Изображения страниц
PDF
EPUB

second head of Gibbon's history—the narrative of the barbarian invasions—has been recently criticised, on the ground that he scarcely enough explains the gradual but unceasing and inevitable manner in which the outer barbarians were affected by and assimilated to the civilisation of Rome. Mr. Congreve has well observed, that the impression which Gibbon's narrative is insensibly calculated to convey is, that there was little or no change in the state of the Germanic tribes between the time of Tacitus and the final invasion of the empire-a conclusion which is obviously incredible. To the general reader there will perhaps seem some indistinctness in this part of the work, nor is a free confused barbarism a congenial subject for an imposing and orderly pencil. He succeeds better in the delineation of the riding monarchies, if we may so term them, of the equestrian courts of Attila or Timour, in which the great scale, the concentrated power, the very enormity of the barbarism, give, so to speak, a shape to unshapeliness; impart, that is, a horrid dignity to horse-flesh and mare's milk, an imposing oneness to the vast materials of a crude barbarity. It is needless to say that no one would search Gibbon for an explanation of the reasons or feelings by which the northern tribes were induced to accept Christianity.

It is on the story of Constantinople that the popularity of Gibbon rests. The vast extent of the topic; the many splendid episodes it contains; its epic unity from the moment of its farseeing selection by Constantine to its last fall; its position as the link between Europe and Asia; its continuous history; the knowledge that through all that time it was, as now, a diadem by the water-side, a lure to be snatched by the wistful barbarian, a marvel to the West, a prize for the North and for the East; --these, and such as these ideas, are congenial advantages to a style of pomp and grandeur. The East seems to require to be treated with a magnificence unsuitable to a colder soil. The nature of the events, too, is suitable to Gibbon's cursory imposing

It is the history of a form of civilisation, but without the power thereof; a show of splendour and vigour, but without bold life or interior reality. What an opportunity for an historian who loved the imposing pageantry and disliked the purer essence of existence! There were here neither bluff barbarians nor simple saints; there was nothing admitting of particular accumulated detail: we do not wish to know the interior of the stage; the imposing movements are all which should be seized. Some of the features are curious in relation to those of the historian's life; the clear accounts of the theological controversies, followed out with an appreciative minuteness so rare in a sceptic, are not disconnected with his early conversion to the scholastic church.

manner.

a

a

a

The brilliancy of the narrative reminds us of his enthusiasm for Arabic and the East; the minute description of a licentious epoch evinces the habit of a mind which, not being bold enough for the practice of license, took a pleasure in following its theory. There is no subject which combines so much of unity with so much of variety.

It is evident, therefore, where Gibbon's rank as an historian must finally stand. He cannot be numbered among the great painters of human nature, for he has no sympathy with the heart and passions of our race; he has no place among the felicitous describers of detailed life, for his subject was too vast for minute painting, and his style too uniform for a shifting scene. But he is entitled to a high-perhaps to a first place among the orderly narrators of great events; the composed expositors of universal history; the tranquil artists who have endeavoured to diffuse a cold polish over the warm passions and desultory fortunes of mankind.

The life of Gibbon after the publication of his great work was not very complicated. During its composition he had withdrawn from Parliament and London to the studious retirement of Lausanne. Much eloquence has been expended on this volun. tary exile, and it has been ascribed to the best and most profound motives. It is indeed certain that he liked a lettered soli. tude, preferred easy continental society, was not quite insensible to the charm of scenery, had a pleasure in returning to the haunts of his youth. Prosaic and pure history, however, must explain that he went abroad to save. Lord North had gone out of power. Mr. Burke, the Cobden of that era, had procured the abolition of the Lords of Trade; the private income of Gibbon was not equal to his notion of a bachelor London life. The same sum was, however, a fortune at Lausanne. Most things, he acknowledged, were as dear; but then he had not to buy so many things. Eight hundred a year placed him high in the social scale of the place. The inhabitants were gratified that a man of European reputation had selected their out-of-the-way town for the shrine of his time: he lived pleasantly and easily among easy pleasant people; a gentle hum of local admiration gradually arose, which yet lingers on the lips of erudite laquais de place. He still retains a fame unaccorded to any other historian ; they speak of the “hôtel Gibbon :" there never was even

" an estaminet Tacitus, or a café Thucydides.

This agreeable scene, like many other agreeable scenes, was broken by a great thunderclap. The French revolution has disgusted many people; but perhaps it has never disgusted any one more than Gibbon. He had swept and garnished every thing about him. Externally he had made a neat little hermit

own.

age in a gentle social place; internally he had polished up a cold theory of life, sufficient for the guidance of a cold and polished man. Every thing seemed to be tranquil with him : the rigid must admit his decorum ; the lax would not accuse him of rigour: he was of the world, and an elegant society naturally loved its

