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26 June, 2013
The Glory Of English Prose
13. Gibbon
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 [1] 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 strangely memorable:—
"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 reverence.

Your loving old
G.P.

[1]
First edition, 1794.

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