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Edward Gibbon

Posted in Ancient History, English Literature, Historical articles, History on Friday, 29 July 2011

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Edward Gibbon (1737 – 1794) was one of the greatest figures in the English Enlightenment whose life ended in painful isolation despite his enormous fame and exalted reputation.

Gibbon, picture, image, illustration

A silhouette of Edward Gibbon from the 1796 edition of his “Works”

His mother was oddly disdainful of him, and an aunt introduced him to the finer sensibilities and encouraged his love of books, which he considered “the chief glory” of his life. After schooling in Kingston and Westminster he entered Magdalen College, but was disappointed by Oxford, finding greater intellectual stimulation in the bracing air of Lausanne, where he stayed for five years widening his horizons and deepening his learning. His natural appetite for scholarship and solitary endeavour facilitated his development as a thinker and historian, and after confronting the abject failure of his first and only love, he obeyed his disapproving father and spurned the dictates of his heart. Interestingly, he had briefly converted to Catholicism, but returned to the Protestant faith as though waking from a dream. After going on the Grand Tour he found himself sitting in the Capitol in Rome, where the idea of writing about the eternal city came to him midst the romantic beauty of those unique and unforgettable ruins. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire appeared between 1776 and 1778, and was reprinted in many subsequent editions of varying deluxe and cheap appearance. His mastery of narrative and effortless gift of ironic observation lent a measured nobility to his prose style, which was neither pompous nor grandiloquent, but appropriately magisterial, striking a fine balance between atmospheric depiction and exemplary clarity of thought and expression. Gibbon lived in fashionable London at a time of tremendous celebrities, and he was an intimate of Dr Johnson’s circle and member of their Literary Club. Sadly, despite his acclaim, life’s disappointments seemed to gather around him in later years, and though the death of one of his oldest friends left him the owner of a fine continental estate, the death of another saw his return to England, after which his own unpleasantly drawn-out demise began, which led to him leading a sad and melancholy existence in his last year, an agonising condition increasing his sense of isolation. After his death his reputation as an historian may have declined, but as a writer he continued to attract passionate admirers, Churchill being probably the most famous.

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