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Picture of Edward Gibbon, historian, and author of The Decline and Fall of the American Empire; British Literature / English Literature and history


 
June 27, 1787
Edward Gibbon   (1737 - 1794)
 
The End of Gibbon's Decline and Fall
 
by Steve King

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On this day in 1787, Edward Gibbon wrote the concluding lines of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The book had been almost 15 years in the making -- 6 volumes, 1.5 million words, 8000 footnotes, 1300 years and 3 continents covered -- and Gibbon took a moment to "commemorate the hour of my final deliverance," which had come just before midnight, in the small summer-house in his garden in Lausanne:
    After laying down my pen I took several turns in a berceau, or covered walk of acacias, which commands a prospect of the country, the lake, and the mountains. The air was temperate, the sky was 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 recovery of my freedom, and, perhaps, the establishment of my fame. But my pride was soon humbled, and a sober melancholy was spread over my mind, by the idea that I had taken an everlasting leave of an old and agreeable companion. . . .
The first volume of Decline and Fall had been printed years earlier, and had sold out; fame had already arrived, as Gibbon knew, bringing controversy and outrage with it. Gibbon's thesis was that the intellectual rigor of the Roman Empire had declined into "barbarism and religion." Christian historians and readers did not like the idea that Christianity was a step backward, and Gibbon was attacked both for his scholarship and his disbelief.

This must have given Thomas Hardy added motivation to sit up in Gibbon's garden until midnight on this day in 1897, the 110th anniversary of the penning of those last Decline and Fall lines. Gibbon's house was Hotel Gibbon by this point, and a spot visited by many literary travelers, but Hardy had just published Jude the Obscure, and was himself vilified by press and public (and wife) for his blasphemy and irreligion. In his commemorative poem, "Lausanne: In Gibbon's Old Garden," Hardy joins league not only with Gibbon but Milton, as three who have suffered at the hands of narrow belief:
    'Still rule those minds on earth
    At whom sage Milton's wormwood words were hurled:
    "Truth like a bastard comes into the world
    Never without ill-fame to him who gives it birth"?'
Byron was another who visited the Gibbon garden, bringing his own experience of persecution, and taking away a leaf from the acacia trees.

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Related authors:  Edward Gibbon, Lord Byron, Thomas Hardy
 
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