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chapter 17 a: Of Some Sources of Poetry among Democratic Nations b - Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America: Historical-Critical Edition, vol. 3 
Democracy in America: Historical-Critical Edition of De la démocratie en Amérique, ed. Eduardo Nolla, translated from the French by James T. Schleifer. A Bilingual French-English editions, (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2010). Vol. 3.
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This bilingual edition of Tocqueville’s work contains a new English translation of the French critical edition published in 1990. The copyright to the French version is held by J. Vrin and it is not available online. The copyright to the English translation, the translator’s note, and index is held by Liberty Fund.
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Of Some Sources of Poetry among Democratic Nationsb
Several very different meanings have been given to the word poetry. It would tire readers to try to find out which one of these different meanings is most suitable to choose; I prefer to tell them immediately which one I have chosen.
Poetry, in my view, is the search for and the portrayal of the ideal.c
The poet is the one who, by taking away a part of what exists, adding some imaginary features to the picture, and combining certain real circumstances that are not found together, completes, enlarges nature. Thus, the aim of poetry will not be to represent truth, but to embellish it and to offer a higher image to the mind.d
Verse will seem to me like the ideal of beauty for language, and in this sense it will be eminently poetic; but in itself alone, it will not constitute poetry.
[<Poetry always takes as the subject of its portraits beings who are really found in nature or who at least live in the imagination of the men to whom it is addressed. It changes, enlarges, embellishes what exists; it does not create what does not exist, and if it attempts to do so, it can still amuse or surprise, but it no longer rouses and becomes the puerile game of an idle imagination.>]e
I want to find out if, among the actions, sentiments and ideas of democratic peoples, some are found that lend themselves to the imagination of the ideal and that must, for this reason, be considered as natural sources of poetry.
It must first be recognized that the taste for the ideal and the pleasure that is taken in seeing its portrayal are never as intense and as widespread among a democratic people as within an aristocracy.
[In democratic societies the human mind finds itself constantly bound by the small details of real [v: present] life. That results not only from the fact that all men work, but above all from the fact that they carry out all their works with fervor and I could almost say with love.]f
Among aristocratic nations, it sometimes happens that the body acts as if by itself, while the soul is plunged into a repose that weighs it down. Among these nations, the people themselves often show poetic tastes, and their spirit sometimes soars above and beyond what surrounds them.g
But, in democracies, the love of natural enjoyments, the idea of something better, competition, the charm of impending success, are like so many spurs that quicken the steps of each man in the career that he has embraced and forbid him from standing aside from it for a single moment. The principal effort of the soul goes in this direction. Imagination is not extinguished, but it devotes itself almost exclusively to imagining the useful and to representing the real.
Equality not only diverts men from portraying the ideal; it decreases the number of subjects to portray.
[You cannot deny that equality [v: democracy], while becoming established among men, does not make a great number of these subjects that lent themselves to the portrayal of the ideal disappear from their view, and does not in this way dry up several of the most abundant sources of poetry.]
Aristocracy, by holding society immobile, favors the steadiness and duration of positive religions, as well as the stability of political institutions.
Not only does it maintain the human spirit in faith, but it disposes it to adopt one faith rather than another. An aristocratic people will always be inclined to place intermediary powers between God and man.
You can say that in this aristocracy shows itself very favorable to poetry. When the universe is populated with supernatural powers that do not fall within the senses, but are discovered by the mind, imagination feels at ease, and poets, finding a thousand diverse subjects to portray, find innumerable spectators ready to be interested in their portraits.
In democratic centuries, on the contrary, it sometimes happens that beliefs go drifting away like the laws. Doubt then brings the imagination of poets back to earth and encloses them within the visible and real world.h
Even when equality does not shake religions, it simplifies them; it diverts attention from secondary agents in order to bring it principally to the sovereign master.
Aristocracy naturally leads the human mind to the contemplation of the past, and fixes it there. Democracy, on the contrary, gives men a sort of instinctive distaste for what is ancient. In that, aristocracy is very much more favorable to poetry, for things ordinarily enlarge and become obscure as they become more distant; and from this double perspective they lend themselves more to the portrayal of the ideal.
After removing the past from poetry, equality partially removes the present.
