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The Historian and “The Gibbon” ** Written in March 1937
  “Yet, upon the whole, the HISTORY OF THE DECLINE AND FALL seems to have struck root, both at home and abroad, and may, perhaps, a hundred years hence still continue to be abused.” So Gibbon wrote in the calm confidence of immortality; and let us confirm him in his own opinion of his book by showing, in the first place, that it has one quality of permanence — it still excites abuse. Few people can read the whole of the DECLINE AND FALL without admitting that some chapters have glided away without leaving a trace; that many pages are no more than a concussion of sonorous sounds; and that innumerable figures have passed across the stage without printing even their names upon our memories. We seem, for hours on end, mounted on a celestial rocking-horse which, as it gently sways up and down, remains rooted to a single spot. In the soporific idleness thus induced we recall with regret the vivid partisanship of Macaulay, the fitful and violent poetry of Carlyle. We suspect that the vast fame with which the great historian is surrounded is one of those vague diffusions of acquiescence which gather when people are too busy, too lazy or too timid to see things for themselves. And to justify this suspicion it is easy to gather pomposities of diction — the Church has become “the sacred edifice”; and sentences so stereotyped that they chime like bells —“destroyed the confidence” must be followed by “and excited the resentment”; while characters are daubed in with single epithets like “the vicious” or “the virtuous,” and are so crudely jointed that they seem capable only of the extreme antics of puppets dangling from a string. It is easy, in short, to suppose that Gibbon owed some part of his fame to the gratitude of journalists on whom he bestowed the gift of a style singularly open to imitation and well adapted to invest little ideas with large bodies. And then we turn to the book again, and to our amazement we find that the rocking-horse has left the ground; we are mounted on a winged steed; we are sweeping in wide circles through the air and below us Europe unfolds; the ages change and pass; a miracle has taken place.

But miracle is not a word to use in writing of Gibbon. If miracle there was it lay in the inexplicable fact which Gibbon, who seldom stresses a word, himself thought worthy of italics: “. . . I KNOW by experience, that from my early youth I aspired to the character of an historian.” Once that seed was planted so mysteriously in the sickly boy whose erudition amazed his tutor there was more of the rational than of the miraculous in the process by which that gift was developed and brought to fruition. Nothing, in the first place, could have been more cautious, more deliberate and more far-sighted than Gibbon’s choice of a subject. A historian he had to be; but historian of what? The history of the Swiss was rejected; the history of Florence was rejected; for a long time he played with the idea of a life of Sir Walter Raleigh. Then that, too, was rejected and for reasons that are extremely illuminating:. . . I should shrink with terror from the modern history of England, where every character is a problem, and every reader a friend or an enemy; where a writer is supposed to hoist a flag of party, and is devoted to damnation by the adverse faction. . . . I must embrace a safer and more extensive theme.

But once found, how was he to treat the distant, the safe, the extensive theme? An attitude, a style had to be adopted; one presumably that generalized, since problems of character were to be avoided; that abolished the writer’s personality, since he was not dealing with his own times and contemporary questions; that was rhythmical and fluent, rather than abrupt and intense, since vast stretches of time had to be covered, and the reader carried smoothly through many folios of print.

