What a royal can teach you about rhetoric

This is an excerpt from the speech delivered by Queen Elizabeth II welcoming Pope Benedict XVI to Scotland during his recent visit to the United Kingdom:

“Religion has always been a crucial element in national identity and historical self-consciousness. This has made the relationship between the different faiths a fundamental factor in the necessary cooperation within and between nation states. It is, therefore, vital to encourage greater mutual and respectful understanding. We know from experience that through committed dialogue, old suspicions can be transcended and a great mutual trust established.”

I heard these words during a news announcement while driving to work the other day. I have no recollection of what the pope said. What struck me was this excerpt from the queen. I was mesmerized by her words: the plummy accent, the stately syntax, the careful but resonant content. Listening, I suddenly understood the idea of monarchy.

What I understood was that Queen Elizabeth is not just a dressed-up figurehead. She is also the keeper of the English language — a linguistic legacy that extends from Chaucer to Shakespeare to Milton, and through to Austen, Dickens, Mill, and Ruskin. The language, enshrined in its highest form in the English literary tradition, is, I realized, kept under guard by the dowdy lady in the oversize hat. Keeping that language is not only about linguistic correctness; it is also about using words in the service of civilization.

To demonstrate what I mean, let me parse the lines above.

“Religion has always been a crucial element in national identity and historical self-consciousness.”

Note how carefully this generalization is worded. Religion is not the crucial element; it is rather a crucial element. There is no talk of elevated virtue or spiritual illumination; the focus is on identity and history. The queen articulates a sweeping generality but the implication is specific: Religion is a crucial element in what makes Britain Britain. For that reason alone, it must be given its due.

“This has made the relationship between the different faiths a fundamental factor in the necessary cooperation within and between nation states.”

Once again, the wording seems careful, deliberate, even down to the mistake in preposition. The queen does not say among the different faiths, which would refer to many entities, but between the different faiths, which refers to only two. The use of between seems intended to emphasize that two faiths are fundamentally at issue for her: Catholicism and Anglicanism. Britain’s rupture from the Roman Church during the reign of Henry VIII was, indeed, a crucial event in the national identity and historical self-consciousness of the British nation.

The sentence continues with a reference to “cooperation within and between nation states.” The dual preposition may seem fussy, but it is, in fact, replete with meaning. It summons up both the recent turmoil in Northern Ireland and the religious wars reaching back into British history. Note also the archaism of nation states. Many of those states were nurtured, for good or ill, under British colonial rule. This implicit relationship — of Britain to its former colonies — may also account for the second misuse of between. The sentence invokes the past glory of empire.

“It is, therefore, vital to encourage a greater mutual and respectful understanding.”

The use of therefore ties up the syllogism, but its placement between the verb and the predicate adjective adds a stately emphasis. The point being made is not particularly dramatic but it is reassuring and rational. “Mutual and respectful understanding” forms the bulwark of Western civilization at its best.

Queen Elizabeth is not effusive about the pope’s visit, but, then, she is not given to effusion, especially on the subject of faith. She acknowledges the place of religion in her country’s history, but what matters is not prayer but proper English (with an occasional mistaken preposition); not the language of spiritual uplift but of judicious restraint.

How refreshing this seems in the face of the religious zealotry erupting everywhere on the globe, including our own country. The Western tradition has been blamed for many things, but now seems the time to praise it for articulating, if not always practicing, the fundamental values of our civilization. At this present turbulent moment in world history we need to listen to the bland but useful gospel of mutual and respectful understanding.

Hail to the queen!

Paula Marantz Cohen is a distinguished professor of English at Drexel University and author of the novel What Alice Knew: A Most Curious Tale of Henry James and Jack the Ripper. E-mail her at cohenpm@drexel.edu.