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The Glory Of English Prose|
by Coleridge, Stephen
|My Dear Antony,
Edward Gibbon, who wrote the Decline and Fall of the Roman
Empire, belonged to the later half of the eighteenth century,
and was a contemporary of Dr. Johnson and Burke. He finished his
great history three years after Dr. Johnson's death. It is a
monumental work, and will live as long as the English language. It
is one of the books which every cultivated gentleman should read.
The style is stately and sonorous, and the industry and erudition
involved in its production must have been immense.
Although it never sinks below a noble elevation of style, it
nevertheless displays no uplifting flights of eloquence or
declamation, and to me, and probably to you, Antony, the most
moving passages in Gibbon's writings are those that describe with
unaffected emotion the moment of the first resolve to compose the
great history and the night when he wrote the last line of it. On
page 129 of his memoirs  he wrote:—
"It was at Rome on the 15th of October, 1764, as I sat musing
amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the bare-footed fryars were
singing vespers in the Temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing
the decline and fall of the city first started to my mind."
Thus did he resolve to devote himself to the tremendous task,
and at Lausanne twenty-three years later it was at last fulfilled.
He recorded the event in a few pregnant sentences that are
"It was on the day, or rather night, of the 27th of June, 1787,
between the hours of eleven and twelve, that I wrote the last lines
of the last page, in a summer-house in my garden. After laying down
my pen I took several turns in a berceau, or covered walk of
acacias, which commands a prospect of the country, the lake, and
the mountains. The air was temperate, the sky was serene, the
silver orb of the moon was reflected from the waters, and all
nature was silent. I will not dissemble the first emotions of joy
on the recovery of my freedom, and perhaps, the establishment of my
fame. But my pride was soon humbled, and a sober melancholy was
spread over my mind, by the idea that I had taken an everlasting
leave of an old and agreeable companion, and that, whatsoever might
be the future fate of my History, the life of the historian must be
short and precarious."
In June, 1888, just one hundred and one years after that pen had
been finally laid aside, I searched in Lausanne for the
summer-house and covered walk, and could find no very authentic
record of its site. I brought home a flower from the garden where
it seemed probable the summer-house had once existed, behind the
modern hotel built there in the intervening time, and laid it
between the leaves of my Gibbon.
The pressed flower was still there when I last took the book
down from my shelves.
I hope my successors will preserve the little token of my
Your loving old
First edition, 1794.