The world as seen through the clarifying lens of the 9th Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1875-1889).

Thursday, 13 March 2008

8. (ii) Musing amidst the ruins

Let us return, then, with Mr Rogers and Reverend Black to 18th century England, to find the young Edward Gibbon, himself freshly returned to these shores and living on an allowance in his father's home, beginning a "work of accumulation" building up his father's library.
"I am not conscious," says he, "of having ever bought a book from a motive of ostentation ; every volume , before it was deposited on the shelf, was either read or sufficiently examined" ; he also mentions that he soon adopted the tolerating maxim of the elder Pliny, that no book is ever so bad as to be absolutely good for nothing.

Londoners will no doubt particularly appreciate this maxim, having noted that all those supposed commuters apparently reading a weighty volume called Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows on the Tube last year were actually undercover police officers poised ready to brain any would be backpack bombers with the aforesaid quote novel unquote.

Somewhat alienated by his French education, Gibbon lived in the London of 1760 in books rather than society. He "withdrew without reluctance from the noisy and extensive scene of crowds without company, and dissipation without pleasure." Which is sorrier, I wonder, fashionable dissipation at a husband's request, or dissipation without pleasure? Certainly, if you are going to dissipate, you should at least enjoy it.

Having read nothing of Gibbon's writing except what is quoted in the Ninth's essay from his autobiography, I have learnt that it was regrettably Frenchified in expression, owing to his formative experience on the continent. Rogers and Black now tell me that over the next 25 years that Gibbon lived in London, he was encouraged to "addict himself to an assiduous study of the more idiomatic English writers".

Of his admiration of Hume's style, of its nameless grace and simple elegance, he has left us a strong expression, when he tells us that it often compelled him to close the historian's volumes with a mixed sensation of delight and despair.

So, in 1761, Gibbon made his first publication, in French. This was done in compliance with his father's wishes, a man who seems to be quite Machiavellian if not Mansonian in his usage of his family, in as much as he "thought that the proof of some literary talent might introduce him favourably to public notice [seems reasonable enough], and secure the recommendation of his friends for some appointment in connexion with the mission of the English plenipotentiaries to the congress at Augsburg which was at that time in contemplation." Interesting fellow, this Pa Gibbon. Unfortunately, being in French, the book was received with "cold indifference" in England, although after Gibbon's later success, the rare first printing first sold for half-a-crown had "risen to the fanciful price of a guinea or thirty shillings" on ye Bay.

Gibbon then spent three years as a Captain in the Hampshire militia, before his father packed him off on that most fashionable - but edifying rather than dissipating - of 18th century pursuits, a Grand Tour of Europe, which at length brought young Edward to Rome. (Whether Gibbon Snr had some colourful ulterior motive concerning supernumeraries at the General Synod or perhaps the predisposition of eunuchs in some sultan's harem, Rogers and Black do not reveal). And now I must quote quotation, for
...the words in which [Gibbon] has alluded to the feelings with which he approached [Rome] are such as cannot be omitted from any sketch of Gibbon, however brief. "My temper is not very susceptible of enthusiasm, and the enthusiasm which I do not feel I have ever scorned to affect. But at the distance of twenty five years I can neither forget nor express the strong emotions which agitated my mind as I first approached and entered the Eternal City. After a sleepless night, I trod with a lofty step the ruins of the forum ; each memorable spot, where Romulus stood, or Tully spoke, or Caesar fell, was at once present to my eye ; and several days of intoxication were lost or enjoyed before I could descend to a cool and minute investigation... It was at Rome, on the 15th of October 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted friars 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."

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