This was Kipling’s last speech on his Canadian tour, given in the Hall of the Corn Exchange building to what the Montreal Gazette called “by lar the largest meeting ever held by the Club, there being upwards of six hundred guests present.” Evidently there was some disappointment in the speech: the Daily Star called it “an informal talk”; the Montreal Gazette said it was “a fifteen- minute chat on things in general.” For their part, the Kiplings felt that the crowd had not been up to the mark: in her diary Mrs. Kipling wrote that there had been “a decided feeling of French-Canadian wet-blanket.” The Canadians presumably wanted to hear more about their politics; but we may find that Kipling’s remarks about literature make it one of the more interesting of his Canadian speeches.
The Kiplings left in the evening after this speech on the RMS Virginian for their voyage back to England. Rudyard had already started work on an account of the tour in a series of eight articles which were published in March 1908 and collected as Letters to the Family .
ON RISING Mr. Kipling was greeted with loud applause, all the guests rising as they cheered him. He opened by a brief reference to his addresses at other Canadian Clubs “throughout that wonderful network of organization which you call your country,” and expressed his pleasure in bearing witness to the value and significance of the good work being done by these clubs from east to west.
“The fact that impresses me most,” continued Mr. Kipling, “is that in spite of, or rather because of our varying points of view we are all united, at least in the essentials of the great aim of Empire. And I have found the same feeling in the other countries I have visited which are emulating the life of the Dominion. Need 1 say that 1 have been impressed with the sense of nearness to the Empire, and the love for it which must impress everyone coming here. I did not feel like a stranger, but rather like a brother at ease amongst his brothers.” (Applause.)
“It is a matter of little consequence that our borders are separated on the map by oceans and seas, and tomorrow it will be of still less consequence. And on the day after it will be our custom as it is our right to see all parts of the Empire as simply and without question as we see our own immediate neighborhood. But whatever we shall achieve on the mechanical side we shall never eliminate human nature, and shall still remain, thank goodness, the same interesting Impenitent sons of Adam we always were. (Laughter.) So that even if your visitors descend upon you in the future at the rate of a hundred million a year you will still get the same old human faults. Floods of unnecessary human advice—that is the penalty of being interesting and interested, because if a man is not interested he won’t speak.”
Proceeding Mr. Kipling said he had naturally been most interested in Canadian literature and journalism. There never had been a time when every end of the Empire had been so keenly interested to know how the other ends lived, what they did with their lives. This interest was in some measure due to the shrinkage in the size of the world, but in larger measure to the “spirit of brotherly solidarity which we are pleased to call Imperialism.” Everybody throughout the Empire felt that if they could not yet understand their brethren they should at least try to study the points that needed comprehension.
From a literary point of view Mr. Kipling saw in this general awakening of interest a danger that might lead writers to present their ideas from a national, rather than a personal point of view—writing as Canadians, Australians, South Africans, etc., rather than as writers. There had been a few instances where men had deliberately tried to create a national literature on a scale proportionate to their country. But fortunately literature did not depend upon the size of the country or its exports. Therefore the experiments, while producing much meritorious material did almost everything hut represent the essential life of the nation. The literature of a country was like wheat—no power, no bribes or entreaties, could make it arrive one hour before its appointed time. “So here, and here only,” said he, “we must be patient. Literature is its own master, we cannot master it. But no man can doubt that a nation such as this, used to almost boundless freedom, accustomed to the magic of vast distances and the strong exuberant vitality which is its own peculiar heritage, yet controlled by a strong conception of law as an organic part of life, must in its own good time produce a literature of outstanding dignity and inspiration. At present as far as we can see that passion and inspiration is worthily subdued to building the pillars of your house rather than publishing the tale abroad.”
“Over the land we have power, but over the spirit we have not. And when that spirit arises it will reveal us to ourselves and the world without mercy. All that is base and ignoble in the national life will reflect itself, as well as all that is worthy. And when that wonderful and imperious spirit descends look well to it that whatever may be the material condition of the country it shall find in the soul of the nation a fair echo.” (Applause.)
Journalism had been described as the handmaiden of literature. As an old journalist he had his own opinion on that point. (Laughter.) But journalism must influence literature, although the newspaper man worked in a mad race against the rising sun, and dealt with men in the raw. None knew better than the journalist the necessity of guarding against overrating the triviality, vulgarity and flippancy of people or underrating the essential dignity of life. If the journalist was slovenly or disrespectful in his work he sinned against the national life, and lowered his country in her own eyes and those of her fellows. There were many things the journalist must guard against, especially the sin of using worn out stereotyped stuff. “In doing this,” he declared, “the writer is simply putting the strong new wine of his own country into old bottles because they happen to be standing nearest to the bar. (Laughter.) But I do not accept the daily newspaper breakfast cereal as a daily substitute for divine libation or the right of private judgment.”
“And now, gentlemen,” concluded Mr. Kipling, “I must bid you farewell. Any form of compliment I could devise would be ridiculously inadequate in face of the experiences I have met. So if I say I have no words in which to thank you for your hospitality, courteous kindness and patience I speak but the sober truth. There is need that you would send your men to visit those other lands, which look so far away, but which in reality lie next your heart. In going they will find cities, not so splendid perhaps as yours, but still not without distinction, power and luxury. They will find communities as keen, resolute and eager for national life as you are, and welcome less perhaps in degree, but in kind as free and friendly and ample as that welcome you have given to me in Canada.” (Loud applause.)
—Montreal Gazette, 25 October 1907.