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Outlines of English and American Literature
Gibbon
by Long, William J.


Of all the historical works of the age, and their name was legion, only one survives with something of its original vitality, standing the double test of time and scholarship. This is The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776), a work which remained famous for a century, and which still has its admiring readers. It was written by Edward Gibbon (1737-1794), who belonged to the Literary Club that gathered about Johnson, and who cultivated his style, he tells us, first by adopting the dictator's rounded periods, and then practicing them "till they moved to flutes and hautboys."

The scope of Gibbon's work is enormous. It begins with the Emperor Trajan (A.D. 98) and carries us through the convulsions of a dying civilization, the descent of the Barbarians on Rome, the spread of Christianity, the Crusades, the rise of Mohammedanism,--through all the confused history of thirteen centuries, ending with the capture of Constantinople by the Turks, in 1453. The mind that could grasp such vast and chaotic materials, arrange them in orderly sequence and resent them as in a gorgeous panorama, moves us to wonder. To be sure, there are many things to criticize in Gibbon's masterpiece,--the author's love of mere pageants; his materialism; his inability to understand religious movements, or even religious motives; his lifeless figures, which move as if by mechanical springs,--but one who reads the Decline and Fall may be too much impressed by the evidences of scholarship, of vast labor, of genius even, to linger over faults. It is a "monumental" work, most interesting to those who admire monuments; and its style is the perfection of that oratorical, Johnsonese style which was popular in England in 1776, and which, half a century later, found its best American mouthpiece in Daniel Webster. The influence of Gibbon may still be seen in the orators and historians who, lacking the charm of simplicity, clothe even their platitudes in high-sounding phrases.

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