France Through Canadian Eyes
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 4 Jan 1917, p. 351-359
Squair, Professor John, Speaker
Media Type
Item Type
Some personal reminiscences of Paris and the first time the speaker saw it. The Place de la Concorde then and now, and what it means to the French people and nation. Getting an impression of the artistic side of the French character. This beautiful space not an accident but the visual expression of that effort towards beauty which has uplifted the French people for two millennia. A review of French history and culture. A long list of England writers who are much indebted to France. The influence of France in Germany. The art and literature of France amongst the strongest elements of the "union sacree" prevailing since the war began. The politics of France. France for the Frenchman. Urging the people of Toronto and Ontario to pay much more attention to the language and literature of France. Becoming more serious about teaching the French language and literature in our schools.
Date of Original
4 Jan 1917
Language of Item
Copyright Statement
The speeches are free of charge but please note that the Empire Club of Canada retains copyright. Neither the speeches themselves nor any part of their content may be used for any purpose other than personal interest or research without the explicit permission of the Empire Club of Canada.
Empire Club of Canada
WWW address
Agency street/mail address

Fairmont Royal York Hotel

100 Front Street West, Floor H

Toronto, ON, M5J 1E3

Full Text
Before the Empire Club of Canada, Toronto
January 4, 1917

MR. PRESIDENT AND GENTLEMEN,--It was on a bright July morning of 1884 that I first saw that splendid square in Paris, called the Place de la Concorde. It was the finest urban view I had ever seen. The natural situation of Paris is grand. The interesting curve of the Seine, which makes Paris a city of curves, with the important elevations of Montmartre and Sainte-Genevieve to right and left-inside the city and the sweep of the more distant hills round about, must have given to Paris a unique distinction from time immemorial. And to this distinction have been added the works of man. Many other cities have attractions depending on river, hill, lake or sea, but in few do we see such a combination of nature and art as in Paris.

I entered the Place on that July morning from the south, and as we crossed the bridge (pout de la Concorde) over the Seine the brilliance of the scene was dazzling. To right and left were the fine bridges spanning the river, behind us the colonnaded facade of the Palais Bourbon where the Chamber of Deputiess its, in front of us the Place with its fountains, obelisk and statues and its background of public offices, broken in the centre so happily by the facade of the Madeleine which balances that of the Palais Bourbon across the river. To the right of the Place we saw the Gardens of the Tuileries, laid out in the 17th century by Le Notre, the great landscape gardener of Louis XIV., adorned with the sculpture of artists of three centuries, and a little farther on part of the Louvre, and still farther on the towers of NotreDame. To the left we had the Champs-Elysees with their noble elms whose terminus is marked, off yonder on an elevation, by the great triumphal arch of Napoleon in the Place de L'Etoile.

And from the midst of this brilliance of green shrubs and trees and the white marble of towers, columns and statuary we hear voices and see figures proclaiming the history of the past. Great Crusaders like Louis IX. call to us from the towers of Notre-Dame and the spire of the Sainte-Chapelle. We seem to see Louis XIV. and his stately courtiers moving about amongst the primly-kept beds and borders of Le Notre's classical creation. At another point the grim guillotine rises before us and we see the headsman's basket filled with the gory fruit of the noblest trees of France. Elsewhere we catch glimpses of the Little Corporal surrounded by his BodyGuard of generals laying foundations for temples and triumphal arches. The Citizen King, Louis Philippe, raising his Egyptian obelisk, and that dreamer-Emperor, Napoleon III., putting the finishing touches on the rue de Rivoli, and the Louvre, also appear. The roar of that multitude which crowded the Place on September q, 1870, fills our ears. "Down with the Empire, long live the Republic " is the cry, and under the impulse of such as Gambetta the crowd rushes to the Hotel de Ville and sets up a government of National Defence.

