Speeches: Literary and Social, by Charles Dickens

SPEECH: THE OXFORD AND HARVARD BOAT RACE. SYDENHAM, AUGUST 30, 1869.

[The International University Boat Race having taken place on August 27, the London Rowing Club invited the Crews to a Dinner at the Crystal Palace on the following Monday. The dinner was followed by a grand display of pyrotechnics. Mr. Dickens, in proposing the health of the Crews, made the following speech:]

Gentlemen, flushed with fireworks, I can warrant myself to you as about to imitate those gorgeous illusions by making a brief spirt and then dying out. And, first of all, as an invited visitor of the London Rowing Club on this most interesting occasion, I will beg, in the name of the other invited visitors present — always excepting the distinguished guests who are the cause of our meeting — to thank the president for the modesty and the courtesy with which he has deputed to one of us the most agreeable part of his evening’s duty. It is the more graceful in him to do this because he can hardly fail to see that he might very easily do it himself, as this is a case of all others in which it is according to good taste and the very principles of things that the great social vice, speech-making, should hide it diminished head before the great social virtue action. However, there is an ancient story of a lady who threw her glove into an arena full of wild beasts to tempt her attendant lover to climb down and reclaim it. The lover, rightly inferring from the action the worth of the lady, risked his life for the glove, and then threw it rightly in her face as a token of his eternal adieu. 16 I take up the President’s glove, on the contrary, as a proof of his much higher worth, and of my real interest in the cause in which it was thrown down, and I now profess my readiness to do even injustice to the duty which he has assigned me.

16 Robert Browning: Bells and Pomegranates.

Gentlemen, a very remarkable and affecting volume was published in the United States within a short time before my last visit to that hospitable land, containing ninety-five biographies of young men, for the most part well-born and well nurtured, and trained in various peaceful pursuits of life, who, when the flag of their country waved them from those quiet paths in which they were seeking distinction of various kinds, took arms in the dread civil war which elicited so much bravery on both sides, and died in the defence of their country. These great spirits displayed extraordinary aptitude in the acquisition, even in the invention, of military tactics, in the combining and commanding of great masses of men, in surprising readiness of self-resource for the general good, in humanely treating the sick and the wounded, and in winning to themselves a very rare amount of personal confidence and trust. They had all risen to be distinguished soldiers; they had all done deeds of great heroism; they had all combined with their valour and self-devotion a serene cheerfulness, a quiet modesty, and a truly Christian spirit; and they had all been educated in one school — Harvard University.

Gentlemen, nothing was more remarkable in these fine descendants of our forefathers than the invincible determination with which they fought against odds, and the undauntable spirit with which they resisted defeat. I ask you, who will say after last Friday that Harvard University is less true to herself in peace than she was in war? I ask you, who will not recognise in her boat’s crew the leaven of her soldiers, and who does not feel that she has now a greater right than ever to be proud of her sons, and take these sons to her breast when they return with resounding acclamations? It is related of the Duke of Wellington that he once told a lady who foolishly protested that she would like to see a great victory that there was only one thing worse than a great victory, and that was a great defeat.

But, gentlemen, there is another sense in which to use the term a great defeat. Such is the defeat of a handful of daring fellows who make a preliminary dash of three or four thousand stormy miles to meet great conquerors on their own domain — who do not want the stimulus of friends and home, but who sufficiently hear and feel their own dear land in the shouts and cheers of another — and who strive to the last with a desperate tenacity that makes the beating of them a new feather in the proudest cap. Gentlemen, you agree with me that such a defeat is a great, noble part of a manly, wholesome action; and I say that it is in the essence and life- blood of such a defeat to become at last sure victory.

Now, gentlemen, you know perfectly well the toast I am going to propose, and you know equally well that in thus glancing first towards our friends of the white stripes, I merely anticipate and respond to the instinctive courtesy of Oxford towards our brothers from a distance — a courtesy extending, I hope, and I do not doubt, to any imaginable limits except allowing them to take the first place in last Friday’s match, if they could by any human and honourable means be kept in the second. I will not avail myself of the opportunity provided for me by the absence of the greater part of the Oxford crew — indeed, of all but one, and that, its most modest and devoted member — I will not avail myself of the golden opportunity considerately provided for me to say a great deal in honour of the Oxford crew. I know that the gentleman who attends here attends under unusual anxieties and difficulties, and that if he were less in earnest his filial affection could not possibly allow him to be here.

It is therefore enough for me, gentlemen, and enough for you, that I should say here, and now, that we all unite with one accord in regarding the Oxford crew as the pride and flower of England — and that we should consider it very weak indeed to set anything short of England’s very best in opposition to or competition with America; though it certainly must be confessed — I am bound in common justice and honour to admit it — it must be confessed in disparagement of the Oxford men, as I heard a discontented gentleman remark — last Friday night, about ten o’clock, when he was baiting a very small horse in the Strand — he was one of eleven with pipes in a chaise cart — I say it must be admitted in disparagement of the Oxford men on the authority of this gentleman, that they have won so often that they could afford to lose a little now, and that “they ought to do it, but they won’t.”

Gentlemen, in drinking to both crews, and in offering the poor testimony of our thanks in acknowledgment of the gallant spectacle which they presented to countless thousands last Friday, I am sure I express not only your feeling, and my feeling, and the feeling of the Blue, but also the feeling of the whole people of England, when I cordially give them welcome to our English waters and English ground, and also bid them “God speed” in their voyage home. As the greater includes the less, and the sea holds the river, so I think it is no very bold augury to predict that in the friendly contests yet to come and to take place, I hope, on both sides of the Atlantic — there are great river triumphs for Harvard University yet in store. Gentlemen, I warn the English portion of this audience that these are very dangerous men. Remember that it was an undergraduate of Harvard University who served as a common seaman two years before the mast, 17 and who wrote about the best sea book in the English tongue. Remember that it was one of those young American gentlemen who sailed his mite of a yacht across the Atlantic in mid-winter, and who sailed in her to sink or swim with the men who believed in him.

17 R. H.

And now, gentlemen, in conclusion, animated by your cordial acquiescence, I will take upon myself to assure our brothers from a distance that the utmost enthusiasm with which they can be received on their return home will find a ready echo in every corner of England — and further, that none of their immediate countrymen — I use the qualifying term immediate, for we are, as our president said, fellow countrymen, thank God — that none of their compatriots who saw, or who will read of, what they did in this great race, can be more thoroughly imbued with a sense of their indomitable courage and their high deserts than are their rivals and their hosts to- night. Gentlemen, I beg to propose to you to drink the crews of Harvard and Oxford University, and I beg to couple with that toast the names of Mr. Simmons and Mr. Willan.

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