Edward Gibbon 1737-1794
English historian, essayist, literary critic, and memoirist.
Gibbon's fame rests almost entirely with his massive The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Published in six volumes between 1776 and 1788, this historical account of the forces that led to Rome's collapse was immediately hailed as a classic; today it is almost unanimously regarded as the single greatest narrative history written in English. The enduring popularity of Gibbon's Decline and Fall cannot be accounted for by its historical breadth alone—indeed, many of its arguments and factual statements have been discounted or supplanted by more recent historiography. Rather, Gibbon's Decline and Fall continues to inspire readers because of its literary style, which has been praised for its narrative clarity, biting irony, and elegant prose. In addition, Gibbon's dispassionate style, his carefully balanced presentation of multiple viewpoints, and his treatment of religion as one of many forces determining social history are regarded as typical of Enlightenment sensibility. While critical analysis of Gibbon's writing is overwhelmingly dominated by commentaries on his Decline and Fall, his Memoirs (1796) is also studied for clues into the historian's personality and dedication to recounting Rome's fall from glory as well as important lessons about the art of autobiography itself.
Much of what is known of Gibbon's personal life comes from information he supplied in his Memoirs, written in the final years before his death. He was born in 1737 into a wealthy family in Putney, a town near London. As a child he was usually too sick to attend school, although he did begin formal training in Latin when he was nine. A year later Gibbon's mother died, and his father sent him to be raised by his wife's sister, whom Gibbon credited with stoking his intellectual curiosity. His poor health did not permit his return to school for any sustained length of time, but Gibbon read voraciously the books in his aunt and uncle's library. By 1752 Gibbon's health had improved enough for him to enter Oxford; the fourteen months he spent there he described as a waste of time, since he felt unchallenged by the university's curriculum and professors. His conversion to Catholicism during this period resulted in his expulsion from Oxford (which then had rules prohibiting Catholic students). Gibbon's father was so distressed by Gibbon's conversion that he sent his son to Lausanne, Switzerland, to be educated and raised by a Protestant pastor. In 1754 Gibbon renounced his conversion, but he remained in Lausanne, becoming fluent in French and Latin. In 1757 he met Suzanne Curchod, the only woman with whom he would ever become passionate. The two became engaged, but Gibbon abruptly broke off the engagement after he returned to England in 1758 and learned of his father's disapproval of the union. From 1760 to 1763 Gibbon served in a volunteer militia with his father, and, despite his distaste for army life, Gibbon considered the years well spent, since they gave him a sense of the military life he would so often describe in his Decline and Fall. Following his stint in the militia, Gibbon decided to devote his life to scholarship and writing. In 1761 he published his first composition, a short work on the importance of classical knowledge called Essai sur l'Étude de la Littérature (An Essay on the Study of Literature). For a time he vacillated between writing a history of the Swiss Republic and one of the Roman Empire, but decided on the latter after being inspired by the ruins of ancient Rome while on a tour of Italy in 1764. In 1770 Gibbon's father died, freeing Gibbon to pursue his affairs as he saw fit. In 1772 Gibbon began writing The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, but the work progressed slowly as the historian repeatedly revised the opening chapters until he finally found a narrative voice that pleased him. Before being appointed a commissioner of trade during this time, Gibbon was elected to Parliament, where he had an undistinguished career, most likely because he felt awkward at public speaking. In 1776 Gibbon published the first volume of the Decline and Fall; the sixth and final volume was completed in 1787 and published the following year. During the final decade of Gibbon's life he moved back and forth between London and Lausanne, often living with his friend, Georges Deyverdum, with whom he had published some of his earliest essays in the late 1760s. Following the completion of the Decline and Fall, Gibbon began to write his autobiography so that readers of his famous history would understand the influences which had made his writing possible. Gibbon never completed this work; though he wrote six drafts of his autobiography, he was never satisfied with any of his efforts. Gibbon's Memoirs was published in 1796, two years after Gibbon died due to severe swelling of the groin. The memoirs were published by Gibbon's friend Lord Sheffield, who organized Gibbon's autobiography based on the historian's letters and unfinished drafts.
