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Chapter 4

Next to my Johnsoniana are my Gibbons--two editions, if you please, for my old complete one being somewhat crabbed in the print I could not resist getting a set of Bury's new six-volume presentment of the History. In reading that book you don't want to be handicapped in any way. You want fair type, clear paper, and a light volume. You are not to read it lightly, but with some earnestness of purpose and keenness for knowledge, with a classical atlas at your elbow and a note-book hard by, taking easy stages and harking back every now and then to keep your grip of the past and to link it up with what follows. There are no thrills in it. You won't be kept out of your bed at night, nor will you forget your appointments during the day, but you will feel a certain sedate pleasure in the doing of it, and when it is done you will have gained something which you can never lose--something solid, something definite, something that will make you broader and deeper than before.

Were I condemned to spend a year upon a desert island and allowed only one book for my companion, it is certainly that which I should choose. For consider how enormous is its scope, and what food for thought is contained within those volumes. It covers a thousand years of the world's history, it is full and good and accurate, its standpoint is broadly philosophic, its style dignified. With our more elastic methods we may consider his manner pompous, but he lived in an age when Johnson's turgid periods had corrupted our literature. For my own part I do not dislike Gibbon's pomposity. A paragraph should be measured and sonorous if it ventures to describe the advance of a Roman legion, or the debate of a Greek Senate. You are wafted upwards, with this lucid and just spirit by your side upholding and instructing you. Beneath you are warring nations, the clash of races, the rise and fall of dynasties, the conflict of creeds. Serene you float above them all, and ever as the panorama flows past, the weighty measured unemotional voice whispers the true meaning of the scene into your ear.

It is a most mighty story that is told. You begin with a description of the state of the Roman Empire when the early Caesars were on the throne, and when it was undisputed mistress of the world. You pass down the line of the Emperors with their strange alternations of greatness and profligacy, descending occasionally to criminal lunacy. When the Empire went rotten it began at the top, and it took centuries to corrupt the man behind the spear. Neither did a religion of peace affect him much, for, in spite of the adoption of Christianity, Roman history was still written in blood. The new creed had only added a fresh cause of quarrel and violence to the many which already existed, and the wars of angry nations were mild compared to those of excited sectaries.

Then came the mighty rushing wind from without, blowing from the waste places of the world, destroying, confounding, whirling madly through the old order, leaving broken chaos behind it, but finally cleansing and purifying that which was stale and corrupt. A storm-centre somewhere in the north of China did suddenly what it may very well do again. The human volcano blew its top off, and Europe was covered by the destructive debris. The absurd point is that it was not the conquerors who overran the Roman Empire, but it was the terrified fugitives, who, like a drove of stampeded cattle, blundered over everything which barred their way. It was a wild, dramatic time--the time of the formation of the modern races of Europe. The nations came whirling in out of the north and east like dust-storms, and amid the seeming chaos each was blended with its neighbour so as to toughen the fibre of the whole. The fickle Gaul got his steadying from the Franks, the steady Saxon got his touch of refinement from the Norman, the Italian got a fresh lease of life from the Lombard and the Ostrogoth, the corrupt Greek made way for the manly and earnest Mahommedan. Everywhere one seems to see a great hand blending the seeds. And so one can now, save only that emigration has taken the place of war. It does not, for example, take much prophetic power to say that something very great is being built up on the other side of the Atlantic. When on an Anglo-Celtic basis you see the Italian, the Hun, and the Scandinavian being added, you feel that there is no human quality which may not be thereby evolved.

But to revert to Gibbon: the next stage is the flight of Empire from Rome to Byzantium, even as the Anglo-Celtic power might find its centre some day not in London but in Chicago or Toronto. There is the whole strange story of the tidal wave of Mahommedanism from the south, submerging all North Africa, spreading right and left to India on the one side and to Spain on the other, finally washing right over the walls of Byzantium until it, the bulwark of Christianity, became what it is now, the advanced European fortress of the Moslem. Such is the tremendous narrative covering half the world's known history, which can all be acquired and made part of yourself by the aid of that humble atlas, pencil, and note-book already recommended.

When all is so interesting it is hard to pick examples, but to me there has always seemed to be something peculiarly impressive in the first entrance of a new race on to the stage of history. It has something of the glamour which hangs round the early youth of a great man. You remember how the Russians made their debut--came down the great rivers and appeared at the Bosphorus in two hundred canoes, from which they endeavoured to board the Imperial galleys. Singular that a thousand years have passed and that the ambition of the Russians is still to carry out the task at which their skin-clad ancestors failed. Or the Turks again; you may recall the characteristic ferocity with which they opened their career. A handful of them were on some mission to the Emperor. The town was besieged from the landward side by the barbarians, and the Asiatics obtained leave to take part in a skirmish. The first Turk galloped out, shot a barbarian with his arrow, and then, lying down beside him, proceeded to suck his blood, which so horrified the man's comrades that they could not be brought to face such uncanny adversaries. So, from opposite sides, those two great races arrived at the city which was to be the stronghold of the one and the ambition of the other for so many centuries.