What is now that measured tread we hear coming down the Champs-Elysees? It is the march of the German Army which once more has come to pollute the soil of the city. It is received in silence by the Parisians. No one, prompted by curiosity, looks out to see the hated host. For forty-eight hours the detested incubus will lie on the heart of Paris. God grant that no anniversary of that First of March, 1871, will ever return, to fill France and the world with sorrow.

Such is the Place de la Concorde, such are the thoughts called up by its view. It is an epitome of certain aspects of French history, a panoramic illustration of certain important phases of French art. Since 1884 additions have been made to its decoration, such as the splendid bridge Alexander-Trois (1900) and the two buildings the Grand Palais and the Petit Palais in the Champs-Elysees, so that now the whole distance from the great colonnade at the east end of the Louvre to the triumphal arch of the Etoile, some two miles, is one glorious display of colonnades, pediments, arches, statues, gardens, fountains, bridges, of all periods from the Renaissance down to our own day. And what is inside the buildings is perhaps more precious that what is outside: paintings and sculpture of all times and countries from the days of Rameses II., of ancient Egypt, and of Sennacherib King of Assyria, down to the Third Republic.

Let no one say that we are dwelling too long on this comparatively small space of the soil of France. It is necessary to look at it carefully in order to get an impression of the artistic side of the French character. This beautiful space is not an accident, it is the visual expression of that effort towards beauty which has uplifted the French people for two millenniums. In no modern country has there been a stronger and more sustained artistic aspiration than in France. From the days of the Romans on, France has been a land of artists. Fine samples of architecture and sculpture still remain in the south of France to attest this. And all over the country, as for instance in Paris, or Lutetia as the Romans called it, ruins of baths and amphitheatres tell the story of the evolution of art in early France. And let it be said in passing that a great deal of the making of ruins has been due to Goths, Vandals and other breeds of Germans. The bombardment of Rheims is not an isolated example of German kultur.

Again, as soon as France recovered from the effect of the barbarian invasions which broke up the Roman power we find her continuing her artistic production. The splendour of the Gothic Church is one of her claims to glory. The north of France, and not Germany as Germans aver, is the peculiar home of this noble form of art, which all the surrounding nations learn. France establishes herself as the leader in art. And that hegemony is well maintained down till the present. Through the Renaissance and classical periods she has but one great rival-the other Latin nation to the south of her-Italy. In the nineteenth century all the great movements in art have originated in France. French painters, sculptors and architects have led the world.

And what is true in the plastic arts is true also in that noblest of all the arts-literature. Some important Latin poets of the Roman Empire were Frenchmen. Ausonius was a man of Bordeaux. And after the so-called Dark Ages the first samples of modern literature are found in France. Long before Dante composed his Divine Comedy great poems like the Chanson de Roland had been sung and written down in France and had given inspiration to poets in the surrounding nations. England naturally, being as it were a part of France, became a second home for these chansons de Geste. Germany imitated them. Netherlanders, Scandinavians, Spaniards and Italians were scholars at the same school. (It is interesting to recall that the earliest manuscript of the Chanson de Roland was written in England and is preserved in the Bodleian library at Oxford.) The leadership gained by France in this priod has been well maintained ever since. Great geniuses like Dante, Shakespeare, Cervantes, or Camoens adorn the history of other peoples, but nowhere has the river of literature been kept at a higher and more uniform level than in France, with a constant tendency to overflow its banks and submerge the neighbouring literature.

This pre-eminence is particularly noticeable at two points of time, in the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. Macaulay in the Third Chapter of his History of England does not exaggerate when, in speaking of France under Louis XIV., he says : "In literature she gave law to the world. The fame of her great writers filled Europe. No other country could produce a tragic poet equal to Racine, a comic poet equal to Moliere, a trifler so agreeable as La Fontaine, a rhetorician so skilful as Bossuet." This pre-eminence was so pronounced that a great part of the literature of Europe during nearly two centuries was a sort of echo of French literature.