Gibbon is remembered for only two works, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and Memoirs. The Decline and Fall is usually divided by historians and literary critics into two parts. The first, consisting of the first three volumes, begins with the age of the Antonines, a period in the second century that Gibbon considered to be the high point of Roman civilization. This was a time of religious toleration, peace, and good governance. The third volume ends with the capture of Italy by barbarian hordes, the empire's downfall resulting from external attacks, the vainglory of power-hungry emperors, and the divisive rise of Christianity. The last three volumes deal with the demise of Rome's eastern empire through the fall of Constantinople to Turkish armies. Unlike the first three volumes, which are written in chronological order, the last three volumes are ordered by broad topics. Gibbon's Memoirs, sometimes referred to as a minor classic in its own right, is read not only as Gibbon probably intended it to be—by scholars who wish to understand the formative influences that contributed to the historian's ability to write the Decline and Fall—but also by those who see in Gibbon's six attempts to write his life story (the six drafts of his autobiography were published in 1896) changes in narrative approaches which speak to the art of autobiographical literature as much as they display the historian's unique personality and tastes.
Gibbon's early literary criticism is almost entirely ignored. Even his Essai sur l'Étude de la Littérature is most often mentioned only in passing as an early example, however disjointed, of the breadth and scope of Gibbon's thought. Gibbon's journals and letters have provided scholars with a wealth of information about Gibbon's life and personality, but they are rarely discussed except in relation to his Decline and Fall. The publication of the six drafts of Gibbon's Memoirs, on the other hand, has elicited lively discussion about the differences in Gibbon's narrative approaches, with many critics concluding that the drafts show Gibbon's movement toward narrative clarity and self-understanding while also providing rich material for readers to discover the difficulties posed by the art of autobiographical literature.
The bulk of critical analysis on Gibbon's literary career has concerned itself, naturally, with the Decline and Fall. Although Gibbon's text has been profoundly influential in the field of history for its careful research, balance of competing arguments, and enlightened skepticism in its approach toward Christianity, it may seem surprising that the Decline and Fall has been the subject of as much, if not more, literary than historical analysis in the twentieth century. One reason for this shift certainly has to do with the style of Gibbon's narrative. The work contains ironic word play and intricate, even poetic, sentence structures that are almost never found in modern historical writings, which value precision more highly than narrative art. And though it is often noted that Gibbon's preoccupation with balancing historical factuality with literary elegance was not unusual in itself for the age in which he wrote, the Decline and Fall is generally considered one of the finest blends of historical and literary sophistication. However, Gibbon's prose has had its detractors. Samuel Taylor Coleridge described Gibbon's literary style as “detestable,” and many others over the past two centuries have complained that his writing is overly ornamental, pompous, vulgar, and even formulaic. Nonetheless, praise is more common, with critics variously describing Gibbon's style as imaginative, beautiful, sublime, and rhetorically majestic. Finally, while many argue that Gibbon's work lacks a high degree of philosophical depth, most agree that his Decline and Fall has never been equaled in its historical scope of vision, authorial power, and enduring readability.
Essai sur l'Étude de la Littérature [An Essay on the Study of Literature] (essay) 1761
Mémoires Littéraires de la Grande Bretagne, Pour l'An 1767 [with Georges Deyverdun] (literary criticism) 1768
Mémoires Littéraires de la Grande Bretagne, Pour l'An 1768 [with Georges Deyverdun] (history) 1769
Critical Observations on the Sixth Book of the Aeneid (essay) 1770
The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. 6 vols. (history) 1776-88
Mémoire Justicatif pour servir de Réponse à l'Exposé de la Cour de France (essay) 1779
A Vindication of Some Passages in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Chapters of the History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (essay) 1779
Miscellaneous Works of Edward Gibbon, Esquire, with Memoirs of his Life and Writings, Composed by Himself [edited by John, Lord Sheffield] (anthology) 1796, revised 1814
The Autobiographies of Edward Gibbon [edited by John Murray] (autobiography) 1896
The Private Letters of Edward Gibbon. 2 vols. [edited by R. E. Prothero] (correspondence) 1896
The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. 7 vols. [edited by J. B. Bury] (history) 1896-1900
Gibbon's Journal to January 28, 1763 [edited by...
