1907 Nobel Prize in Literature Presentation Speech
1907 Nobel Prize in Literature Presentation Speech
by C. D. af Wirsén, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, on 10 December 1907 (there was no banquet because of the death of King Oscar II of Sweden on 8 December)
The suggestions for names of suitable recipients of this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature have been numerous, and there has been no dearth of exceedingly well-qualified candidates for this honourable and coveted distinction.
From these candidates, the Swedish Academy has selected for this occasion a writer who belongs to Great Britain. For centuries past the literature of England has flourished and blossomed with marvellous luxuriance. When Tennyson’s immortal lyre was silenced forever, the cry which is so customary at the passing of literary giants was raised. With him the glorious reign of poetry is over; there is none to take up the mantle. Similar despairing notes were struck in this country on the demise of Tegnér, but it is not so with the fair goddess Poetry. She does not perish, is not deposed from her high estate; she but arrays herself in a fresh garb to suit the altered tastes of a new age.
In the works of Tennyson idealism is so pervasive that it meets the eye in a very palpable and direct form. Traits of idealism, however, may be traced in the conceptions and gifts of writers who differ widely from him, such writers who seem primarily concerned with mere externals and who have won renown especially for their vivid word-picturings of the various phases of the strenuous, pulsating life of our own times, that life which is often chequered and fretted by the painful struggle for existence and by all its concomitant worries and embarrassments. This description applies to Rudyard Kipling, to whom the Swedish Academy has awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature this year. Of him a French author, who has devoted much time and study to English literature, wrote more than six years ago: “He, Kipling, is undoubtedly the most noteworthy figure that has appeared within recent years in the domain of English literature.”
Kipling was born in Bombay on December 30, 1865. At the age of six he was placed in the care of some relatives in England, but he returned to India on reaching the age of seventeen. He obtained a position on the staff of The Civil and Military Gazette, published at Lahore, and in his early twenties edited The Pioneer at Allahabad. In his capacity as a journalist, and for his own purposes, he travelled extensively throughout India. On those journeys he acquired a thorough insight into Hindu conceptions and sentiments and became intimately acquainted with the different Hindu groups, with their varying customs and institutions, and with the special features of English military life in India. This firm grasp of the true inwardness of all things Indian is abundantly reflected in Kipling’s writings, so much so that it has even been said that they have brought India nearer home to the English nation than has the construction of the Suez Canal. Of his early works the satirical Departmental Ditties (1886) attracted notice by the audacity of the allusions it contained, and by the originality of its tone. Also among the early productions are Plain Tales from the Hills (1888) and Soldiers Three (1888), collections of stories famous among other things for the three lovingly drawn soldier types: Mulvaney, Ortheris, and Learoyd. Other works in the same category are, for instance, The Story of the Gadsbys (1888), In Black and White (1888), and Under the Deodars (1889), all of which are concerned with society life in Simla. The series entitled Life’s Handicap, embracing some stories of serious import, appeared in 1891. The same year saw the publication of The Light that Failed, a novel somewhat harsh in style but containing some strongly coloured descriptive passages of excellent effect.
As a poet Kipling was already full-fledged at the appearance of Barrack-Room Ballads (1892), magnificent soldier-songs brimming over with virile humour and depicting realistically Tommy Atkins in all his phases, valiantly marching onward to encounter dangers and misery wherever it pleases “the Widow of Windsor,” or her successor on the throne, to dispatch him. In Kipling the British Army has found a minstrel to interpret in a new, original, and tragicomical manner the toils and deprivations through which it has to pass, and to depict its life and work with abundant acknowledgment of the great qualities it displays, but without the least trace of meretricious embellishment. In his verses descriptive of soldiers and sailors he so happily expresses their own thoughts, often in the very language they themselves employ, that they appreciate him deeply and, as we are told, sing his song whenever they have a pause in the day’s occupations. Surely, there is hardly any greater mark of honour that can be given to a poet than to be beloved by the lower orders.
In the cycle entitled The Seven Seas (1896) Kipling reveals himself as an imperialist, a citizen of a worldwide empire. He has undoubtedly done more than any other writer of pure literature to draw tighter the bonds of union between England and her colonies.
