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Picture of Edward Gibbon, author of The Decline and Fall of the American Empire; eighteenth century English historian

June 27, 1878
Lord Byron, Thomas Hardy, Edward Gibbon, John Milton
Edward Gibbon, Decline and Fall, Lausanne
by Steve King

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Looking backwards from fame, Edward Gibbon dated the idea for his masterwork, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, to a specific moment: "It was at Rome, on the 15th of October 1764, as I sat musing amid the ruins of the capitol, while the bare-footed friars were singing vespers in the temple of Jupiter [now the Church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli], that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started to my mind." Despite Gibbon's impeccable reputation for research, some biographers are skeptical of this personal note, reluctantly charging Gibbon with a rare weakness for hyperbole, or myth-making.

There is no dispute over the date of the book's completion, however, the hour described in detail in Gibbon's memoirs, the place given the status of a shrine by generations of readers: June 27, 1787, in the small summer-house in his garden in Lausanne, Switzerland, just before midnight. 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, understandably, did not want to let "the hour of my final deliverance" go unmarked, or go too quickly:
    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 volumes of Decline and Fall had already been published, and as Gibbon knew, not only fame but controversy and outrage had already arrived. Gibbon's thesis was that the intellectual rigor of the Roman Empire declined into "barbarism and religion." Christian historians and readers did not like the idea that Christianity was a step backward, and some attacked Gibbon for his scholarship and his disbelief, with little impact on either.

But the controversy 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 for irreligion and immorality. In his commemorative poem, "Lausanne: In Gibbon's Old Garden," Hardy joins league not only with Gibbon but Milton, as three who have known what it is to suffer at the hands of narrow belief:
        A spirit seems to pass,
       Formal in pose, but grave and grand withal:
       He contemplates a volume stout and tall,
    And far lamps fleck him through the thin acacias.

        Anon the book is closed,
       With "It is finished!" And at the alley's end
       He turns, and soon on me his glances bend;
    And, as from earth, comes speech--small, muted, yet composed.

        "How fares the Truth now?--Ill?
       --Do pens but slily further her advance?
       May one not speed her but in phrase askance?
    Do scribes aver the Comic to be Reverend still?

        "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 her birth'?"
Hardy's last two lines were his brief paraphrase of a passage in Milton's The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce. This was an argument for church reform, so that divorce might be granted on the grounds of incompatibility; it was also the appeal of a 33-year-old newlywed who had discovered that his 17-year-old wife seemed to prefer her parents to him. Faced with the strains of his own marriage, and with his wife's own scoffs at Jude and "Jude-ites," Hardy thought that Milton, like Gibbon, made a lot of sense about religion.

Byron was another such pilgrim, visiting the Gibbon garden on the 1816 anniversary of the completion of the Decline and Fall. This was 8 weeks after his permanent exit from England, and 8 years before his death in Greece -- in service, he thought, to the rebirth of that ideal empire. He arrived carrying his own persecution baggage -- separation from his new wife and child, amid gossip of his "League of Incest" behavior-- and left with a leaf from one of Gibbon's acacia trees, to the Villa Diodati in Geneva. This was Byron's summer rental, and soon to be made famous as the site of the Frankenstein evening, but it was a house originally owned by friends of Milton, and visited by him in 1638, just 5 years before he wrote his pamphlet on divorce.

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