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SOURCE: White, Ian. “The Subject of Gibbon's History.” Cambridge Quarterly 3, no. 4 (autumn 1968): 299-309.
[In the following essay, White focuses on Gibbon's thematic concern with time in the Decline and Fall.]
Studies of Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire have, it seems to me, generally failed to bring out the most persistent and characteristic moral impression of the work. Perhaps the point has been thought too obvious, or to belong necessarily to the subject rather than the author, or not to be sufficiently a moral one. But it is one of those great commonplaces of which we never weary, or cease to need reminding; it receives explicit emphasis in the History, and its fascination shows itself in Gibbon's other writings; it explains his final preference of the subject of Rome to others he thought of taking; and it is the lesson, moral or not, which History, rather than any other of the moral sciences, is especially qualified to teach. It may briefly be called the theme of time.
An historian's moral purpose is expressed in his choice of topic—a matter of extent as well as location—as much as in his treatment of it. Why did Gibbon not in the end write about the Swiss, or about Florence?—or rather, if he had written those histories, what would they have failed to convey that is conveyed by the Decline and Fall of Rome? Tillyard's answer (in The...
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SOURCE: Mason, H. A. “Gibbon's Irony.” Cambridge Quarterly 3, no. 4 (autumn 1968): 309-17.
[In the following essay, Mason examines Gibbon's use of irony in describing early Christians in Chapter 15 of the Decline and Fall.]
And shaped his weapon with an edge severe, Sapping a solemn creed with solemn sneer, The lord of irony …
… the contrast [between Swift's irony and Gibbon's] is so complete that any one point is difficult to isolate. Gibbon's irony, in the fifteenth chapter, may be aimed against, instead of for, Christianity, but contrasted with Swift's it is an assertion of faith. The decorously insistent pattern of Gibbonian prose insinuates a solidarity with the reader (the implied solidarity in Swift is itself ironical—a means to betrayal), establishes an understanding and habituates to certain assumptions. The reader, it is implied, is an eighteenth-century gentleman (‘rational’, ‘candid’, ‘polite’, ‘elegant’, ‘humane’); eighteen hundred years ago he would have been a pagan gentleman, living by these same standards (those of absolute civilization); by these standards (present everywhere in the stylized prose and adroitly emphasized at key-points in such phrases at “the polite Augustus”, “the elegant mythology of the Greeks”) the Jews and early Christians are seen to have been...
(The entire section is 3041 words.)
SOURCE: Mandel, Barrett John. “The Problem of Narration in Edward Gibbon's Autobiography.” Studies in Philology 67, no. 4 (1970): 550-64.
[In the following essay, Mandel argues that a comparison of the six drafts of Gibbon's autobiography shows that the author of the Decline and Fall was never able to find a narrative voice that satisfied his desire to show his personal development as a historian.]
Edward Gibbon managed to complete his massive history of the Roman empire. But when he turned his attention to the history of his own life and attempted to produce an autobiography, he found the challenge too great. Writing to Sheffield in 1793, after having put his pen down on six separate drafts of his autobiography, Gibbon laments, “And now approach, and let me drop into your most private ear a literary secret. Of the Memoirs little has been done, and with that little I am not satisfied: they must be postponed till a mature season, and I much doubt whether the book and the author can ever see the light at the same time.”1
One is so accustomed to hearing Edward Gibbon praised as a great autobiographer and his published memoirs as “a triumph of literary art,”2 that it is sometimes easy to forget that Gibbon never produced an autobiography which satisfied him and that his efforts to produce one resulted in six separate drafts, detached...
