I’m going back to the UK for a week from Hungary to touch base with family, friends and some things literary as well. Besides literary London and Gothic London, and Jane Austen’s Hampshire, I’ll also be trying to see some significant British writers and editors, and communing with something less tangible: The spirit of English English.
In an international career that took me so far from my linguistic roots that people started to mistake me for an Australian, I’ve gone a long way round through Simpsonesque to pay homage to my native tongue, but with good reason. Because it retains an individual character that no amount of trans-Atlantic saturation love-bombing can entirely eradicate.
Robert Louis Stevenson, in his classic 1885 essay “On some technical elements of style in literature,” picked up one important factor: “in our canorous language rhythm is always at the door. But it must not be forgotten that in some languages this element is almost, if not quite, extinct, and that in our own it is probably decaying. The even speech of many educated Americans sounds the note of danger.” As he noted it, for a typical a writer in English English of his time, “a good quarter of his toil … is to avoid writing verse.”
That might partway explain why free verse has so much greater currency and stature in U.S. poetry than in English verse. Not that that’s any loss to verse itself. As Stevenson remarked of English rhythm, “I should see it go with something as bitter as despair, but I should not be desperate. As in verse no element, not even rhythm, is necessary, so, in prose also, other sorts of beauty will arise and take the place and play the part of those that we outlive.” Probably in America that’s exactly what happened. But in England, I’ll be keeping my ear to the ground.