Among aristocratic peoples, a certain number of privileged individuals exist, whose existence is so to speak above and beyond the human condition; power, wealth, glory, spirit, delicacy and distinction in all things seem to belong by right to the latter. The crowd never sees them very closely, or does not follow them in detail; there is little that you have to do to make the portrayal of these men poetic.
On the other hand, there exists among these same peoples ignorant, humble and subservient classes; and the latter lend themselves to poetry by the very excess of their coarseness and misery, as the others do by their refinement and their grandeur. Moreover, since the different classes that make up an aristocratic people are very separated from each other and know each other badly, imagination can always, while representing them, add something to or subtract something from the real.
In democratic societies, where men are all very small and very similar, each one, while viewing himself, sees all the others at the same instant. So poets who live in democratic centuries cannot ever take one man in particular as the subject of their portrait; for a subject with mediocre greatness, which you also see clearly on all sides, will never lend itself to the ideal.
Therefore equality, while becoming established on the earth, dries up most of the ancient sources of poetry.
Let us try to show how it finds new ones.
When doubt depopulated heaven and when the progress of equality reduced each man to better known and smaller proportions, poets, not yet imagining what they could put in place of these great subjects that withdrew with aristocracy, turned their eyes toward inanimate nature. Losing heroes and gods from view, they undertook at first to portray rivers and mountains.
That gave birth in the last century to the poetry that was called, par excellence, descriptive.
Some have thought that this embellished portrayal of the material and inanimate things which cover the earth was poetry appropriate to democratic centuries; but I think that is a mistake. I believe that it only represents a period of transition.
I am persuaded that in the long run democracy diverts the imagination from everything that is external to man, in order to fix it only on man.j
Democratic peoples can be very amused for a moment by considering nature; but they get really excited only by the sight of themselves. Here alone are the natural sources of poetry to be found among these peoples, and it may be believed that all poets who do not want to draw upon these sources will lose all sway over the souls of those whom they claim to charm, and will end by no longer having anything except cold witnesses to their transports.
I have demonstrated how the idea of the progress and of the indefinite perfectibility of the human species was appropriate to democratic ages.
Democratic peoples hardly worry about what has been, but they readily dream about what will be, and their imagination has no limits in this direction; it expands and grows without measure.
This offers a vast opening to poets and allows them to move their portrayal far away from what is seen. Democracy, which closes the past to poetry, opens the future.
[≠In democratic centuries poets cannot take as the subject of their portrait a hero or a prince. ≠]
Since all the citizens who make up a democratic society are nearly equal and similar, poetry cannot attach itself to any one of them; but the nation offers itself to its brush. The similarity of all individuals, which makes each one of them separately inappropriate for becoming the subject of poetry, allows poets to include them all in the same image and to consider finally the people itself. Democratic nations see their own figure more clearly than all others and this great figure lends itself marvelously to the portrayal of the ideal.
Some in Europe are very much interested in the American wilderness, but the Americans themselves hardly think about it. The wonders of inanimate nature leave them indifferent, and so to speak they see the admirable forests that surround them only at the moment when they fall under their blows.n Their sight is filled with another spectacle. The American people see themselves marching across this wilderness, draining swamps, straightening rivers, populating empty areas, and subduing nature. [Every day they notice their size growing and their strength increasing, and they already perceive themselves in the future leading as absolute masters the vast continent that they have made fruitful and cleared.] This magnificent image of themselves does not only present itself now and then to the imagination of the Americans; you can say that it follows each one of them in the least as well as in the principal of his actions, and that it remains always hovering in his mind.
You cannot imagine anything so small, so colorless, so full of miserable interests, so anti-poetical, in a word, than the life of a man in the United States; but among the thoughts that direct him one is always found that is full of poetry, and that one is like a hidden nerve which gives vigor to all the rest.o [You must not be astonished by this for how could you think that men who do such great things would be entirely devoid of great ideas?]p
In aristocratic centuries, each people, like each individual, is inclined to hold itself immobile and separate from all the others.
In democratic centuries the extreme mobility of men and their impatient desires make them constantly change place, and make the inhabitants of different countries mingle together, see and hear each other, and borrow from each other. So it is not only the members of the same nation who become similar; nations themselves assimilate, and all together form in the eye of the beholder nothing more than a vast democracy in which each citizen is a people. That brings to light for the first time the figure of the human species.