And then, even more interesting than the races which arrive are those that disappear. There is something there which appeals most powerfully to the imagination. Take, for example, the fate of those Vandals who conquered the north of Africa. They were a German tribe, blue-eyed and flaxen-haired, from somewhere in the Elbe country. Suddenly they, too, were seized with the strange wandering madness which was epidemic at the time. Away they went on the line of least resistance, which is always from north to south and from east to west. South-west was the course of the Vandals--a course which must have been continued through pure love of adventure, since in the thousands of miles which they traversed there were many fair resting-places, if that were only their quest.

They crossed the south of France, conquered Spain, and, finally, the more adventurous passed over into Africa, where they occupied the old Roman province. For two or three generations they held it, much as the English hold India, and their numbers were at the least some hundreds of thousands. Presently the Roman Empire gave one of those flickers which showed that there was still some fire among the ashes. Belisarius landed in Africa and reconquered the province. The Vandals were cut off from the sea and fled inland. Whither did they carry those blue eyes and that flaxen hair? Were they exterminated by the negroes, or did they amalgamate with them? Travellers have brought back stories from the Mountains of the Moon of a Negroid race with light eyes and hair. Is it possible that here we have some trace of the vanished Germans?

It recalls the parallel case of the lost settlements in Greenland. That also has always seemed to me to be one of the most romantic questions in history--the more so, perhaps, as I have strained my eyes to see across the ice-floes the Greenland coast at the point (or near it) where the old "Eyrbyggia" must have stood. That was the Scandinavian city, founded by colonists from Iceland, which grew to be a considerable place, so much so that they sent to Denmark for a bishop. That would be in the fourteenth century. The bishop, coming out to his see, found that he was unable to reach it on account of a climatic change which had brought down the ice and filled the strait between Iceland and Greenland. From that day to this no one has been able to say what has become of these old Scandinavians, who were at the time, be it remembered, the most civilized and advanced race in Europe. They may have been overwhelmed by the Esquimaux, the despised Skroeling--or they may have amalgamated with them--or conceivably they might have held their own. Very little is known yet of that portion of the coast. It would be strange if some Nansen or Peary were to stumble upon the remains of the old colony, and find possibly in that antiseptic atmosphere a complete mummy of some bygone civilization.

But once more to return to Gibbon. What a mind it must have been which first planned, and then, with the incessant labour of twenty years, carried out that enormous work! There was no classical author so little known, no Byzantine historian so diffuse, no monkish chronicle so crabbed, that they were not assimilated and worked into their appropriate place in the huge framework. Great application, great perseverance, great attention to detail was needed in all this, but the coral polyp has all those qualities, and somehow in the heart of his own creation the individuality of the man himself becomes as insignificant and as much overlooked as that of the little creature that builds the reef. A thousand know Gibbon's work for one who cares anything for Gibbon.

And on the whole this is justified by the facts. Some men are greater than their work. Their work only represents one facet of their character, and there may be a dozen others, all remarkable, and uniting to make one complex and unique creature. It was not so with Gibbon. He was a cold-blooded man, with a brain which seemed to have grown at the expense of his heart. I cannot recall in his life one generous impulse, one ardent enthusiasm, save for the Classics. His excellent judgment was never clouded by the haze of human emotion--or, at least, it was such an emotion as was well under the control of his will. Could anything be more laudable--or less lovable? He abandons his girl at the order of his father, and sums it up that he "sighs as a lover but obeys as a son." The father dies, and he records the fact with the remark that "the tears of a son are seldom lasting." The terrible spectacle of the French Revolution excited in his mind only a feeling of self-pity because his retreat in Switzerland was invaded by the unhappy refugees, just as a grumpy country gentleman in England might complain that he was annoyed by the trippers. There is a touch of dislike in all the allusions which Boswell makes to Gibbon--often without even mentioning his name--and one cannot read the great historian's life without understanding why.

