Speech to Canadian Authors
Royal Society of Literature.
Visit of the Canadian Authors' Association: July 1935.
STRICTLY BETWEEN OURSELVES, I think this is an occasion when we are justified in feeling a little proud of our calling. We know that, after all the men who do things have done them, and the men who say things about their doings have said them, it is only words—nothing but words—that live to show the present how, and in what moods, men lived and worked in the past.
And we do not know what words they will be. That is one of the reasons why there can be neither first nor last in the kingdom—for it is not a republic—of letters.
We who use words enjoy a peculiar advantage over our fellows. We cannot tell a lie. However much we may wish to do so, we only of educated men and women cannot tell a lie—in our working hours. The more subtly we attempt it, the more certainly do we betray some aspect of truth concerning the life of our age.
It is with us as with timber. Every knot and shake in a board reveals some disease or injury that overtook the log when it was growing. A gentleman named Jean Pigeon, who once built a frame house for me, put this in a nutshell. He said: `Everything which a tree she has experienced in the forest she takes with her into the house.' That is the law for us all, each in his or her own land.
Canadian writers and poets have dealt directly or by implication with every detail of their country's life and background.
Some have chosen the days of the first adventurers wandering bewildered across blind forests and great waterways. Others have illuminated the distracted times of the United Empire Loyalists, of the great famine year, the Fenian raids, and Riel's rebellion. Others, again, those periods of doubt and self-distrust that followed the political birth of your huge sub-continent.
And now men and women are dealing with the marvellous later years when Canada, first of the new Powers, came to her soul and strength, and, incidentally, sent four hundred thousand free men to the War.
Directly or unconsciously, then, the splendour, the toil, and the variety of your national history will have inspired or coloured all your work.
Somewhere in the mass of this work must be laid up the very lines, phrases, and books which will be taken by the world of to-morrow as the authentic portrayal of your world of yesterday. But, as I said, who the people are that have already written those words, and for what reason of art or emotion their words will be accepted before all other words, we cannot tell.
Mercifully, it is not permitted to any one to foresee his or her literary election or reprobation, any more than it was permitted to our ancestors to foresee the just stature of their contemporaries, whose shrines and former dwellings you are now in the process of visiting.
You have already spent five or six fairly crowded days with us. You have before you ten more in which to look over some of the possessions, and verify some of the title-deeds, of your imperishable inheritance here.
The things that you will see here, and the atmospheres you will realise, are not, as aliens might regard them, archaeological curiosities or ineffective echoes out of a spent past. Whether they be the work of men's hands, or men's souls, they bear witness to the instinct—it is more than tradition—the immemorial racial instinct towards unbridled expenditure on matters material and spiritual for sheer joy of the exercise.
They are proof of our land's deep unconscious delight through all ages in her own strength and beauty and unjaded youth.
That same headlong surplus of effort and desire goes forward along other paths to-day. But our eyes are held. Like the generations before us, we cannot perceive among what new births of new wonders we now move. And all these things, out of our past, in our present, and for our future, are yours by right.
They are doubly yours, since the dominant strains of your blood draw from those twin races—French and English—which throughout their histories have been most resolute not to be decivilised on any pretext or for any gain.
If on your journeys some of you feel inclined to faint by the wayside, you have my deepest sympathy, for it was given to me once to see Canada en bloc. I had known portions of it, of course, many years before, but this was one prodigious sweep from Quebec to Victoria and back again.
Through three amazing weeks it was my turn to be shown things—to listen to prophecies which, within the next ten years, fell short of the facts, and to feel the moral pulse of a land and a people free as their own airs, and yet set in most ancient and sane practices of justice, honour, and self-control.
I tried to grasp all these things because they were just as much mine as everything here is yours. Not till long after my return did the significance of them begin to break in upon me. Then my experiences and impressions clarified and arranged themselves, and as I sorted them out in my head I found that I had the key to them all the time in my heart.
It will be the same with you on your return, because one's own heart is the best place to store the few things in life that really matter.