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This item is taken from PN Review 181, Volume 34 Number 5, May - June 2008.

In an interview John Barrell conducted with Donald Davie over half a century ago, Davie conceded that his love for the eighteenth century entailed a kind of longing. He felt for an age in which language was held to account, was regarded as, if not stable, stabilisable; an age when lexicography prescribed rather than described meaning, and poetic genre were understood and practised. Such a longing was ahistorical: it was not the age that was secure in self-possession but its metropolitan writers, their class and readership, a growing minority but an exclusive one. Davie knew his was a nostalgia for what had never been and what, given the nature of language could never be.

Such nostalgia, without Davie's rueful realism, survives. In April a journalist rang to tell us that the Queen's English Society had formally complained to the Observer. They had written to the Poetry Society asking them to define 'poem'. The Society, they said, replied that whatever a writer wished to style a poem was a poem. This vexed the QES, who wanted them to affirm that a poem is a form of words that uses metre, rhyme, and alliteration. I asked the journalist to repeat the desiderata: metre, rhyme, alliteration. No mention of assonance, or of measure rather than metre? No latitude whatever? None.

The Queen's English Society ( outlines its 'objects' in these terms: 'to promote the maintenance, knowledge, understanding, development and appreciation of the English language as used both colloquially and in literature; to educate the public in its correct and elegant usage; and to discourage the intrusion of anything detrimental to clarity or euphony'. They gloss: 'In short, we aim to defend unashamedly the precision, subtlety and marvellous richness of our language against debasement, ambiguity and other forms of misuse.'

There is much that is unexceptionable in the stated objectives. But there are terms here that catch in the throat. 'Queen's' for one thing. Is there but the one English? Must the benighted American, the Jamaican and the Australian, the Irishman and the Zimbabwean, conform to Her Majesty's usage? And what about 'intrusion': are we to have no hurricanes or pyjamas or hoosegows or ketchup? Then there's the word 'elegant': Edwardian, arch. And the word 'correct', suggesting objective standards, a language made not so much stable as static by an imposed propriety. 'Children must be brought up to recognise that there is a formal structure to the language, and that the literature of the past is a worthy and useful source of writing style. We also lobby government and the BBC about the standards of English broadcast via the written and spoken media.'

The complaint to the Observer and the BBC had less to do with standards than prescription. The QES demands a 'definition', standing in its reginal dignity. Yet as far as we can tell, the Queen is not herself a patron, and the use of her title may manifest a hubris attendant upon an unreflective sense of cultural possession. The QES has 1000 members, it says, and seeks to recruit more, 'to help us in the tasks we have set ourselves: writing articles; promoting Quest [the quarterly journal] and the website; commenting to editors in an attempt to improve standards; organising conferences; supplying responses to requests for views or information; fund raising; and even getting themselves featured on radio and television to expound the Society's views!' (The exclamation mark is theirs.) Bernard C. Lamb, an officer of the Society, had such an opportunity on the Today programme (14 April), when he read a limerick and insisted on metre and rhyme.

The Society says that RP is not de rigueur among members. Nor, it says, does its 'commitment to standards'... 'preclude the acceptance of change'. 'Change should be the outcome of a rational debate about how best to use English.' And it adds, 'The English language enables a sizeable portion of the world to consider and communicate the most sophisticated of abstract ideas, as well as the most complicated of concrete realities. We misuse it at our peril.'

If the QES demands definitions from the Poetry Society, we can ask them a few questions too. What are these standards they uphold? If they are based in the 'common law' of great literature, what literature is, from their point of view, great and correct at the same time, and sufficiently past to have authority? From their asphyxiating definition of poetry, one might ask whether Langland, the Authorised Version, Milton, Burns, Blake, Smart, Barnes, Wordsworth, Whitman, Dickinson, Joyce and Pound and Eliot, Murray and Walcott figure among approved antecedents? How were the innovations of the great writers validated? Chaucer and Shakespeare invented hundreds of words: did a Synod meet and approve each usage? Does Milton get points on his poetic license for abandoning rhyme?

The QES purports to protect English not just for England but for the world-wide constituency. Its undeclared and perhaps unexamined objectives are to uphold a use of English peculiar to a specifically Englandish class and tradition, a use that much of the greatest literature of the English-language tradition has rendered effete and obsolete. Language is seldom changed by 'rational debate'. If it were, we would all be members of the Queen's Esperanto Society.

This item is taken from PN Review 181, Volume 34 Number 5, May - June 2008.

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