A Book of Words – XVIII

Selections from speeches and addresses delivered between 1906 and 1927

“The Virtue of France”

The University of Paris, the Sorbonne 19 November 1921

Notes edited by Leonee Ormond


Published in The Times 21 November 1921, page 14. Collected in A Book of Words, Macmillan, London, 1928.


Kipling was awarded an Honorary Doctorate at the Sorbonne and this speech was given at the degree ceremony in the Great Amphitheatre. Together with Sir James Frazer (1854-1941), the distinguished anthropologist and author of The Golden Bough, he was honoured as an ‘eminent’ friend of France. (Times, 15 November, p. 10).

Kipling had been approached by his friend, André Chevrillon (1864-1957), who enquired whether he would be willing to accept an honorary degree. Chevrillon’s Trois Etudes de Littérature Anglaise, with essays on Kipling, Shakespeare and Galsworthy, was published in 1921. Kipling had written an introduction to the English edition of Chevrillon’s Britain and the War, published in 1917.

The Times correspondent noted that the amphitheatre was packed, and that there were a number of Indians present:

who had come to behold with their own eyes the creator of Kim and Mowgli. The benches in front of the dais were a riot of gay colour, with the yellow and scarlet, green, cerise, and purple robes of the Doctors of the various Faculties.
(21 November, p.14)

The ceremony took place in the presence of the President of the Republic, Etienne-Alexandre Millerand (1859-1943), and of Léon Bérard (1876-1960), Minister of Education. Kipling was introduced by Paul-Emile Appell (1855-1930), the Rector of the Académie Francaise, who conferred the degree and spoke of Kipling’s foresight in anticipating the German danger, and of French respect for his work in the restoration of some of the most severely damaged areas.

With a reference to “Rikki Tikki Tavi”, Appell concluded:

The garden of humanity will never be quiet until the nest of the Hohenzollern serpents and their Prussian and German supporters shall have been destroyed.
(Times, 21 November, p.14)

Kipling began by apologising for speaking in English and by expressing his sense of honour at the award. He spoke of the devastation of the First World War and his admiration for the bravery of the French and for the great French writers with whom he was proud to be associated.

After his speech, the actress Caroline Eugénie Segond-Weber (1867-1945) declaimed ‘with Gallic fervour a French translation of Kipling’s “Ode to France”’. (Times, 21 November, p.14)

In contrast to these dignified proceedings, Kipling wrote a tale called “The First Assault upon the Sorbonne”, published in English and French the following month, about a distinguished literary figure, with a more than passing resemblance to himself. Receiving an honorary degree at the Sorbonne, he recalls an incident of his youth thirty years before, when on a moonlit night, with three riotous companions, he had tried to push down the walls of that august institution, and had had to flee from the gendarmes.

Notes on the Text

(the page and line numbers below refer to the Uniform Edition of A Book of Words Macmillan, London 1928)

[Page 197 line 9] the Sorbonne The seat of the University of Paris, founded in about 1257.

[Page 197 line 9] domus magistrorum pauperrima the house of the very poor teachers. The Sorbonne was originally set up for poor students.

[Page 197 lines 15-16] a boy of twelve Kipling visited Paris with his father in 1878 when
Lockwood Kipling was responsible for the Indian exhibits at the International Exhibition.
In Something of Myself Kipling describes the visit as ‘an education in itself’, establishing his ‘life-long love for France’. (p. 24) See also Souvenirs of France (1933).

[Page 197 lines 17-18] the Franco-Prussian War France, under the Second Empire leadership of Napoleon III, declared war on a Prussian-dominated North German Confederation in July 1870. The French army was defeated, Paris having been besieged from September 1870 to January 1871. In the Treaty of Frankfurt of May 1871 it was agreed that France would pay an indemnity of five billion francs; Alsace and Lorraine were ceded to the Germans.

[Page 198 line 2] unregarded prophets of [18]70 Kipling is referring to those who warned of further German aggression at the time of the Franco-Prussian War.