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

And accordingly in January 1752 he was placed at Esher


Peru." His first introduction to the historic scenes the study of which afterwards formed the passion of his life took place in 1751, when, while along with his father visiting a friend in Wiltshire, he discovered in the library "a common book, the continuation of Echard's _Roman History_." "To me the reigns of the successors of Constantine were absolutely new; and I was immersed in the passage of the Goths over the Danube, when the summons of the dinner bell reluctantly dragged me from my intellectual feast." Soon afterwards his fancy kindled with the first glimpses into Oriental history, the wild "barbaric" charm of which he never ceased to feel. Ockley's book on the Saracens "first opened his eyes" to the striking career of Mahomet and his hordes; and with his characteristic ardour of literary research, after exhausting all that could be learned in English of the Arabs and Persians, the Tatars and Turks, he forthwith plunged into the French of D'Herbelot, and the Latin of Pocock's version of Abulfaragius, sometimes understanding them, but oftener only guessing their meaning. He soon learned to call to his aid the subsidiary sciences of geography and chronology, and before he was quite capable of reading them had already attempted to weigh in his childish balance the competing systems of Scaliger and Petavius, of Marsham and Newton. At this early period he seems already to have adopted in some degree the plan of study he followed in after life and recommended in his _Essai sur l'etude_--that is, of letting his subject rather than his author determine his course, of suspending the perusal of a book to reflect, and to compare the statements with those of other authors--so that he often read portions of many volumes while mastering one.

Towards his sixteenth year he tell us "nature displayed in his favour her mysterious energies," and all his infirmities suddenly vanished. Thenceforward, while never possessing or abusing the insolence of health, he could say "few persons have been more exempt from real or imaginary ills." His unexpected recovery revived his father's hopes for his education, hitherto so much neglected if judged by ordinary standards; and accordingly in January 1752 he was placed at Esher, Surrey, under the care of Dr Francis, the well-known translator of Horace. But Gibbon's friends in a few weeks discovered that the new tutor preferred the pleasures of London to the instruction of his pupils, and in this perplexity decided to send him prematurely to Oxford, where he was matriculated as a gentleman commoner of Magdalen College, 3rd April 1752. According to his own testimony he arrived at the university "with a stock of information which might have puzzled a doctor, and a degree of ignorance of which a schoolboy might be ashamed." And indeed his huge wallet of scraps stood him in little stead at the trim banquets to which he was invited at Oxford, while the wandering habits by which he had filled it absolutely unfitted him to be a guest. He was not well grounded in any of the elementary branches, which are essential to university studies and to all success in their prosecution. It was natural, therefore, that he should dislike the university, and as natural that the university should dislike him. Many of his complaints of the system were certainly just; but it may be doubted whether any university system would have been profitable to him, considering his antecedents. He complains especially of his tutors, and in one case with abundant reason; but, by his own confession, they might have recriminated with justice, for he indulged in gay society, and kept late hours. His observations, however, on the defects of the English university system, some of which have only very recently been removed, are acute and well worth pondering, however little relevant to his own case. He remained at Magdalen about fourteen months. "To the university of Oxford," he says, "I acknowledge no obligation; and she will as cheerfully renounce me for a son as I am willing to disclaim her for a mother. I spent fourteen months at Magdalen College; they proved the fourteen months the most idle and unprofitable of my whole life."


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