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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 have 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 Decessary 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 his Style; a very important article in tbe 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; except that in different ways they all write well. Of Mr. Hume's style, the distin
i guishing character is Perspicuity, joined with consummate ease and inexpressible sweetness ;
• Ut sibi quivis
Ausus idem.' The style of Robertson, though not less perspicuous than that of Hume, has a dignity, and even stateliness peculiar to himself, and partakes far more of strength than sweetness.
of the style of our Author, the prevalent feature is Art. Not only is it highly laboured, but it exhibits marks of art and labour in its whole structure. Mr. Gibbon's acknowledged character as a writer, among his friends, seems to have been, that there was no thought, however original or complicated, which he could not force to assume a decent verbal dress :
• If you have thoughts, and can't'express them,
Gibbon will teach you how to dress them, was said of him by those who knew him well.
But he did not possess what is justly considered as the perfection of Art, the talent of concealing it. In all his works, and especially in his History, the traces of the tool are every where visible.
He appears to have taken Tacitus for his model, and like that author, to have aimed continually at making his words say as much as possible. It is indeed astonishing, how he contrives to express the minutest shade of a thought, by an unusual collocation, or more emphatic use of common words; and what a multiplicity of views he has the art to combine in the same sentence. His vindication of himself against the misinterpretation of some of his phrases, gave him an opportunity of pointing out in those particular cases, how very delicately they were poised. We may give as an instance the word accused, which, according to his own explanation, was purposely employed without addition, to signify that the martyr Nemesion might or might not be guilty of robbery. The bishop Eusebius presumed,
on the authority of the centurion under whom the reputed delinquent served, that he was innocent; the Pagan magistrate who passed sentence upon him, presumed, as a Pagan, that he was guilty. One thing only was certain-he was accused
But Mr. Gibbon's style, to be rightly and fully appreciated, ought to be studied. A single reading will seldom give us a thorough conception of all he means to convey. On a repeated perusal, when the whole connexion has become tolerably familiar to the mind, new light breaks in upon us ; and we are surprised to find the entire thought, with all its appurtenances, much richer than we had at first apprehended.
Perhaps it is one of his faults, that he never supposes his reader absolutely ignorant, either on the subject he is treating, or, indeed, on any other branch of history, with which he may choose to compare it. So much is this the case, that we believe whoever would boast of thoroughly understanding Gibbon, bad need be himself no contemptible scholar. He seems never to have intended his work for the benefit of the profanum vulgus, but to have written chiefly for scholars, or the higher ranks of society.
Another peculiarity in the style of Gibbon, is, that for the sake of variety, he often makes use of indirect expressions. Instead of a man's proper name, he gives us his patronymic, or perhaps points him out by an allusion to his country, bis occupation, or even his moral character. Such a practice renders the closest attention requisite on the part of the reader, if he would escape obscurity and confusion of ideas. And, indeed, so much does Gibbon count upon the attention of his reader, that he abounds in periods, which, taken separately, are absolutely unintelligible; and to understand which, some incidental circumstance, an account of which has been as it were casually dropped, perhaps whole pages back, is necessary to be clearly borne in mind.
We will present to the curious reader two remarkable iostances of persons, and classes of persons, who are to be found out by marks, the Author not having thought proper to tell us their names. Speaking of the well-known Boethius, he says,
· His genius survived to diffuse a ray of knowledge over the darkest ages of the Latin world ; and the writings of the philosopher were translated by the most glorious of the English kings.”
Query : Who was he? We indeed happen to know that the name of the king alluded to, is Alfred : but, supposing that we had never before heard of king Alfred translating Boethius's work on Consolation, is it so very clear, that the palm of glory might not have been contested with Alfred by one of our Edwards or Henrys?
The following instance is yet more striking, and may remind the reader either of the propounding of riddles, or of the examination of pupils in a Roman-history-class, according as he has been more familiar with the one scene or the other. The historian is treating of the gradual conquest of Britain by the Romans, on which subject he proceeds thus :
• After a war of about forty years, undertaken by the most stupid, maintained by the most dissolute, and terminated by the most timid of all the emperors, the far greater part of the island submitted to the Roman yoke.'