I should think that few men have been born with the material for self-sufficient contentment more completely within himself than Edward Gibbon. He had every gift which a great scholar should have, an insatiable thirst for learning in every form, immense industry, a retentive memory, and that broadly philosophic temperament which enables a man to rise above the partisan and to become the impartial critic of human affairs. It is true that at the time he was looked upon as bitterly prejudiced in the matter of religious thought, but his views are familiar to modern philosophy, and would shock no susceptibilities in these more liberal (and more virtuous) days. Turn him up in that Encyclopedia, and see what the latest word is upon his contentions. "Upon the famous fifteenth and sixteenth chapters it is not necessary to dwell," says the biographer, "because at this time of day no Christian apologist dreams of denying the substantial truth of any of the more important allegations of Gibbon. Christians may complain of the suppression of some circumstances which might influence the general result, and they must remonstrate against the unfair construction of their case. But they no longer refuse to hear any reasonable evidence tending to show that persecution was less severe than had been once believed, and they have slowly learned that they can afford to concede the validity of all the secondary causes assigned by Gibbon and even of others still more discreditable. The fact is, as the historian has again and again admitted, that his account of the secondary causes which contributed to the progress and establishment of Christianity leaves the question as to the natural or supernatural origin of Christianity practically untouched." This is all very well, but in that case how about the century of abuse which has been showered upon the historian? Some posthumous apology would seem to be called for.

Physically, Gibbon was as small as Johnson was large, but there was a curious affinity in their bodily ailments. Johnson, as a youth, was ulcerated and tortured by the king's evil, in spite of the Royal touch. Gibbon gives us a concise but lurid account of his own boyhood.

"I was successively afflicted by lethargies and fevers, by opposite tendencies to a consumptive and dropsical habit, by a contraction of my nerves, a fistula in my eye, and the bite of a dog, most vehemently suspected of madness. Every practitioner was called to my aid, the fees of the doctors were swelled by the bills of the apothecaries and surgeons. There was a time when I swallowed more physic than food, and my body is still marked by the indelible scars of lancets, issues, and caustics."

Such is his melancholy report. The fact is that the England of that day seems to have been very full of that hereditary form of chronic ill-health which we call by the general name of struma. How far the hard-drinking habits in vogue for a century or so before had anything to do with it I cannot say, nor can I trace a connection between struma and learning; but one has only to compare this account of Gibbon with Johnson's nervous twitches, his scarred face and his St. Vitus' dance, to realize that these, the two most solid English writers of their generation, were each heir to the same gruesome inheritance.

I wonder if there is any picture extant of Gibbon in the character of subaltern in the South Hampshire Militia? With his small frame, his huge head, his round, chubby face, and the pretentious uniform, he must have looked a most extraordinary figure. Never was there so round a peg in a square hole! His father, a man of a very different type, held a commission, and this led to poor Gibbon becoming a soldier in spite of himself. War had broken out, the regiment was mustered, and the unfortunate student, to his own utter dismay, was kept under arms until the conclusion of hostilities. For three years he was divorced from his books, and loudly and bitterly did he resent it. The South Hampshire Militia never saw the enemy, which is perhaps as well for them. Even Gibbon himself pokes fun at them; but after three years under canvas it is probable that his men had more cause to smile at their book-worm captain than he at his men. His hand closed much more readily on a pen-handle than on a sword-hilt. In his lament, one of the items is that his colonel's example encouraged the daily practice of hard and even excessive drinking, which gave him the gout. "The loss of so many busy and idle hours were not compensated for by any elegant pleasure," says he; "and my temper was insensibly soured by the society of rustic officers, who were alike deficient in the knowledge of scholars and the manners of gentlemen." The picture of Gibbon flushed with wine at the mess-table, with these hard-drinking squires around him, must certainly have been a curious one. He admits, however, that he found consolations as well as hardships in his spell of soldiering. It made him an Englishman once more, it improved his health, it changed the current of his thoughts. It was even useful to him as an historian. In a celebrated and characteristic sentence, he says, "The discipline and evolutions of a modern battalion gave me a clearer notion of the Phalanx and the Legions, and the captain of the Hampshire Grenadiers has not been useless to the historian of the Roman Empire."

If we don't know all about Gibbon it is not his fault, for he wrote no fewer than six accounts of his own career, each differing from the other, and all equally bad. A man must have more heart and soul than Gibbon to write a good autobiography. It is the most difficult of all human compositions, calling for a mixture of tact, discretion, and frankness which make an almost impossible blend. Gibbon, in spite of his foreign education, was a very typical Englishman in many ways, with the reticence, self-respect, and self-consciousness of the race. No British autobiography has ever been frank, and consequently no British autobiography has ever been good. Trollope's, perhaps, is as good as any that I know, but of all forms of literature it is the one least adapted to the national genius. You could not imagine a British Rousseau, still less a British Benvenuto Cellini. In one way it is to the credit of the race that it should be so. If we do as much evil as our neighbours we at least have grace enough to be ashamed of it and to suppress its publication.

