[On Saturday evening, November 2, 1867, a grand complimentary farewell dinner was given to Mr. Dickens at the Freemasons’ Tavern on the occasion of his revisiting the United States of America. Lord Lytton officiated as chairman, and proposed as a toast —“A Prosperous Voyage, Health, and Long Life to our Illustrious Guest and Countryman, Charles Dickens”. The toast was drunk with all the honours, and one cheer more. Mr. Dickens then rose, and spoke as follows:]
No thanks that I can offer you can express my sense of my reception by this great assemblage, or can in the least suggest to you how deep the glowing words of my friend the chairman, and your acceptance of them, have sunk into my heart. But both combined have so greatly shaken the composure which I am used to command before an audience, that I hope you may observe in me some traces of an eloquence more expressive than the richest words. To say that I am fervently grateful to you is to say nothing; to say that I can never forget this beautiful sight, is to say nothing; to say that it brings upon me a rush of emotion not only in the present, but in the thought of its remembrance in the future by those who are dearest to me, is to say nothing; but to feel all this for the moment, even almost to pain, is very much indeed. Mercutio says of the wound in his breast, dealt him by the hand of a foe, that — “‘Tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church door; but ‘tis enough, ‘twill serve.” 15 I may say of the wound in my breast, newly dealt to me by the hands of my friends, that it is deeper than the soundless sea, and wider than the whole Catholic Church. I may safely add that it has for the moment almost stricken me dumb. I should be more than human, and I assure you I am very human indeed, if I could look around upon this brilliant representative company and not feel greatly thrilled and stirred by the presence of so many brother artists, not only in literature, but also in the sister arts, especially painting, among whose professors living and unhappily dead, are many of my oldest and best friends. I hope that I may, without presumption, regard this thronging of my brothers around me as a testimony on their part that they believe that the cause of art generally has been safe in my keeping, and that it has never been falsely dealt with by me. Your resounding cheers just now would have been but so many cruel reproaches to me if I could not here declare that, from the earliest days of my career down to this proud night, I have always tried to be true to my calling. Never unduly to assert it, on the one hand, and never, on any pretence or consideration, to permit it to be patronized in my person, has been the steady endeavour of my life; and I have occasionally been vain enough to hope that I may leave its social position in England better than I found it. Similarly, and equally I hope without presumption, I trust that I may take this general representation of the public here, through so many orders, pursuits, and degrees, as a token that the public believe that, with a host of imperfections and shortcomings on my head, I have as a writer, in my soul and conscience, tried to be as true to them as they have ever been true to me. And here, in reference to the inner circle of the arts and the outer circle of the public, I feel it a duty to-night to offer two remarks. I have in my duty at odd times heard a great deal about literary sets and cliques, and coteries and barriers; about keeping this man up, and keeping that man down; about sworn disciples and sworn unbelievers, and mutual admiration societies, and I know not what other dragons in the upward path. I began to tread it when I was very young, without influence, without money, without companion, introducer, or adviser, and I am bound to put in evidence in this place that I never lighted on these dragons yet. So have I heard in my day, at divers other odd times, much generally to the effect that the English people have little or no love of art for its own sake, and that they do not greatly care to acknowledge or do honour to the artist. My own experience has uniformly been exactly the reverse. I can say that of my countrymen, though I cannot say that of my country.
15 Romeo and Juliet, Act III. Sc. 1.
And now passing to the immediate occasion of your doing me this great honour, the story of my going again to America is very easily and briefly told. Since I was there before a vast and entirely new generation has arisen in the United States. Since I was there before most of the best known of my books have been written and published; the new generation and the books have come together and have kept together, until at length numbers of those who have so widely and constantly read me; naturally desiring a little variety in the relationship between us, have expressed a strong wish that I should read myself. This wish, at first conveyed to me through public channels and business channels, has gradually become enforced by an immense accumulation of letters from individuals and associations of individuals, all expressing in the same hearty, homely, cordial unaffected way, a kind of personal interest in me — I had almost said a kind of personal affection for me, which I am sure you would agree with me it would be dull insensibility on my part not to prize. Little by little this pressure has become so great that, although, as Charles Lamb says, my household gods strike a terribly deep root, I have torn them from their places, and this day week, at this hour, shall be upon the sea. You will readily conceive that I am inspired besides by a natural desire to see for myself the astonishing change and progress of a quarter of a century over there, to grasp the hands of many faithful friends whom I left there, to see the faces of the multitude of new friends upon whom I have never looked, and last, not least, to use my best endeavour to lay down a third cable of intercommunication and alliance between the old world and the new. Twelve years ago, when Heaven knows I little thought I should ever be bound upon the voyage which now lies before me, I wrote in that form of my writings which obtains by far the most extensive circulation, these words of the American nation:— “I know full well, whatever little motes my beamy eyes may have descried in theirs, that they are a kind, large-hearted, generous, and great people.” In that faith I am going to see them again; in that faith I shall, please God, return from them in the spring; in that same faith to live and to die. I told you in the beginning that I could not thank you enough, and Heaven knows I have most thoroughly kept my word. If I may quote one other short sentence from myself, let it imply all that I have left unsaid, and yet most deeply feel. Let it, putting a girdle round the earth, comprehend both sides of the Atlantic at once in this moment, and say, as Tiny Tim observes, “God bless us every one.”
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