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SOURCE: Pla, Maurice. “A Masterpiece of Irony: Edward Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.1” Caliban 8 (1972): 55-70.
[In the following essay, Pla argues that Gibbon's frequent use of irony in the Decline and Fall, often directed at Christians, women, and powerful men, offers rich insight into the author and helps elevate the historical work to the level of literature.]
Can there possibly be such a thing as an English Voltaire? Can our caustic, grating ironist have a counterpart in a country which has long been known as the ideal ground for the flowering of the far gentler graces of humour? One notable exception immediately obtrudes itself as one name emerges: Jonathan Swift; and yet after reading the work of one of Swift's contemporaries, Edward Gibbon, and more especially his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, one would no doubt experience pangs of remorse for having rashly stuck the label, not an inglorious after all, on the father of Gulliver.
Authoritative Gibbonian critics entertain no doubts on that matter. G. M. Young writes: “there is even more of France in him, more of the philosophe than I realized”,2 and ungrudgingly grants Gibbon the command of the superior weapon: irony. R. B. Mowat, after pointing out Voltaire's influence on Gibbon, refers to the latter's outlook on life...
(The entire section is 6239 words.)
SOURCE: Folkenflik, Robert. “Child and Adult: Historical Perspective in Gibbon's Memoirs.” Studies in Burke and His Time 15, no. 1 (fall 1973): 31-43.
[In the following essay, Folkenflik describes passages of detachment, self-mockery, and fake impressions in Gibbon's autobiographical Memoirs.]
Critics have often pointed out that Gibbon's is the autobiography of an historian, not simply that of a man; but it is even more than that an autobiography which explains through the empirical consideration of a single person the necessity of the detached looking backward which, for Gibbon, is history itself. Bemusement with his earlier self and not complacency is the dominant mood. Gibbon's whole work is pervaded by a knowledge of how wrong he had been and of how fortunate, given his mistakes, he was to become the historian of Rome. Remembering the original title of Pride and Prejudice, a book which was first conceived during the same decade in which Gibbon was attempting to write his memoirs, we can say that his work, no less than Jane Austen's, is about “first impressions” that were, invariably, mistaken.
What we should see in these Memoirs is the striking confrontation of a younger by an older self. Ian Watt, in an urbane essay on ironic prose, says of Gibbon's famous epigram: “I sighed as a lover: I obeyed as a son”: “The abstractions, the conventional roles, the...
(The entire section is 5328 words.)
SOURCE: Labriola, Albert C. “Enlightenment Historiography and Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.” Enlightenment Essays 5, no. 2 (summer 1974): 44-9.
[In the following essay, Labriola argues that Gibbon's Decline and Fall is an exemplar of Enlightenment historiography, with its philosophical emphasis on fundamental truths to understand figures, institutions, and events from a period long past.]
In The Literary Art of Edward Gibbon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1960) Harold L. Bond observes that “the philosophic historian is expected not only to furnish his contemporaries with materials which can be used in forming observations about human action; he should also write history in such a way that the universal principles of human nature are illustrated” (p. 10). As a philosophic historian, Edward Gibbon writes in the tradition of Enlightenment historiography that includes Voltaire, Montesquieu, Robertson, and Hume; and in his Essai sur l'étude de la littérature (1761) he defines the philosophic spirit that characterizes the Enlightenment historian's view of history as an opportunity to analyze the “basic ideas” and “first principles” that underlie the events of a particular period or epoch:
The philosophic spirit consists in being able to go back to basic ideas; to perceive and to bring together first principles....
(The entire section is 3019 words.)
SOURCE: Clive, John. “Gibbon's Humor.” Daedalus 105, no. 3 (1976): 27-35.
[In the following essay, Clive argues that Gibbon's frequent use of humor in the Decline and Fall was meant, above all else, to show his readers that the advance of civilization is fashioned more by practical concerns than by imagination or speculation.]