In Sweden, as elsewhere, “the jungle books” by Kipling, the first of which appeared in 1894, are much admired and beloved. A primordial type of imaginative power inspired the creator of these mythlike tales of the animals in whose midst Mowgli waxed in strength: Bagheera the Black Panther, Baloo the Bear, Kaa the cunning and mighty Rock-Python, Nag the White Cobra, and the chattering, foolish Monkeys. Some of the scenes are simply sublime; for instance, the one where Mowgli is resting in “the living armchair” Kaa, while the latter, who has witnessed so many generations of trees and animals, dreams of bygone ages; or again when Mowgli causes Hathi the Elephant to “let in the jungle” to take over the fields of men. These descriptions display an instinctive feeling for a poetry of nature which is quite phenomenal, and Kipling is far more in his true element in the primeval grandeur of these jungle stories than, for instance, in “The Ship that Found Herself” (in The Day’s Work, 1898), an interesting though eccentric personification of mechanical inventions. The Jungle Book tales have made Kipling a favourite author among children in many countries. Adults share the delight experienced by the young and relive their childhood while perusing these marvellously delightful, wonderfully imaginative fables of animals.
Among the large number of Kipling’s creations, Kim (1901) deserves special notice, for in the delineation of the Buddhist priest, who goes on a pilgrimage along the banks of the stream that purifies from sin, there is an elevated diction as well as a tenderness and charm which are otherwise unusual traits in this dashing writer’s style. There is, too, in the figure of the little rascal Kim, the priest’s chela, a thorough type of good-humoured roguishness.
The accusation has occasionally been made against Kipling that his language is at times somewhat coarse and that his use of soldier’s slang in some of the broadest of his songs and ballads verges on the vulgar. Though there may be some truth in such remarks, their importance is offset by the invigorating directness and ethical stimulus of Kipling’s style. He has won immense popularity, not only in the Anglo-Indian world, which possesses in him a great literary master, but also far beyond the limits of the vast British Empire. During his serious illness in America in 1899, the American newspapers issued daily bulletins regarding his condition, and the German Emperor dispatched a telegram to his wife to express his earnest sympathy.
What is then the cause of this world-wide popularity that Kipling enjoys? Or, rather: In what way has Kipling shown himself to deserve it? How is it, too, that he has been deemed worthy of the Nobel Prize in Literature, for which a writer must especially show an idealism in his conceptions and in his art? The answer follows:
Kipling may not be eminent essentially for the profundity of his thought or for the surpassing wisdom of his meditations. Yet even the most cursory observer sees immediately his absolutely unique power of observation, capable of reproducing with astounding accuracy the minutest detail from real life. However, the gift of observation alone, be it ever so closely true to nature, would not suffice as a qualification in this instance. There is something else by which his poetical gifts are revealed. His marvellous power of imagination enables him to give us not only copies from nature but also visions out of his own inner consciousness. His landscapes appear to the inner vision as sudden apparitions do to the eye. In sketching a personality he makes clear, almost in his first words, the peculiar traits of that person’s character and temper. Creativeness which does not rest content with merely photographing the temporary phases of things but desires to penetrate to their inmost kernel and soul, is the basis of his literary activity, as Kipling himself says: “He draws the thing as he sees it for the God of things as they are.” In these weighty words lies a real appreciation of the poet’s responsibility in the exercise of his calling.
Rudyard Kipling’s manly, at times brusque, energy does not preclude tenderness and delicacy of touch, though these qualities never clamour affectedly for recognition in his works. The simple “Story of Muhammad Din” is imbued with the poetry of genuine heartfelt emotion, and who can ever forget the little drummer boys in “The Taking of Lungtumpen” (in Plain Tales)?
In the innermost being of this indefatigable observer of life and human nature vibrate strings attuned to a lofty note. His poem “To the True Romance” reveals that yearning for a patiently sought, never to be attained ideal that resides in living form in the breast of every true poet, from where the scenes and impressions of the sensuous world can never dislodge it:
Enough for me in dreams to see
And touch thy garment’s hem:
Thy feet have trod so near to God
I may not follow them!
This writer’s philosophy of life is diffused with a piety characteristic of the Old Testament, or rather perhaps of Puritan times, wholly devoid of pretentiousness or wordiness, based upon a conviction that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” and that there exists a
God of our fathers, known of old,
Beneath whose awful Hand we hold
If Kipling is an idealist from an aesthetic point of view by reason of poetical intuition, he is so, too, from an ethical-religious standpoint by virtue of his sense of duty, which has its inspiration in a faith firmly rooted in conviction. He is acutely conscious of the truth that even the mightiest states would perish unless they rested upon the sure foundation in the citizens’ hearts of a loyal observance of the law and a reasoned self-restraint. For Kipling, God is first and foremost Almighty Providence, termed in Life’s Handicap a “Greet Overseer.” The English as a nation can well appreciate these conceptions, and Kipling has become the nation’s poet, owing not only to his numerous highly prized soldier-songs, but perhaps quite as much to the brief lines of the hymn (“Recessional”) which he composed on the occasion of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897. Especially striking are these words expressing genuine and humble religious feelings:
The tumult and the shouting dies;
The Captains and the Kings depart:
Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,
An humble and a contrite heart.
