(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.