Oliphant Smeaton, editor of the “Everyman” Decline and Fall, speaks of “those silly witticisms as pointless as they are puerile in which Gibbon at times indulges.”1 How would the great historian have dealt with that comment and its author? The latter's name, though the mere act of pronouncing it may even now raise a smile, would not have lent itself to punning—unlike that of the Abbé le Bœuf, “an antiquarian, whose name was happily expressive of his talents.”2 But his censorious remark might have moved Gibbon to credit him with “that naïveté, that unconscious simplicity, which always constitutes genuine humor.”3
To take issue with Oliphant Smeaton is neither to deny that any historian who admits the comic spirit to his pages puts strict historical truth at risk, nor to maintain that Gibbon's humor demands to be treated with reverence and awe. To be sure, he had learned from Pascal the art of wielding “grave and temperate irony” in a great cause. But it did not require the excesses of the...
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SOURCE: Starobinski, Jean. “From the Decline of Erudition to the Decline of Nations: Gibbon's Response to French Thought.” Daedalus 105, no. 3 (1976): 189-207.
[In the following essay, Starobinski analyzes arguments in Gibbon's Essai sur l'étude de la literature, an early work by the historian which concerns itself with the relationship between the decline in letters and the decline in nations.]
Gibbon included in his Memoirs of My Life a critique of his own first work, the Essai sur l'étude de la littérature. Among the things he singled out for disapproval was his imprecise use of the word littérature: “Instead of a precise and proper definition [of] the title itself, the sense of the word Littérature is loosely and variously applied. …”1 He is, however, being rather hard on himself, for when he wrote his Essai the meaning of the term littérature in French had in fact been somewhat ambiguous. The preoccupation of French lexicographers and philosophers of the time with introducing a clear and precise definition and distinguishing among its various meanings was symptomatic of a more general feeling that revisions in concepts were needed, and the imprecision of which Gibbon a posteriori accused himself reflected that situation: the young author of the Essai by deciding to adopt the French language had necessarily also to...
(The entire section is 11553 words.)
SOURCE: Brownley, Martine Watson. “Appearance and Reality in Gibbon's History.” Journal of the History of Ideas 38, no. 4 (1977): 651-66.
[In the following essay, Brownley argues that Gibbon's delineation of appearance and reality throughout the Decline and Fall was an effective narrative tool for developing his major themes while sustaining the reader's interest.]
A constant refusal to take anything at face value is a prominent characteristic of Edward Gibbon in both his personal life and his historical work. For the historian composing The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, an instant suspicion of the obvious proved to be an invaluable trait in sifting precious facts from the accumulated fictions of centuries. Gibbon's skeptical and practical cast of mind, along with his absolute dedication to fact, equipped him superbly for dealing with the complexities of history. One historical and artistic device used very frequently and successfully in the Decline and Fall, which reflects Gibbon's skepticism and his approach to historical complexities, is his presentation of material in terms of appearance and reality and the relationship between the two in particular situations.1
Sometimes Gibbon directly contrasts appearance and reality, emphasizing that outer forms are not final determinants: “The general peace which he maintained during the last fourteen...
(The entire section is 7558 words.)
SOURCE: Brownley, Martine Watson. “Gibbon's Narrative Attitudes and Values in the Decline and Fall.” Research Studies 46, no. 3 (September 1978): 172-82.
[In the following essay, Watson Brownley argues that Gibbon's narrative voice in the Decline and Fall, noted for its balance and practical approach, expressed the values and traits of the Enlightenment as well as those of the historian himself.]
