die". Another hundred years have gone by. Many Englishmen since then have written their lives; of many Englishmen the lives have been written by others. Each of these books, in its own class, still remains without a rival. Of each of them it may still be said: "Eclipse is first, and the rest nowhere".
Admirable as is Gibbon's Autobiography in its present form, we cannot help speculating on the perfection which it might have attained had it been completed by the hands of the author. He was an accomplished artist, who both knew how to plan a stately temple, and how to give to every corner its utmost polish. Though he left his work imperfect, happily we have little need to exclaim with the poet :
Ah, who can raise that wand of magic power,
Or the lost clue regain?
The unfinished window in Aladdin's tower
Unfinished must remain.
The six sketches of his life which he left, covering as they more or less did every part of it, excepting a year or two at the close, were in each one of these divisions so highly wrought that by a skilful editor they could be dovetailed into a single work which should show few traces of incompleteness. Judicious selection was what was most needed, for Gibbon in his different sketches often travelled over the same ground. In the main part of his task there seems nothing wanting. "The review of my moral and literary character," he wrote, "is the most interesting to myself and to the public." That review he left so nearly perfect that even he could have improved it but little.
Of the real merit of the autobiography his first editor, Lord Sheffield, shows an ignorance that seems strange indeed when we remember the skill with which he discharged his task. "It is to be lamented," he writes, "that all the sketches of the memoirs, except that composed in the form of annals, cease about twenty years before Mr. Gibbon's death; and consequently that we have the least detailed account of the most interesting part of his life.” His lordship was misled by life's outward show and pomp. It was Gibbon in the splendour of his success, in the full blaze of the world, and not in the long and obscure stages of his growth that he wished to see portrayed. He loved to see his friend a member of Parliament and of the ministry, a writer of state papers, the companion of the most distinguished men at home or abroad, and basking in the warmth of his great reputation. This to him was the most interesting part of that unexampled life—this, which the great historian had in common with troops of famous
We may regret that Gibbon, when he had written his life, did not think it right "to amuse the reader with a gallery of portraits and a collection of anecdotes". To do so, as he tells us, "was most assuredly in his power Admirable as they would have been in themselves, added to his autobiography, they would have lessened its perfection as a whole. Boswell boasts with justice that, in his Life of Johnson, "amidst a thousand entertaining and instructive episodes, the hero is never long out of sight". Scarcely for a single moment do we lose sight of the hero of the autobiography. It is the life of the author of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and his life alone, that we read from the first page to the last. If he opens his narrative with John Gibbon, the Marmorarius of King Edward III., it is still his own life that, in a certain sense,
he is describing, for "we seemed to have lived in the persons of our forefathers". That "ideal longevity" of the past belongs to him as much as the "ideal longevity" of the future, when "his mind will be familiar to the grandchildren of those who are yet unborn". If he describes his maiden aunt, and her great struggles against adversity, she it was whom he gratefully acknowledged as "the true mother of his mind". If he dwells at length on the fourteen months he spent at Oxford, and on the five years he spent "on the banks of the Leman Lake," it was "to the fortunate banishment which placed him at Lausanne that the fruits of his education must be ascribed ". His service in the militia could not be passed over in a brief paragraph, for however much "the reader may smile, the captain of the Hampshire Grenadiers has not been useless to the historian of the Roman Empire". The seat he held for some years in the House of Commons was worthy of notice, for there he found a "school of civil prudence, the first and most essential virtue of an historian ".
With the publication of the last volume of his history he felt his public life was complete. For himself, indeed, there still remained, he fondly hoped, a long "autumnal felicity," happier by far than his boyhood and his youth, happier, perhaps, even than those "twenty happy years, animated by the labours of his history," to which he owed that consciousness of high merit and that great fame which were the very breath of his nostrils. Of this part of his life the outside world need know nothing. He had shown them how a great historian was made. How he rested when once his long day's work was done, how he enjoyed himself, with what great men he lived, what he heard among them and what he saw-however interesting all this might be in itself, it formed no chapter in “the review of his moral aud literary character". It is this
self-restraint of the consummate artist, this wise reticence that gives us an almost perfect picture of a great scholar in a work that can easily be read through at a single sitting.
Mark Pattison joins Gibbon with Milton as two men "who are indulged without challenge in talk about themselves". In each "the gratification of self-love, which attends all autobiography, is felt to be subordinated to a nobler end". "It is his office," as poet or historian, “and not himself, which he magnifies." He who had written the Decline and Fall had a right to tell the world how he had been prepared for his great task. He was, it is true, a vain man, foolishly vain in the opinion he entertained of his ridiculous person, but of this kind of vanity there are few traces to be discovered in his autobiography. There is pride enough, unveiled consciousness of high desert, "a lofty and steady confidence in himself". This is not indeed displayed with Milton's noble and severe dignity. It is the pride of a great man who has worn a periwig all his life. If now and then we smile at the manner in which it is set forth, nevertheless we admit his claim.
"Sume superbiam Quæsitam meritis."
We the more readily forgive his pride from the pleasure we take in reading his account of the formation of the strong character by which it was justified. There is a strange remark of Lowell's, where, speaking of "that element of manhood which, for want of a better name, we call character," he continues: "It is something distinct from genius, though all great geniuses are endowed with it. Hence we always think of Dante Alighieri, of Michael Angelo, of Will. Shakespeare, of John Milton, while of such men as Gibbon and Hume we merely recall the works, and think of them as the author of this and
that." That a man of letters, such as Lowell, should have said this of Hume surprises me, for "that fattest of Epicurus's hogs," so Gibbon described him, however much in his latter days he courted ease and the good opinion of the world, nevertheless even then showed a curious and
interesting character of his own. Of Gibbon it is absurdly
beside the mark. For one reader who has read his Decline and Fall, there are at least a score who have read his autobiography, and who know him, not as the great historian, but as a man of a most original and interesting nature. There is no one like him. No wonder that his friends, both English and French, used to speak of him as "the Gibbon, le Gibbon". He stands out, through the deepening mists of years, clear and strongly marked, with so many other members of the famous club, with Johnson, Goldsmith, Garrick, Reynolds and Boswell.
Whether we like him is another question-love him we certainly do not. There were indeed one or two who loved him, whose love he had earned by the steadiness and the warmth of his friendship. He had, however, too much of the “rational voluptuary" to be able to win our affection. His self-indulgence we are the more inclined to despise, as in his later years it rendered his person ridiculous through its unwieldy corpulence. He had besides other and greater failings. In a young man, in the full flow of his life, we are less ready to forgive untruthfulness than when we come across it in one who is stricken with the timidity of age. He was only twenty when he sent, through his father, the falsest message of affection to his unknown step-mother, whom he was, as he tells us, in reality disposed to hate as his own mother's rival. Only a few years later, when he should have been still in the generous freshness of youth, he gave a friend that shameless advice
1 Post, p. 113, n.