« 前へ次へ »
pected card has not been left at his dwelling, and that therefore he must sit down to bis disheartening task, of supporting his own society through a long and tedious evening; he who can recognise symptoms like these in his own former experience, and bas had the happiness to recover his mental health, will at once do justice to the pencil of Gibbon, for the truly graphic stroke of the rattling coaches ;' acknowledge the vast effort of literary industry which the re-action of such violent oppression would produce, in order to cast off the load of languor from the labouring vitals, and congratulate his own happy emancipation from the thraldom of worldly service, by the only remedy which is fully effectual ; a remedy which Gibbon, alas ! did not apply, but which nevertheless is clearly pointed out in the sacred Scriptures to every searching reader, and which, when truly employed, never fails to exert its benign efficacy, in raising the human heart to a state of independence upon worldly comforts. This is the victory which overcometh the world, even our faith.
But, whatever may have been its origin, whether native ardour, or the artificial activity of involuntary solitude, or a mixture of both, concerning the existence of a very high degree of literary industry in Mr. Gibbon, there is no doubt; and perhaps, as his subject required, we may admit that he really exerted even a greater portion of that chief virtue of an bistorian, than either of his competitors. What indeed can be added, to prove the activity of his researches, who, to six large volumes of condensed bistory, where sometimes the substance of whole folios is contained in a single period, could, besides his own Memoirs and Letters, find time to leave behind him investigations more or less connected with his great work, so numerous and so carefully penned, that three large octavos have already appeared, filled with such essays, as, though perhaps many of them not intended for publication, would however all very well bear it?
When we compared the labours of the historian with the familiar narrative of the social circle, we hinted, that in the latter case, truth is either a matter of no consequence, or is easily obtained. How different in this respect is the situation of the historian! To bim truth is quite essential; and frequently his most troublesome and tedious labour is bestowed upon sifting out the truth, amid the obscurity or contradictions of contemporary writers. The period which our Author had undertaken to enlighten, gave him more than his full share of this unpleasant work. But, what was still worse, he had to travel through what are justly called dark ages ; periods of time so barren of events, for want of good writers, that they may be compared to the desolate wilds, in crossing which the weary traveller is doomed to spend whole days, without meeting one
object attractive enough to relieve the unvarying picture of lonesomeness and sterility. Under these circumstances, our historian has done all that could be done: he could not create facts, (as it has often been justly observed, that no literary loss is more hopeless than that of historical records, but he has with immense toil and patience done every thing but create them. He has diligently read and carefully meditated whatever hints such times afforded, from the lofty flights of the poet to the dry detail of the lawyer; and by applying to the result an extensive knowledge of human nature, has often succeeded in delineating a very probable continuity of coast, where former writers could assign no precise boundary to the indefinite terra incognita of their story. That he has been able to make such parts of his work equal in interest to other parts, we would not venture to assert; he has himself confessed, what every reader will perceive, that the times of Honorius and his successors, do not fix the attention, like those for instance of Constantine and Julian.
If the historian would be luminous, he must be quite familiar with his subject. The pages of Gibbon have been pronounced luminous by no trifling authority, and that in the presence of an august assembly, whose un-dissenting silence may be taken for assent. Judge then, what powers, as well as labours, are supposed, before a man can be thoroughly familiar with such an extent of story, so diversified in whatever can diversify a subject of that kind. Our other historians had indeed some variety of laws and manners to contend with ; but, after all, the one never goes far out of England, and the other rarely for any length of time leaves the precincts of modern Europe; (for when we are speaking of events properly historical, America must be put out of the question ;) while Gibbon, besides what relates to other parts of the world, had to trace Europe through a total and radical change in its religion, its geography, and its languages. With what prodigious diversity of manners was he bound to make himself familiar, who had a subject so various and extensive to illustrate. When Robertson at one time proposed taking for his subject the age of Leo X. and the revival of arts, he was soon induced to lay aside all thought of it, when reminded by his friend Hume, that he could not possibly have or acquire the intimate acquaintance with the imitative arts, which he would find absolutely requisite, if he would do perfect justice to his subject. How many subjects of equal difficulty with this had Gibbon to study, before he could worthily commence Historian of the Roman Empire. But then, he made the best possible use of his time and opportunities. In the closet he read and extracted books; in society he observed and studied men; and even when engaged in the camp as a militia-officer, he embraced the ocoasion of making himself familiar with military tactics. One subject, and only one, he never examined to the bottom; but on the head of religion, as we shall treat it at large hereafter, we shall say no more at present.
But what, after all, is the real state of the case? Is Mr. Gibbon indeed a luminous writer? In some respects undoubtedly he is; in others the praise of luminousness must be refused him. If we attend to the different branches of his subject, by the light of the Roman critic's rule :
cui lecta potenter erit res, * Nec facundia deseret hunc, nec lucidus ordo;' we shall be enabled to make the requisite distinction. There are two points of view, in which he was sufficiently versed in the scenes be describes, to treat them luminously.
On the grand and leading features of his history he appears to have profoundly meditated, until they presented themselves to his mind in the clearest and most distinct order. What may be termed the separate acts of the piece, are indeed exhibited in a masterly manner. As specimens we would adduce the preliminary survey of the Roman Empire in its prosperity : likewise the manner in which the connexion is traced between that empire and the new Persian ; the various migrations of the Goths and Vandals, and especially those of the Huns. It is impossible to have read Gibbon, without obtaining an increased clearness in our view of the several grand changes of the civilized world, by means of which Ancient and Modern History are linked together.