The most important role in the vast drama of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is Edward Gibbon's own part as narrator of the history. To guide the reader from the Age of the Antonines to the fall of Constantinople, Gibbon had to construct an appropriate narrative persona to unify his history.1 Primarily dedicated to effective narration of fact, he establishes basic narrative authority through firm control of his materials and his expression. However, style and factual exactness alone cannot account for the quality of Gibbon's achievement in creating the narrator of the Decline and Fall. The attitudes and values expressed directly and indirectly by the narrator endow dry, historical fact with lasting significance. An understanding of the viewpoint of the narrator illuminates the standards by which the world of the Roman Empire is judged and interpreted in the history. The attitudes and values of the narrator reflect both Gibbon's own personality and the...
(The entire section is 5260 words.)
SOURCE: Pocock, J. G. A. “Superstition and Enthusiasm in Gibbon's History of Religion.” Eighteenth-Century Life 8, no. 1 (October 1982): 83-94.
[In the following lecture, originally presented at a conference in October 1981, Pocock identifies religion as the central concern in the Decline and Fall.]
The Decline and Fall, from beginning to end—and the later volumes richly reward close study—is profoundly concerned with the capacity of religion in its various forms to stabilise, to destroy, and to reconstitute the fabric of civilised society; so that history is largely determined by religion, and religion—while reduced from the sacred to the secular dimension—is one of the greatest phenomena of history. In this sense, Gibbon's history of religion is essential to the structure and texture of his work as a whole; and I intend in this essay to argue that it is organised around—though it does not mechanically apply—the distinction between superstition and enthusiasm constructed by Hume in the essay bearing that name, in the Natural History of Religion, and in the chapters of the History of England which have to do with the Protestant Reformation and the Puritan Revolution.
Let us remind ourselves what that distinction is in summary. Superstition is the worship of the godhead in objects perceived by the senses; its ultimate form is probably the Catholic...
(The entire section is 6026 words.)
SOURCE: Brownley, Martine Watson. “Gibbon's Artistic and Historical Scope in the Decline and Fall.” Journal of the History of Ideas 42, no. 2 (October-December 1981): 629-42.
[In the following essay, Brownley argues that one reason the Decline and Fall is still read today is because of limitations in Gibbon's imagination and philosophical abilities, limitations that, paradoxically, have kept his historical work from becoming merely a window to eighteenth-century scholarship.]
Much of the effectiveness of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire derives from Edward Gibbon's ability to create a vast scope for his subject extending well beyond the ostensible historical limits of the centuries from the Age of the Antonines to the fall of Constantinople. He achieves this expanded scope in his history not only by including material outside the strict confines of his topic but also by effectively juxtaposing comparable and disparate events and figures comprehended within this enlarged scope. By employing such parallels, he gains unity for his subject and provides the reader with continuously shifting perspectives. Gibbon believed that “the experience of history exalts and enlarges the horizon of our intellectual view,”1 and he seldom fails to create this experience for the reader of the Decline and Fall. As a literary artist he can convincingly present a broad...
(The entire section is 6303 words.)
SOURCE: Hartog, Curt. “Time and Metaphor in Gibbon's History.” Clio 12, no. 2 (winter 1983): 153-68.
[In the following essay, Hartog argues that Gibbon's conception of historical time changes over the course of the Decline and Fall, transforming his approach to events, institutions, emperors, and even his own role as historian.]
Aristote, qui portoit la lumière dans les ténèbres de la nature et de l'art, est le père de la critique. Le tems, dont la justice lente, mais sûre, met enfin la vérité à la place de l'erreur, a brisé les statues du philosophe, mais a confirmé les décisions du critique.
Essai, XXIII: 37
In his first publication, the Essai sur L'Étude de la Littérature (1761), Gibbon works from the assumption that historical truth of any significance is usually hidden. In part, this notion stems from Gibbon's conception of facts, which possess relatively greater explanatory value the more deeply they are embedded in events and institutions.1 In part, the hidden nature of historical truth results from the cultural imperative, amounting to a phobia amongst civilized peoples, to disguise intentions and actions. So widespread, so ingrained is this phobia that the historian should carefully seek out trivial clues because minutiae are most likely to be spontaneous and are hence...
(The entire section is 6959 words.)