In England, a long list of writers such as Addison, Dryden, Pope, Sterne, Thomson, and Cowper, to say nothing of Wycherley and other writers of comedy were much indebted to France. In Germany the influence of France was profoundly felt. Even that sturdy Prussian brigand, Frederick the Great, constantly spoke French and has left us a whole row of books written in that language (and few or none in German). He even essayed to write French verse and was anxious to found academies at Berlin which should rival those of Paris, and he invited Frenchmen like Voltaire and Maupertius to his Court to found and conduct them. In fact, in all matters having to do with the arts and literature Frederick appeared to try to be as much like what Louis XIV. had been as possible. Louis has chosen Versailles as his chief residence, had built a great castle there and laid out extensive gardens. Frederick felt that he must do the same for Potsdam and so he built Sanssouci and the New-Palace surrounding them with parks, fountains and sculpture by French artists of his own time (Pigalle) and decorating their interiors with paintings by such as Watteau, Pater and Lancret. And even today after a long period of German diligence in attempting to wipe out all traces of French influence in speech or handicraft, the visitor is struck with the strong resemblance between Versailles and Potsdam. Not only so, but in the eighteenth century all the kinglets, princelets and dukelets of Germany (and there were a host of them) were fashioning the life of their little courts on the pattern of the great court of Paris and Versailles. Paris was for them the great capital, the centre of the world. If they were too poor to travel thither themselves, they clubbed together to pay a man like Grimm to write them circular letters regarding the news, important and otherwise, of the big city at the heart of things. And now today one can see at, say Weimar or Hanover, palaces and parks which recall Versailles in a very vivid fashion. Of course they all attempted to speak French and French became, or rather continued to be, the language of diplomacy and polite society throughout Europe, as it has remained indeed till the present moment.

Again, in the nineteenth century French literature and art attained a great height. They did not have such a lofty relative position compared with England and Germany, as in the seventeenth century, but the absolute eminence is unquestioned. The brilliant productions of Hugo, Dumas, de Musset, George Sand, Michelet, Taine, Delacroix, Delaroche, Rude, Gounod and a host of others in all realms of art take their place alongside the noblest things done by the men of any other nation.

I have dwelt thus long upon the art and literature of France because they seem to be amongst the strongest elements of the union sacree prevailing since the war began. You could hardly evoke as full a measure of enthusiasm in France as in England by referring to political institutions. The revolutions of France have not been as fully accepted as the revolutions of England. They have been too profound and are not yet remote enough in time. English-speaking men have been inclined to shrug their shoulders and speak pityingly of poor France as being fickle and unstable in politics. But we must not forget that Frenchmen of the seventeenth century spoke of England in a very similar strain. (As, for example, Bossuet in 1669 in his oraison funebre over Henriette Marie, wife of Charles I). To men like Bossuet, France was the firmly established nation, whilst poor England was like the "troubled sea" which cannot rest. We must not forget what took place in England between 1649 and 1746.During that century. it was somewhat uncertain what dynasty would reign over England. Nor should we forget that even now there are men who lay Jacobite garlands at the foot of statues, and on commemorative cairns in battlefields, and who drink to "Charlie over the water." Political upheavals are apt to die down very slowly indeed, particularly in countries like France or England which have a long history, and in which old and honourable institutions have become interwoven with human interests, passions and glories. In one English-speaking country, the United States, a great revolution was effected with comparative ease, but there the existing institutions were easily fitted to new conditions. There was no throne to overturn, no aristocracy to dispossess. Still, even in the United States there were many loyalists (one million out of three) who protested against revolution, and laid down their lives and forfeited their worldly estates out of attachment to England and her King. And that is not surprising, for the thirteen Colonies had no substantial material grievances. It is hardly likely that a revolution would have occurred at all if it had not been for the doctrinaire atmosphere prevailing in the world due to the political theorizing of the philosophers of France.

Naturally the doctrinaire atmosphere was still more penetrating in France, and when the moment for political changes came men were urged forward at a more rapid rate, towards more daring attempts than the bulk of the nation would justify. The great schism in the body of France occurred which has not yet been healed, although the solemn pact of the union sacs 6e of August, 1914, accomplishes the feat more nearly than any other event since 1789.

