A Book of Words – XVIII

“The Virtue of France”

by Rudyard Kipling

I ASK your forgiveness if I speak in English to acknowledge the very great and signal honour you have bestowed upon me, an Englishman.Your Rector has delivered a eulogium of my work which would demand more than all that quality of imagination he attributes to me, could I convince myself that the half of it were deserved. But far be it from me to qualify any ruling of the Sorbonne, domus magistrorum pauperrima. So I will not confess (what must be evident to my literary confreres here) how much in my art I have learned and applied both consciously and unconsciously from the masters of that art in your country. It is an influence to which I was submitted almost from my childhood when, as a boy of twelve, I first made acquaintance with a France that was renewing herself after the FrancoPrussian War. It was an influence that strengthened itself again and again in my youth and through my manhood, as one saw and, at last, began to comprehend a little, what the genius and the existence of France signified in a world that moved without fear, since it was without knowledge, towards the catastrophe predicted by the unregarded prophets of ’70.

And when that catastrophe arrived, mankind beheld with what passion of virtue and faith in her women and men France moved to confront it; with what endurance she supported—with what hardihood she overcame—her triple burden of butchery, torture, and devastation; and with what ingrained sanity she set herself to repair her inconceivable losses with almost inconceivable labour.

These are not qualities born full-grown in any nation, nor produced by sudden pressure of necessity, however terrible. Their genesis lies in the national past. They are built up through multiplied experiences and agonies. They are tempered alike in the fires of war and the little daily fires of a million small hearths. They are reflected, also, step by step, through the generations, in the literature of the land whose instincts have developed them and whose sure defences they are.

It is for that reason, Masters, Doctors, my brothers, that I thank you, very humbly but very proudly, that you should have associated my name even for my moment, with the august succession of frank, joyous, and wise writers who, ever since the Sorbonne introduced here the art of printing, have revealed and glorified the undefeated soul of your race.