Johnson versus Gibbon

Johnson by Reynolds
Gibbon by Reynolds

The dramatist and theatre owner, George Colman the Elder, recalls meeting Johnson and Gibbon: “The learned Gibbon was a curious counter-balance to the learned (may I not say the less learned) Johnson. Their manners and tastes, both in writing and conversation, were as different as their habiliments. On the day I first sat down with Johnson in his rusty brown suit and his black worsted stockings, Gibbon was placed opposite to me in a suit of flowered velvet, with a bag and sword. Each had his measured phraseology, and Johnson’s famous parallel between Dryden and Pope might be loosely parodied in reference to himself and Gibbon. Johnson’s style was grand, and Gibbon’s elegant: the stateliness of the former was sometimes pedantic, and the latter was occasionally finical. Johnson marched to kettledrums and trumpets, Gibbon moved to flutes and hautboys. Johnson hewed passages through the Alps, while Gibbon levelled walks through parks and gardens. Mauled as I had been by Johnson, Gibbon poured balm upon my bruises by condescending once or twice in the course of the evening to talk with me. The great historian was light and playful, suiting his matter to the capacity of a boy; but it was done more suo—still his mannerism prevailed, still he tapped his snuff-box, still he smirked and smiled, and rounded his periods with the same air of good-breeding, as if he were conversing with men. His mouth, mellifluous as Plato’s, was a round hole nearly in the centre of his visage.”