SOURCE: Quinn, Arthur. “‘Meditating Tacitus’: Gibbon's Adaptation to an Eighteenth-Century Audience.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 70, no. 1 (February 1984): 53-68.
[In the following essay, Quinn argues that Gibbon's Decline and Fall was written in part to give wisdom to his English contemporaries so that England, an imperial power, would not make the same mistakes the Romans had.]
“It was Rome, on the 15th of October 1764, as I sat musing amid 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.” This is Edward Gibbon's own, now famous account of the origin of the history for which he is still remembered, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. In 1764 his mind should well have been on the fate of great empires. Gibbon had recently been released from service in the Hampshire militia. He had volunteered for this service because from 1755 to 1763 Britain has been engaged in the greatest imperial war of its yet young empire.1
In the peace treaty that was signed in 1763 all Canada went to Britain. Moreover, Spain, to get back Havana and the Philippines, ceded Florida. France also made sufficient concessions in India to assure British dominance there. In short, Britain, whatever its intentions for...
(The entire section is 9705 words.)
SOURCE: Craddock, Patricia. “‘Immortal Affectation’: Responses to Gibbon's Style.” Age of Johnson 1 (1987): 327-46.
[In the following essay, Craddock describes how critical assessments of Gibbon's literary style in the Decline and Fall have ranged from high praise to harsh denunciation, noting that the ongoing debate ultimately proves the work's lasting value.]
I should like to start with a little autobiography. My own work on Gibbon's style began in outrage, some twenty years ago. In Gilbert Highet's well-known and then recent book, The Classical Tradition, I encountered the following passage:
Then there is what has been called “the immortal affectation of [Gibbon's] unique style”. Yet it is not unique. Individuality was not one of the chief aims of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century stylists. It has often been praised, and it is truly praiseworthy as a feat of will-power. The difficulty is that, as the lady in Boileau said of Chapelain's poetry, no one can read it. … [H]is sentences are monotonous. Two patterns, with minor variations, are his obsessions. He will say X; and Y. His next sentence will be X; and Y; and Z. Sometimes he will interpose X; but Y. Then, regularly and soporifically as waves on the beach, roll back X; and Y; and Z. … Gibbon overworked the two devices of antithesis and tricolon until...
(The entire section is 7322 words.)
SOURCE: Day, Robert Adams. “Gibbon and the Language of History.” Études Anglaises 41, no. 2 (April-June 1988): 155-64.
[In the following essay, Day analyzes the vocabulary, sentence structure, and rhythms of a sample of Gibbon's prose from the Decline and Fall to show what devices Gibbons consciously used to convey his message to readers.]
As recently as September 1985 a reviewer in the London Times Literary Supplement, praising J. W. Burrow's newly-published Gibbon, said that
the student will get a sharper sense of where the true vitality of the Decline and Fall resides from Burrow's book than from any comparable study,
but went on to complain:
However, although Burrow helps us to see where we may find the life of the Decline and Fall, he is not equally illuminating about the forms that life takes. There is an imbalance in his handling of the competing claims of text and context. We are given fine accounts of ideas. … But we are not shown how those ideas and terms are inflected when drawn into the Decline and Fall. Too often the quotations from Gibbon's text feel subordinate; it is as if they were being introduced merely to illustrate the context.
Anyone who surveys...
(The entire section is 4381 words.)
SOURCE: Craddock, Patricia. “Historical Discovery and Literary Invention in Gibbon's Decline and Fall.” Modern Philology 85, no. 4 (May 1988): 569-87.
[In the following essay, Craddock explains why the Decline and Fall is still read today, arguing that Gibbon's careful balance between historical analysis and literary description has made the work an enduring classic.]