Again : By indefatigable study of such writers as describe the manners and customs of the several countries and ages, which constitute the varying scene of his history, he had become so intimately acquainted with the modes of thinking and acting peculiar to those times and countries, as to have almost attained the clearness of a contemporary Author. He enters, and enables his reader to enter, not into the thoughts only, but into the very feelings of the different characters, which he describes. A familiar acquaintance of the Emperor Julian, for instance, could scarcely have described with greater precision, whatever constitutes the chief interest of that important reign.
But in what may more properly be called historical painting, he is not equally happy. Rarely does he present to us those affecting pictures, in which a whole train of action seems to pass before our eyes. In this respect he is greatly inferior to bis two northern rivals. Their histories are read with an interest which is quite independent on the desire of information. We are imperceptibly drawn along by the mere charm of the story; and having once entered upon their works, cannot easily be persuaded to lay them aside. But Gibbon is read as a task; a pleasing task indeed, at times perhaps an engaging one, but still a task.
For this inferiority our Author is in part indebted to the nature of his subject, and the occasional paucity or imperfection of his materials. What is there, for instance, to engage our attention, in a long succession of imbecile or bloody Byzantine emperors or rather tyrants; and yet, for the sake of connexion, they could not well be passed by unnoticed. Perhaps, likewise, Mr. Gibbon did not naturally excel in the art of enlivening particular narration, or in grouping the subordinate parts of a connected story, so as to form the whole into an interesting picture. But we are persuaded that the chief reason of his failure in this respect, will be found in his manner of composing. The grand outline of his subject he bad well considered and thoroughly meditated, and therefore it is bold and luminous; with the manners and customs of different times, countries, places, and characters, he was sufficiently familiar, and in particulars he shews no want of clearness; but the subordinate events of his story seem generally to have been left to arrange themselves at the time of composing. Instead of painting, therefore, he was reduced to the necessity of copying, translating, epitomizing, or arranging; and in the detail of his work he seems to have bestowed much more labour upon the eollocation of words, than upon that of events; he was far more concerned to produce a succession of well-turned and closely compacted periods, than a series of well-chosen and interesting objects and events, all combining into one striking picture. The want of luminousness in this respect, not only diminishes the interest of the reader, but sometimes so darkens the subject, that a repeated perusal is required, before it can be understood. As an instance, we would adduce the relation of what gave rise to the murder of Caracalla, in the sixth chapter. In the account of the narrow escape from death and subsequent elevation of Macrinus, though sufficiently particular, there is such a want of clearness running through the whole, that to this day, after frequently perusing, we are not certain that we completely understand it.
Under this head of the manner of our Author, there is one consideration, which we should be tempted still to introduce at some length, had it not already been discussed, to our complete satisfaction, by Professor Dugald Stewart, in his Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Dr. Robertson. We allude to the subject of Notes and Illustrations. Our readers will please to recollect, that the practice of throwing light upon a wellwrought text or narration, by a system of Notes, written by the Author himself in a looser and less formal style, is altogether a modern contrivance. The ancients knew of no such resource. By some devout admirers of antiquity, it is looked upon as a mark of inferior ability in modern historians, that they cannot work all the information which they wish to impart, into the body of the composition. But, notwithstanding the powerful authority of Dr. Adam Smith, we are of a contrary opinion ; and our three eminent historians bave all agreed to sanction the use of Notes as an improvement upon the ancients, by the credit of their respectable examples.
While, however, our Author agrees with his rivals in having recourse to this modern method, he differs widely from them in the nature of his Notes and Illustrations. Their supplemental remarks not unfrequently assume the form of interesting and instructive Disquisitions, and of these several extend to a considerable length. Mr. Gibbon's notes, on the other hand, though very numerous, are never long. In some editions of his History, in which they are printed separately, they fill indeed an entire quarto volume of the largest size; but we have not observed one that takes up a whole page. They are very much in the style of learned conversation, and many of the peculiar faults of the work attach in a particular manner to the Notes. They abound in allusions, sometimes obscure, and too often indelicate; and of not a few of them it is difficult to discover any higher object, than the desire of shewing that the Author knew more on the subject than he thought proper to introduce into the text. Mr. Hume himself lived long enough, though he died many years before the completion of his friend's great work, to find fault with the distribution of his Notes, which varies in different editions ; in some they are all placed at the bottom of the pages, in others they are all collected at the end of the several volumes. Of neither method Mr. Hume approved: his judicious advice was, to give to mere authorities, or to brief and necessary explanations, a place under the corresponding page; and to reserve only the larger illustrations, and such as have less immediate connexion with the narrative, for the end of the work. Upon the whole, Mr. Gibbon's notes are by far too numerous; the attention is continually called off from the thread of the story, and what is still more vexatious, the reading of the notes seldom rewards the reader with any information or gratification adequate to the interruption which they make in his enjoyment of the history.
We have still to consider the Historian of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, with reference to bis Style; a very important article in the critique of an historical composition.
In no respect is the difference between our three historians more obvious, than in this. In point of style, indeed, there is little or no resemblance between them; exeept that in different ways they all write well. Of Mr. Hume's style, the distin