Our ingenious readers who are unacquainted with Gibbon, if
any such there be, may exercise their sagacity in solving these riddles; or, if the other comparison should be preferred, the young student of history may acquire or maintain rank in his class, by readily answering these queries:
Who was the most stupid Roman emperor?
Who was the most timid ? Yet, instances resembling these are by no means rare. They may be said even to abound.
In treating of the style of Gibbon, especially his historical style, there is one peculiarity so very distinguishing, that though it is not easy to give a clear description of it, we cannot persuade ourselves to leave it without notice. We allude to a certain monotonous chime or jingle in the cadence of his sentences, which occurs repeatedly on every page
Hume's sentences have an easy, flowing cadence; Robertson's roll along in absolute but not poetic numbers ; but Gibbon's periods are cast in a regular mould. One half of them at least have the peculiar structure which we are now contemplating. It consists in this : A whole period is more or less equably broken into two clauses; of which the one explains, exemplifies, particularizes, or somehow or other illustrates the other; and the two members of such period are uniformly connected by means of the particle and. In reading Gibbon, we have often found our attention most unpleasantly called off from the subject, by an involuntary perception of this constantly recurring cadence, which almost equals, in regularity of alternation, the responsile effect of rhyme. Sená tences of a similar construction, except that instead of two, they are broken into three parts, occur about as frequently in proportion, as triplets are wont to do in those of our rhyming poets who have employed the heroic measure. As we cannot but suppose that other readers have made this observation as well as ourselves, we think that one example containing only two or three repetitions of this peculiarity, will render our meaning perfectly clear. We will previously observe, that it is so difficult to find many periods in Gibbon, which have not this structure, that its distinguishing features will be found, and have been accordingly marked, in a quotation which we lately made for another purpose, viz. the designation of Alfred by his character as the most glorious of the English kings.
In that account of Boethius, to which we then adverted, he has the following sentences :
A devout and dutiful attachment to the senate, was condemned as criminal by the trembling voices of the senators themselves :and their ingratitude deserves the wish or prediction of Boethius, that after him none should be found guilty of the same offence.' VOL. V. N. S.
• Yet the sense of misfortune may be diverted by the labour of thought and the Sage, who could artfully combine in the same work the various riches of philosophy, poetry, and eloquence, must already have possessed the intrepid calmness, which he affected to seek.'
Once more :
•He was dragged in chains from Rome to the palace of Ravenna: --and the suspicions of Theodoric could only be appeased by the blood of an innocent and aged senator.'
These instances, and more might be adeled, are all taken from one and the same episode, where they occur in almost immediate succession.
The occasional Gallicisms which have infected Mr. Gibbon's English style, in consequence of his foreign education, and of his residence abroad, while composing the greater part of his history, are however so few, and so unimportant, as scarcely to deserve our notice. In drawing the parallel between our historian and the two historians of the North, the fault of admitting foreign idioms may be attributed to all three in nearly an equal degree. Gallicisms in Gibbon, are balanced by Scotticisms in Hume and Robertson.
And here we might conclude what we have to say on the subject of our Author, considered as an historian. But the three historical works so often mentioned in this article, are productions so extremely honourable to the whole British Nation, that it is scarce possible for a remark respecting them to be at the same time just and trifling. We cannot examine them too narrowly; nor can we be too well acquainted with whatever relates to the situation and circumstances of their authors; sinee it is only by proceeding in the track which they were the first among their countrymen to discover and lay open, that their successors can hope either to equal or surpass them. „Two particulars, in which they all agree, will present themselves to the mind of a curious inquirer, and be considered by him as not unworthy of notice.
And first, it is very remarkable, that of three writers of history in the English language, to whom the judgement of our nation has already assigned a classical rank, not one should be, strictly speaking, an Englishman. But it is still more remark able, that the foreign infusion, by which their literary character has been modified, should, in two instances out of the three, be decidedly French; and that even in the third case, the writer should be a native of that part of the United Kingdom, which most resembles the French nation in its manners, and which,