There on the left of Gibbon is my fine edition (Lord Braybrooke's) of Pepys' Diary. That is, in truth, the greatest autobiography in our language, and yet it was not deliberately written as such. When Mr. Pepys jotted down from day to day every quaint or mean thought which came into his head he would have been very much surprised had any one told him that he was doing a work quite unique in our literature. Yet his involuntary autobiography, compiled for some obscure reason or for private reference, but certainly never meant for publication, is as much the first in that line of literature as Boswell's book among biographies or Gibbon's among histories.

As a race we are too afraid of giving ourselves away ever to produce a good autobiography. We resent the charge of national hypocrisy, and yet of all nations we are the least frank as to our own emotions--especially on certain sides of them. Those affairs of the heart, for example, which are such an index to a man's character, and so profoundly modify his life--what space do they fill in any man's autobiography? Perhaps in Gibbon's case the omission matters little, for, save in the instance of his well-controlled passion for the future Madame Neckar, his heart was never an organ which gave him much trouble. The fact is that when the British author tells his own story he tries to make himself respectable, and the more respectable a man is the less interesting does he become. Rousseau may prove himself a maudlin degenerate. Cellini may stand self-convicted as an amorous ruffian. If they are not respectable they are thoroughly human and interesting all the same.

The wonderful thing about Mr. Pepys is that a man should succeed in making himself seem so insignificant when really he must have been a man of considerable character and attainments. Who would guess it who read all these trivial comments, these catalogues of what he had for dinner, these inane domestic confidences--all the more interesting for their inanity! The effect left upon the mind is of some grotesque character in a play, fussy, self-conscious, blustering with women, timid with men, dress-proud, purse-proud, trimming in politics and in religion, a garrulous gossip immersed always in trifles. And yet, though this was the day-by-day man, the year-by-year man was a very different person, a devoted civil servant, an eloquent orator, an excellent writer, a capable musician, and a ripe scholar who accumulated 3000 volumes--a large private library in those days--and had the public spirit to leave them all to his University. You can forgive old Pepys a good deal of his philandering when you remember that he was the only official of the Navy Office who stuck to his post during the worst days of the Plague. He may have been--indeed, he assuredly was--a coward, but the coward who has sense of duty enough to overcome his cowardice is the most truly brave of mankind.

But the one amazing thing which will never be explained about Pepys is what on earth induced him to go to the incredible labour of writing down in shorthand cipher not only all the trivialities of his life, but even his own very gross delinquencies which any other man would have been only too glad to forget. The Diary was kept for about ten years, and was abandoned because the strain upon his eyes of the crabbed shorthand was helping to destroy his sight. I suppose that he became so familiar with it that he wrote it and read it as easily as he did ordinary script. But even so, it was a huge labour to compile these books of strange manuscript. Was it an effort to leave some memorial of his own existence to single him out from all the countless sons of men? In such a case he would assuredly have left directions in somebody's care with a reference to it in the deed by which he bequeathed his library to Cambridge. In that way he could have ensured having his Diary read at any date he chose to name after his death. But no allusion to it was left, and if it had not been for the ingenuity and perseverance of a single scholar the dusty volumes would still lie unread in some top shelf of the Pepysian Library. Publicity, then, was not his object. What could it have been? The only alternative is reference and self-information. You will observe in his character a curious vein of method and order, by which he loved, to be for ever estimating his exact wealth, cataloguing his books, or scheduling his possessions. It is conceivable that this systematic recording of his deeds--even of his misdeeds--was in some sort analogous, sprung from a morbid tidiness of mind. It may be a weak explanation, but it is difficult to advance another one.

One minor point which must strike the reader of Pepys is how musical a nation the English of that day appear to have been. Every one seems to have had command of some instrument, many of several. Part-singing was common. There is not much of Charles the Second's days which we need envy, but there, at least, they seem to have had the advantage of us. It was real music, too--music of dignity and tenderness--with words which were worthy of such treatment. This cult may have been the last remains of those mediaeval pre-Reformation days when the English Church choirs were, as I have read somewhere, the most famous in Europe. A strange thing this for a land which in the whole of last century has produced no single master of the first rank!

What national change is it which has driven music from the land? Has life become so serious that song has passed out of it? In Southern climes one hears poor folk sing for pure lightness of heart. In England, alas, the sound of a poor man's voice raised in song means only too surely that he is drunk. And yet it is consoling to know that the germ of the old powers is always there ready to sprout forth if they be nourished and cultivated. If our cathedral choirs were the best in the old Catholic days, it is equally true, I believe, that our orchestral associations are now the best in Europe. So, at least, the German papers said on the occasion of the recent visit of a north of England choir. But one cannot read Pepys without knowing that the general musical habit is much less cultivated now than of old.

Arthur Conan Doyle

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