The recessional hymn voices the spirit of national pride, yet it also conveys a warning against the dangers of presumptuous pride....
Quite naturally, during the Boer War Kipling sided with his own nation, the English. He has, however, done full justice to the heroic courage of the Boers, for his imperialism is not of the uncompromising type that pays no regard to the sentiments of others.
Many and varied are the movements that have had their vogue in English literature, a literature unparalleled for wealth of output and adorned to surpass all others by the immortal figure of Shakespeare. In Kipling may be traced perhaps more of Swift and Defoe than of Spenser, Keats, Shelley, or Tennyson. Clearly, however, imagination is as strong in him as empirical observation. Though he does not possess the refined and sensuously beautiful style of Swinburne, yet he escapes, on the other hand, all tendency toward a pagan worship of pleasure for pleasure’s sake. He avoids all morbid sentimentality in matter and Alexandrian super-florescence in form.
Kipling favours concreteness and concentration; empty abstractions and circumlocutionary descriptions are wholly absent from his works. He has a knack for finding the telling phrase, the characteristic epithet, with swift accuracy and certainty. He has been compared now to Bret Harte, now to Pierre Loti, now to Dickens; he is, however, always original, and it would seem that his powers of invention are inexhaustible. Nevertheless, the apostle of the imagination is likewise, as stated above, the standard-bearer of law-abidingness and discipline. The Laws of the Jungle are the Laws of the Universe; if we ask what their chief purport is, we shall receive the brief answer: “Struggle, Duty, Obedience.” Kipling thus advocates courage, self-sacrifice, and loyalty; unmanliness and lack of self-discipline are abominations to him, and in the world order he perceives a nemesis before which presumption is constrained to surrender.
If Kipling is quite independent as a writer, it does not follow that he has learned nothing from others; even the greatest masters have done so. With Bret Harte, Kipling shares his appreciation of the picturesqueness of vagabond life, and with Defoe his accuracy in depicting every detail and his sense of the values of exactness in the use of terms and phrases. Like Dickens he feels a keen sympathy with those of low degree in the community, and like him he can perceive the humour in trifling traits and acts. But his style is distinctively original and personal. It accomplishes its ends by suggestion rather than by description. It is not quite uniformly brilliant but it is always eminently expressive and picturesque. The series From Sea to Sea (1899) is a veritable model of graphic description, whether the scene is laid in the Elephant City governed by the Grand Divinity of Laziness, in Palm Island, or in Singapore, or whether the story deals with manners and customs of Japan. Kipling has at his command a large fund of irony–sometimes highly pungent–but he has abundant resources of sympathy, too, sympathy for the most part extended to those soldiers and sailors who have upheld the honour of England in far-distant lands. He has every right and reason to tell them: “I have eaten your bread and your salt, I have drunk your water and wine, I have lived your life, I have watched o’er your beds of death.”
He attained fame and success as a very young man, but he has continued to develop ever since. One of his biographers has stated that there are three “notes” to be traced in his authorship. The satirical note is found in Departmental Ditties, Plain Tales from the Hills, The Story of the Gadsbys, with its amusing commendation of single blessedness, and in the much-debated novel, The Light that Failed. The second, the note of sympathy and human kindness, is most clearly marked in “The Story of Muhammad Din” and in “Without Benefit of Clergy” (in Life’s Handicap), a gem of heartfelt emotion. The third, the ethical note, is clearly traceable in Life’s Handicap. Whether there be much value or not in this classification which, as is usually the case in such matters, cannot be consistently applied to the whole of his production, one thing is certain: Kipling has written and sung of faithful labour, fulfilment of duty, and love of one’s country. Love of one’s country with Kipling does not mean solely devotion to the island kingdom of England, but rather an enthusiastic affection for the British Empire. The closer uniting of that Empire’s separate members is a long and fervently cherished aspiration of the poet’s. That is surely clear from his exclamation: “What should they know of England who only England know?”
Kipling has given us descriptions in vivid colours of many different countries. But the picturesque surface of things has not been the principal matter with him; he has always, in all places, had a manly ideal before him: ever to be “ready, ay ready at the call of duty” and then, when the appointed time comes, to “go to God like a soldier.”
The Swedish Academy, in awarding the Nobel Prize in Literature this year to Rudyard Kipling, desires to pay a tribute of homage to the literature of England, so rich in manifold glories, and to the greatest genius in the realm of narrative that that country has produced in our times.
[© The Nobel Foundation, 1907.]