At last the problem was solved; the fusion was complete; matter and manner became one; we forget the style, and are only aware that we are safe in the keeping of a great artist. He is able to make us see what he wants us to see and in the right proportions. Here he compresses; there he expands. He transposes, emphasizes, omits in the interests of order and drama. The features of the individual faces are singularly conventionalized. Here are none of those violent gestures and unmistakable voices that fill the pages of Carlyle and Macaulay with living human beings who are related to ourselves. There are no Whigs and Tories here; no eternal verities and implacable destinies. Time has cut off those quick reactions that make us love and hate. The innumerable figures are suffused in the equal blue of the far distance. They rise and fall and pass away without exciting our pity or our anger. But if the figures are small, they are innumerable; if the scene is dim it is vast. Armies wheel; hordes of barbarians are destroyed; forests are huge and dark; processions are splendid; altars rise and fall; one dynasty succeeds another. The richness, the variety of the scene absorb us. He is the most resourceful of entertainers. Without haste or effort he swings his lantern where he chooses. If sometimes the size of the whole is oppressive, and the unemphatic story monotonous, suddenly in the flash of a phrase a detail is lit up: we see the monks “in the lazy gloom of their convents”; statues become unforgettably “that inanimate people”; the “gilt and variegated armour” shines out: the splendid names of kings and countries are sonorously intoned; or the narrative parts and a scene opens:By the order of Probus, a great quantity of large trees, torn up by the roots, were transplanted into the midst of the circus. The spacious and shady forest was immediately filled with a thousand ostriches, a thousand stags, a thousand fallow deer, and a thousand wild boars; and all this variety of game was abandoned to the riotous impetuosity of the multitude. . . . The air was continually refreshed by the playing of fountains, and profusely impregnated by the grateful scent of aromatics. In the centre of the edifice, the arena, or stage, was strewed with the finest sand, and successively assumed the most different forms. At one moment it seemed to rise out of the earth, like the garden of Hesperides, and was afterwards broken into the rocks and caverns of Thrace. . . .

But it is only when we come to compress and dismember one of Gibbon’s pictures that we realize how carefully the parts have been chosen, how firmly the sentences, composed after a certain number of turns round the room and then tested by the ear and only then written down, adhere together.

But these are qualities, it might be said, that belong to the historical novelist — to Scott or to Flaubert. And Gibbon was an historian, so religiously devoted to the truth that he felt an aspersion upon his accuracy as an aspersion upon his character. Flights of notes at the bottom of the page check his pageants and verify his characters. Thus they have a different quality from scenes and characters composed from a thousand hints and suggestions in the freedom of the imagination. They are inferior, perhaps, in subtlety and in intensity. On the other hand, as Gibbon pointed out, “The Cyropaedia is vague and languid; the Anabasis circumstantial and animated. Such is the eternal difference between fiction and truth.”

The imagination of the novelist must often fail; but the historian can repose himself upon fact. And even if those facts are sometimes dubious and capable of more than one interpretation, they bring the reason into play and widen our range of interest. The vanished generations, invisible separately, have collectively spun round them intricate laws, erected marvellous structures of ceremony and belief. These can be described, analysed, recorded. The interest with which we follow him in his patient and impartial examination has an excitement peculiar to itself. History may be, as he tells us, “little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind”; but we seem, at least, as we read him raised above the tumult and the chaos into a clear and rational air.

The victories and the civilization of Constantine no longer influence the state of Europe; but a considerable portion of the globe still retains the impression which it received from the conversion of that monarch; and the ecclesiastical institutions of his reign are still connected, by an indissoluble chain, with the opinions, the passions, and the interests of the present generation.

He is not merely a master of the pageant and the story; he is also the critic and the historian of the mind.

It is here of course that we become conscious of the idiosyncrasy and of the limitations of the writer. Just as we know that Macaulay was a nineteenth-century Whig, and Carlyle a Scottish peasant with the gift of prophecy, so we know that Gibbon was rooted in the eighteenth century and indelibly stamped with its character and his own. Gradually, stealthily, with a phrase here, a gibe there, the whole solid mass is leavened with the peculiar quality of his temperament. Shades of meaning reveal themselves; the pompous language becomes delicate and exact. Sometimes a phrase is turned edgewise, so that as it slips with the usual suavity into its place it leaves a scratch. “He was even destitute of a sense of honour, which so frequently supplies the sense of public virtue.” Or the solemn rise and fall of the text above is neatly diminished by the demure particularity of a note. “The ostrich’s neck is three feet long, and composed of seventeen vertebrae. See Buffon. Hist. Naturelle.” The infallibility of historians is gravely mocked. “. . . their knowledge will appear gradually to increase, as their means of information must have diminished, a circumstance which frequently occurs in historical disquisitions.” Or we are urbanely asked to reflect how,in our present state of existence, ............
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