On a sudden the hermitage was disturbed. , No place was too calm for that excitement: scarcely any too distant for that uproar. The French war was a war of opinion, entering households, disturbing villages, dividing quiet friends. The Swiss took some of the infection. There was a not unnatural discord between the people of the Pays de Vaud and their masters the people of Berne. The letters of Gibbon are filled with invectives on the “Gallic barbarians” and panegyrics on Mr. Burke: military details, too, begin to abound—the peace of his retirement was at an end. It was an additional aggravation that the Parisians should do such things. It would not have seemed unnatural that northern barbarians-English, or other uncivilised nations-should break forth in rough riot or cruel license; but that the people of the most civilised of all capitals, speaking the sole dialect of polished life, enlightened with all the enlightenment then known, should be guilty of excesses unparalleled, unwitnessed, unheard of, was a vexing trial to one who had admired them for many years. The internal creed and belief of Gibbon was as much attacked by all this as were his external circumstances. He had spent his time, his life, energy,

in putting a polished gloss on human tumult, a sneering gloss on human piety; on a sudden human passion broke forth the cold and polished world seemed to meet its end; the thin superficies of civilisation was torn asunder; the fountains of the great deep seemed opened ; impiety to meet its end; the foundations of the earth were out of course. We now, after long familiarity and in much ignorance, can hardly read the history of those years without horror; what an effect must they have produced on those whose minds were fresh, and who knew the people killed ! “Never,” he writes to an English nobleman,“ did a revolution affect to such a degree the private existence of such numbers of the first people of a great country; your examples of misery I could easily match with similar examples in this country and neighbourhood, and our sympathy is the deeper, as we do not possess, like you, the means of alleviating in some measure the misfortunes of the fugitives.” It violently affected his views of English politics : he had a tendency, in consideration of his cosmopolitan cultivation, to treat them as local littlenesses, parish squabbles; but now his interest was keen and eager. "But,” he says, “in this rage against slavery, in the numerous petitions against the slave-trade, was there no leaven of new democratical

his

principles ? no wild ideas of the rights and natural equality of man? It is these I fear. Some articles in newspapers, some pamphlets of the year, the Jockey Club, have fallen into my hands. I do not infer much from such publications; yet I have never known them of so black and malignant a cast. I shuddered at Grey's motion; disliked the half-support of Fox, admired the firmness of Pitt's declaration, and excused the usual intemperance of Burke. Surely such men as

have talents for mischief. I see a club of reform which contains some respectable names. Inform me of the professions, the principles, the plans, the resources of these reformers. Will they heat the minds of the people? Does the French democracy gain no ground? Will the bulk of your party stand firm to their own interest and that of their country? Will you not take some active measures to declare your sound opinions, and separate yourselves from your rotten members ? If you allow them to perplex government, if you trifle with this solemn business, if you do not resist the spirit of innovation in the first attempt, if you admit the smallest and most specious change in our parliamentary system, you are lost. You will be driven from one step to another; from principles just in theory to consequences most pernicious in practice; and your first concessions will be productive of every subsequent mischief, for which you will be answerable to your country and to posterity. Do not suffer yourselves to be lulled into a false security; remember the proud fabric of the French monarchy. Not four years ago it stood founded, as it might seem, on the rock of time, force, and opinion ; supported by the triple aristocracy of the church, the nobility, and the parliaments. They are crumbled into dust: they are vanished from the earth. If this tremendous warning has no effect on the men of property in England; if it does not open every eye, and raise every arm,—you will deserve your fate. If I am too precipitate, enlighten; if I am too desponding, encourage me. My pen has run into this argument; for, as much a foreigner as you think me on this momentous subject I feel myself an Englishman.

The truth clearly is, that he had arrived at the conclusion that he was the sort of person a populace kill. People wonder a great deal why very many of the victims of the French revolution were particularly selected; the Marquis de Custine, especially, cannot divine why they executed his father. The historians cannot show that they committed any particular crimes; the marquises and marchionesses seem very inoffensive. The fact evidently is, that they were killed for being polite. The world felt itself unworthy of it. There were so many bows, such regular smiles, such calm superior condescension,-could a mob be asked to stand it? Have we not all known a precise, formal, patronising old gentleman - bland, imposing, something like Gibbon? have we not suffered from his dignified attentions ? If we had been on the Committee of Public Safety, can we doubt what would have been the fate of that man? Just so wrath and envy destroyed in France an upper-class world.

After his return to England, Gibbon did not do much or live long. He completed his Memoirs, the most imposing of domestic narratives, the model of dignified detail. As we said before, if the Roman empire had written about itself, this was how it would have done so. He planned some other works, but executed none; judiciously observing that building castles in the air was more agreeable than building them on the ground. His career was, however, drawing to an end. Earthly dignity has its limits, even the dignity of an historian. He had long been stout; and now symptoms of dropsy began to appear. After a short interval, he died on the 16th of January 1794. We have sketched his character, and have no more to say. After all, what is our criticism worth? It only fulfils his aspiration, " that a hundred years hence I may still continue to be abused.

ART. II.—THE SPANISH CONQUEST IN AMERICA. The Spanish Conquest in America, and its relation to the History

of Slavery and to the Government of Colonies. By Arthur Helps.

With Maps. Vols. I. and II. London, John W. Parker. 1855. It needs a slight acquaintance only with our recent historians to discover, that whether they excel or are inferior to their predecessors in the last century, they differ from them in the conception of their office and the character of their researches. When Hume and Robertson claimed for themselves the merit of having raised new altars to the muse of British history, they grounded their pretensions, which are not unfounded, upon the fact, that they had retrenched the somewhat cumbrous grandeur of Bacon and Knollys, of Raleigh and Clarendon, and modelled their narratives upon the rules obeyed by Tacitus and Livy. There was, indeed, some unconscious deception in this assumption; they imagined themselves to have returned to the standards of the ancients, but their actual prototypes were Montesquieu and Voltaire. Like these admirable writers, the best English historians of the eighteenth century aimed, in the first place, at perspicuity of style and arrangement; in the next, at pictorial grouping; and lastly, at conveying to their readers as much in

« ПредыдущаяПродолжить »