No, Frenchmen are not less stable than other men, not less able to give and take and to form compacts for the defence of what is sacred and precious. They are not fighting now for a mere political formula, they are fighting for France, for sweet France, their mother, for France the light bearer, the home of noble inspirations and generous deeds, and they have made and will make all kinds of sacrifices to this end. Frenchmen may not be quite so convinced as Englishmen -regarding the value of parliamentary government, but they are defending France,-the France which they and many generations of ancestors have defended and worked for. For her they have reclaimed marsh and sand dune, have planted orchard and vineyard and drunk her generous wine. For her they have made highways, dug canals and pierced tunnels. For her they have built palace and church, sung songs and painted pictures. Their France is the land of green meadows and fruitful fields where the good things of life are evenly distributed, a land of brave men and fair women where politeness is easily practised. She is a land where science and learning flourish, where the hard, dry fact is illuminated by its setting of brilliant, limpid speech,-the speech of France so long practised by cultured men that it has become supple and clear for all uses, for eloquence, wit, poetry and scientific exposition.

And now let me say in closing that I can make no more important recommendation to this city of Toronto and province of Ontario than to pay much more attention to this language and the literature contained in it than ever before. I cannot now, in saying this, be charged with trying to magnify my office.--I have retired. I am only giving you good, plain, uninterested advice. Teach the language of your noble ally in your schools. Let your children learn the speech of the men who won the Marne and kept Verdun, and so saved civilization. No richer legacy can you leave them. Let us remember, too, that the same language is the natural speech of two millions of our fellow Canadians at whom we have sometimes looked askance. Let us remember that the nearest way to their hearts is to speak their tongue. To encourage the study of that tongue amongst our English-speaking Canadians is a highly patriotic act. No one thing would conduce more to Canadian unity than the sympathetic cultivation of the French language by us English-speaking Canadians. It is true that for many years it has been on our official programme for secondary schools and universities, but we have not been too serious about it. We have been satisfied with too low a standard of knowledge n both teachers and pupils. We have been prone to look upon it as a subject for girls only. We have thought boys needed something more robust. Surely the language of the defenders of Verdun will be considered robust enough for our boys and men in the future.

Let us not turn all our attention towards scientific and technical education. Some of the things called "imponderables" have their importance also. The people of Ontario must not forget that for the most part we have been merely playing with linguistic study. Great changes must be effected in standards for teachers and pupils, in time-tables, programmes, methods and aims. And the non-pedagogical public can do much to aid in a new movement. A rich man or two properly guided could found prizes and libraries in schools and colleges which would do a world of good. There are High Schools and Collegiate Institutes all over this Province which are in need of these things, and even the University of Toronto could profitably absorb large sums of money in establishing a proper equipment for the study of such things as French language and literature.

If I may be permitted, I would say that I have made a little start in this matter and hope to do more. But I cannot do much. There is room for some of you. Will you step into the breach?

A vote of thanks was proposed by Count Rochereau de la Sabliere and seconded by Rev. A Logan Geggie.

Powered by / Alimenté par VITA Toolkit

My favourites lets you save items you like, tag them and group them into collections for your own personal use. Viewing "My favourites" will open in a new tab. Login here or start a My favourites account.


France Through Canadian Eyes

Some personal reminiscences of Paris and the first time the speaker saw it. The Place de la Concorde then and now, and what it means to the French people and nation. Getting an impression of the artistic side of the French character. This beautiful space not an accident but the visual expression of that effort towards beauty which has uplifted the French people for two millennia. A review of French history and culture. A long list of England writers who are much indebted to France. The influence of France in Germany. The art and literature of France amongst the strongest elements of the "union sacree" prevailing since the war began. The politics of France. France for the Frenchman. Urging the people of Toronto and Ontario to pay much more attention to the language and literature of France. Becoming more serious about teaching the French language and literature in our schools.