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Roman Empire born within its walls! Particulars respecting his singular character, his distinguished talents, and admired writings, will be gratifying to juvenile curiosity.
EDWARD GIBBON, Esq. was born on this spot, April 27, 1737; the eldest of six children, five of whom died in their infancy. His early passion was a love of reading, which he is said to have declared he would not exchange for the treasures of both the Indies ! Entering at Magdalen College, Oxford, in his 15th year, hè (strange to tell !) became a convert to the Church of Rome. This induced his father to place him under a Protestant Minister, at Lausanne, in Switzerland, where he soon renounced the Church of Rome, and
prosecuted his studies with success. He never shewed much inclination for the Mathematics, but was enamoured with the Classics, and with every species of History. The latter predilection pervaded the whole of his life. In 1758, after an absence of five years, he returned to England. He resided beneath his father's roof, and his love of Letters was not abandoned. His first publication, An Essay upon the Study of Literature, now appeared. It was written in French, praised in foreign Journals, little noticed in this country, and soon forgotten. Its contents shewed considerable knowledge, and its style had the usual faults of juvenile composition. Its design was to extol ancient Literature, in opposition to M.D'Alembert and others of the French Encyclopædists, who were advocates of the New Philosophy.
About this time our author entered the Hampshire Militia, sustaining for near three years the seemingly opposite characters of the Soldier and Student. He acquired a thorough knowledge of military tactics, which was of use to him in his great Work; for he facetiously observed, that “the Historian of the Roman Empire had been much instructed by the Captain of the Hampshire Grenadiers.” On the disbanding of the Militia, at the Peace, 1763, Mr. Gibbon devoted himself to the study of the Greek language, with the view of excelling in historical composition. For the subjects of his pen he had revolved in his mind the Expedition of Charles the Eighth, of France, into Italy the Crusade of Richard the First-the War of the Barons against John and Henry the Third- the History of Edward the Black Prince the Lives of Sir Philip Sidney-of the Marquis of Montrose-of Sir Walter Raleigh-and; lastly, the History of the Liberty of the Swiss, or of the Republic of Florence under the House of Medicis. These, however, he relinquished, one after the other; though he might have, by fixing upon any one of them, produced a work of reputation.
Mr. Gibbon, declining for the present to undertake any literary work, again visited the Continent, and even the Capital of the Roman Empire. This latter circumstance produced the germ of his future celebrity. " It was," says he, “ at Rome, on the 15th of October, 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the CAPITOL, while the bare-footed friars were singing
vespers in the Temple of Jupiter (now the Church of Tocculants or Franciscan Friars) that the idea of writing The Decline and Fall of the City first started into my mind!" Upon his return to England, the ensuing year, he felt regret that he was not occupied in some profession, and composed, in French, a Work entitled The Revolutions of Switzerland.
Mr. Gibbon's father dying in 1770, he devoted himself to his Great Work, and in 1776 the First Volume of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was presented to the public. It was favourably received; and had, by the sale of two or three editions in the course of a year, an extensive circulation. Robertson and Hume were lavish in their praises of it; whilst just offence was given by his sarcastic treatment of the Christian religion. The late Dr. Watson, Bishop of Landaff, published a liberal reply to the Historian in his Apology for Christianity; whilst the Rev. Mr. Davis, with other clergymen, treated our Author with more severity. Mr. Gibbon noticed Mr. Davis very angrily; remarking that, “ though he was willing to throw a stone at the Priesthood, yet he rejoiced that, amidst their bitterness and clamour, their hands were disarmed from the power of Persecution.” Dr. Priestley made some excellent animadversions on Mr. Gibbon, and even challenged him to an investigation of the subject. The Historian rudely declined the contest; shewing himself, like too many other unbelievers, averse to a fair discussion of the evidences of Christianity.
Mr. Hayley, however, addressed the following Lines to the Historian on the publication of his Second and Third Volumes, in 1781:
SONNET, to ED IRD GIBBON, Esq.
The Six QUARTO Volumes followed gradually, at some distance from each other; and in June, 1787, his labours were concluded. He finished them at Lausanne, and thus singularly records their completion :-“ I have presumed (says he) to mark the moment of conception; I shall now commemorate the hour of my final deliverance. It was on the day, or rather night, of the 27th of June, 1787, between the hours of eleven and twelve, that I wrote the last lines of the last
page, in a summer-house in my garden. After laying down my pen, I took several turns in a berceau, or covered walk of accacias, which commands a prospect of the country, the take, and the mountains.
The air was temperate, the sky serene, the silver orb of the moon was reflected from the waters, and all nature was silent! I will not dissemble the first emotions of joy on the recovery of my freedom-and, perhaps, the establishment of my fame. But my pride was soon humbled, and a sober melancholy spread over my mind, by the idea that I had taken an everlasting leave of an old and agreeable companion ; and that, whatsoever might be the future fate of my history, the life of the HISTORIAN might be short and precarious."
Of the merit of the execution of the several Volumes of this extensive Work, Horace Walpole, the late Lord Orford, makes this nice calculation :—“The first Volume is so highly finished, that it resembles a rich piece of painting in enamel. The second and third Volumes are of inferior composition. The three last Volumes seem to me in a medium between the first and two next Volumes." In so extended a Work, the Author should not be expected to maintain an unvarying uniformity.
Mr. Gibbon, on the completion of his History, again retired to Lausanne; but the death of a friend, Mr. Deyverdun, and the Revolution of France, soon sent him back to his own country. He arrived at Lord Sheffield's in the summer of 1793, where he passed the small remainder of his life; for he died within about twelve months, after a short indisposition. It was a surgical case; and having undergone an operation, which relieved him for a time, it ter