A work of history that is not an account of the author's own times rarely continues to be read after its data and even its interpretative schemes have been superseded. If such a work does find readers, historians and literary scholars alike attempt to explain its continuing interest by pointing to attributes that have little or nothing to do with the work's original value as history. They praise the superseded masterpiece for its rhetorical skill; its formal coherence and beauty; the persistent interest or complexity of its theme; the qualities of the implied personality of the author; the significance, originality, or typicality of the attitudes and ideas expressed. Literary scholars seem to think that the work's origin, its former claim to factual reliability, has become irrelevant; historians seem to value the work only as a contribution to their own histories of historiography or as documentation of the cultural life of the period during which the author wrote. But oddly, even after two hundred years, the Decline...
(The entire section is 11418 words.)
SOURCE: Jemielity, Thomas. “Gibbon Among the Aeolists: Islamic Credulity and Pagan Fanaticism in The Decline and Fall.” Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture 19 (1989): 165-83.
[In the following essay, Jemielity argues that although many critics have commented on the satire directed at Christianity in the Decline and Fall, in fact the historian attacked forms of superstition and religious zeal in other religions, ranging from paganism to Islam.]
James Boswell is only one of the earliest to allege that insidious and dishonest motives prompt Edward Gibbon's analysis of Christianity in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Although the Life of Johnson, admittedly, does not appear until 1791, that 20 March 1776 conversation which impugns Gibbon's integrity is in the biography but a reshaping for public view of doubts Boswell had expressed at Oxford about Gibbon's recently published history that winter. In the Life Boswell refers to the Decline and Fall as a work “which, under the pretext of another subject, contained much artful infidelity.”1 Were we to believe Boswell, Gibbon, in a seventy-one-chapter history spanning almost two millennia, constructs only a facade behind which lurks his real objective: an infidel's attack on Christianity. Characteristically Boswellian, it is no small fantasy. Such an exclusive focussing, however, on what...
(The entire section is 7930 words.)
SOURCE: Pearson, John H. “Reading the Writing in the Drafts of Edward Gibbon's Memoirs.” Biography 14, no. 3 (summer 1991): 222-42.
[In the following essay, Pearson describes the six attempts Gibbon made to write his autobiography, describing how in each draft the historian revised the image he presented of himself.]
Edward Gibbon began writing his memoirs in 1788 after completing his strikingly monumental work, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. He labelled the impulse to write autobiography in “An Address &c” five years later when at work on the sixth and last draft of the autobiography: “Nature implanted in our breasts,” he wrote, “a lively impulse to extend the narrow span of our existence, by the knowledge, of the events that have happened on the soil we inhabit, of the characters and actions of those men from whom our descent, as individuals or a people is probably derived” (Essays 534). By appropriating the past, a seemingly routine exercise for the great historian of the Roman empire, Gibbon attempted to use the methods of historical inquiry toward very personal ends—to extend the narrow span of his existence. Yet as he began drafting the self-history, Gibbon envisioned a readership that would come to his memoir from his great work, a readership that sought to know Gibbon-the-historian. As a result, the memoir he first envisioned would culminate...
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Braudy, Leo. “Edward Gibbon and ‘The Privilege of Fiction.’” Prose Studies 3, no. 2 (September 1980): 138-51.
Argues that Gibbon's attitudes towards and adoption of fiction as a means to interpret historical events are more important elements in the historian's writings than are works of classical historians and contemporary social philosophers.
Carnochan, W. B. Gibbon's Solitude: The Inward World of the Historian. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1987, 228 p.
Full-length study of Gibbon's life and works that concentrates on the historian's efforts to understand both ancient Rome and himself.
Cosgrove, Peter. “The Circulation of Genres in Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.” ELH 63 (spring 1996): 109-38.
Seeks to understand the narrative model of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by examining its relationship to a broad range of literary forms, most notably the mock-heroic.
Craddock, Patricia. “Edward Gibbon (1737-1794).” In Medieval Scholarship: Biographical Studies on the Formation of a Discipline. Volume I: History, edited by Helen Damico and Joseph B. Zavadil, pp. 47-61. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1995.
Provides a concise overview of Gibbon's life and...
(The entire section is 576 words.)