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Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th Edition, Volume 11, Slice 8 "Germany" to "Gibson, William"

He once more returned to Putney


In

his ninth year (1746), during a "lucid interval of comparative health," he was sent to a school at Kingston-upon-Thames; but his former infirmities soon returned, and his progress, by his own confession, was slow and unsatisfactory. "My timid reserve was astonished by the crowd and tumult of the school; the want of strength and activity disqualified me for the sports of the play-field.... By the common methods of discipline, at the expense of many tears and some blood, I purchased the knowledge of the Latin syntax," but manifestly, in his own opinion, the _Arabian Nights_, Pope's _Homer_, and Dryden's _Virgil_, eagerly read, had at this period exercised a much more powerful influence on his intellectual development than Phaedrus and Cornelius Nepos, "painfully construed and darkly understood."

In December 1747 his mother died, and he was taken home. After a short time his father removed to the "rustic solitude" of Buriton (Hants), but young Gibbon lived chiefly at the house of his maternal grandfather at Putney, where, under the care of his devoted aunt, he developed, he tells us, that passionate love of reading "which he would not exchange for all the treasures of India," and where his mind received its most decided stimulus. Of 1748 he says, "This year, the twelfth of my age, I shall note as the most propitious to the growth of my intellectual stature." After detailing the circumstances which unlocked for him the door of his grandfather's "tolerable

library," he says, "I turned over many English pages of poetry and romance, of history and travels. Where a title attracted my eye, without fear or awe I snatched the volume from the shelf." In 1749, in his twelfth year, he was sent to Westminster, still residing, however, with his aunt, who, rendered destitute by her father's bankruptcy, but unwilling to live a life of dependence, had opened a boarding-house for Westminster school. Here in the course of two years (1749-1750), interrupted by danger and debility, he "painfully climbed into the third form"; but it was left to his riper age to "acquire the beauties of the Latin and the rudiments of the Greek tongue." The continual attacks of sickness which had retarded his progress induced his aunt, by medical advice, to take him to Bath; but the mineral waters had no effect. He then resided for a time in the house of a physician at Winchester; the physician did as little as the mineral waters; and, after a further trial of Bath, he once more returned to Putney, and made a last futile attempt to study at Westminster. Finally, it was concluded that he would never be able to encounter the discipline of a school; and casual instructors, at various times and places, were provided for him. Meanwhile his indiscriminate appetite for reading had begun to fix itself more and more decidedly upon history; and the list of historical works devoured by him during this period of chronic ill-health is simply astonishing. It included, besides Hearne's _Ductor historicus_ and the successive volumes of the _Universal History_, which was then in course of publication, Littlebury's _Herodotus_, Spelman's _Xenophon_, Gordon's _Tacitus_, an anonymous translation of Procopius; "many crude lumps of Speed, Rapin, Mezeray, Davila, Machiavel, Father Paul, Bower, &c., were hastily gulped. I devoured them like so many novels; and I swallowed with the same voracious appetite the descriptions of India and China, of Mexico and


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