The poem discusses Gibbon finishing his lengthy book. As line in the beginning indicates, this poem was written on the 110th anniversary of the completion of the “Decline and Fall” at the same hour and place. I did not know about the significance so I looked it up. Edward Gibbon completed his masterpiece, “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” on June 27, 1787 in a small summerhouse in his garden in Lausanne, Switzerland, just before midnight. This impeccably researched book has been almost 15 years in the making and consisted of six volumes, 1.5 million words, and 8000 footnotes. It spanned three continents and 1300 years of history. To mark the occasion, Gibbon made note of its completion in his memoirs and as a result gave the time and place the status of the shrine:
“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.
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.
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.”