[Illustration: EDWARD GIBBON. From the painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds.]
Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) is the greatest historian of the century. His monumental work, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, in six volumes, begins with the reign of Trajan, A.D. 98, and closes with the fall of the Eastern Roman Empire at Constantinople in 1453. Gibbon constructed a “Roman road” through nearly fourteen centuries of history; and he built it so well that another on the same plan has not yet been found necessary. E.A. Freeman says: “He remains the one historian of the eighteenth century whom modern research has neither set aside nor threatened to set aside.” In preparing his History, Gibbon spent fifteen years. Every chapter was the subject of long-continued study and careful original research. From the chaotic materials which he found, he constructed a history remarkable as well for its scholarly precision as for the vastness of the field covered.
His sentences follow one another in magnificent procession. One feels that they are the work of an artist. They are thickly sprinkled with fine-sounding words derived from the Latin. The 1611 version of the first four chapters of the Gospel of John averages 96 per cent of Anglo-Saxon words, and Shakespeare 89 per cent, while Gibbon’s average of 70 per cent is the lowest of any great writer. He has all the coldness of the classical school, and he shows but little sympathy with the great human struggles that are described in his pages. He has been well styled “a skillful anatomical demonstrator of the dead framework of society.” With all its excellences, his work has, therefore, those faults which are typical of the eighteenth century.
[Illustration: EDMUND BURKE. From the painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds, National Portrait Gallery.]
Political Prose.—Edmund Burke (1729-1797) was a distinguished statesman and member of the House of Commons in an important era of English history,—a time when the question of the independence of the American colonies was paramount, and when the spirit of revolt against established forms was in the air. He is the greatest political writer of the eighteenth century.
Burke’s best productions are Speech on American Taxation (1774) and Speech on Conciliation with America (1775). His Reflections on the Revolution in France is also noteworthy. His prose is distinguished for the following qualities: (1) He is one of the greatest masters of metaphor and imagery in English prose. Only Carlyle surpasses him in the use of metaphorical language. (2) Burke’s breadth of thought and wealth of expression enable him to present an idea from many different points of view, so that if his readers do not comprehend his exposition from one side, they may from another. He endeavors to attach what he says to something in the experience of his hearers or readers; and he remembers