All that relates to the existence of the human species taken as a whole, its vicissitudes, its future becomes a very fertile mine for poetry.q
Poets who lived in aristocratic ages made admirable portraits by taking as subjects certain incidents in the life of a people or of a man; but not one of them ever dared to include in his tableau the destinies of the human species, while poets who write in democratic ages can undertake to do so.
At the same time that each person, raising his eyes above his country, finally begins to notice humanity itself, God reveals himself more and more to the human mind in his full and entire majesty.
If in democratic centuries faith in positive religions is often shaky and beliefs in intermediary powers, whatever name you give them, grow dim, men on the other hand are disposed to conceive a much more vast idea of Divinity itself, and the intervention of the divine in human affairs appears to them in a new and greater light.
Seeing the human species as a single whole, they easily imagine that the same design rules over its destinies, and in the actions of each individual, they are led to recognize the mark of this general and constant plan by which God leads the species.r
This can also be considered as a very abundant source of poetry that opens in these centuries.
Democratic poets will always seem small and cold if they try to give bodily forms to gods, demons or angels, and try to make them descend from heaven to quarrel over the earth.
But, if democratic poets want to connect the great events that they are relating to the general designs of God for the universe, and, without showing the hand of the sovereign master, cause his thought to be entered into, they will be admired and understood, for the imagination of their com-patriots itself follows this road.s
You can equally foresee that poets who live in democratic ages will portray passions and ideas rather than persons and actions. [and that they will apply themselves to relating the general features of human passions and ideas rather than those that depend on a time and on a country.t
This is easy to understand.]
Language, dress and the daily actions of men in democracies are resistant to the imagination of the ideal. These things are not poetic in themselves, and they would moreover cease to be so, because they are too well known by all those to whom you undertook to speak about them. That forces poets constantly to penetrate below the external surface that the senses reveal to them, in order to glimpse the soul itself. Now there is nothing that lends itself more to portraying the ideal than man envisaged in this way in the depths of his non-material nature.u
I do not need to travel across heaven and earth to find a marvelous subject full of contrast, of grandeur and infinite pettiness, of profound obscurities and singular clarity, capable at the same time of giving birth to pity, admiration, contempt, terror. I have only to consider myself. Man comes out of nothing, passes through time, and goes to disappear forever into the bosom of God. You see him only for a moment wandering at the edge of the two abysses where he gets lost.
If man were completely unaware of himself, he would not be poetic; for what you have no idea about you cannot portray. If he saw himself clearly, his imagination would remain dormant and would have nothing to add to the picture. But man is revealed enough for him to see something of himself, and hidden enough for the rest to disappear into impenetrable shadows, into which he plunges constantly and always in vain, in order finally to understand himself.v
So among democratic peoples, you must not wait for poetry to live by legends, for it to be nourished by traditions and ancient memories, for it to try to repopulate the universe with supernatural beings in whom readers and poets themselves no longer believe, or for it coldly to personify virtues and vices that you can see in their own form. It lacks all these resources; but man remains for it, and that is enough. Human destinies, man, taken apart from his time and country and placed in front of nature and God, with his passions, his doubts, his unprecedented prosperity and incomprehensible miseries, will become for these peoples the principal and almost unique subject of poetry; and this is what you can already ascertain if you consider what has been written by the great writers who have appeared since the world began to turn toward democracy.
Writers who, today, have so admirably reproduced the features of Childe Harold, of René and of Jocelynw did not claim to recount the actions of one man; they wanted to illuminate and enlarge certain still obscure aspects of the human heart.
Those are the poems of democracy.
So equality does not destroy all the subjects of poetry; it makes them less numerous and more vast.x
[a. ] Thus democracy does not make all the subjects that lend themselves to the ideal disappear. It makes them less numerous and greater (YTC, CVf, pp. 18–19).
In the rubish of these chapters you find this as well:
Poetry of democracy./
Future of democracy, sole poetic idea of our time. Immense, indefinite idea. Period of renewal, of total change in the social system of humanity. This idea alone throws more poetry into souls than there was in the century of Louis XV and in that of Louis XIV.
It is only the past or the future that is poetic. The present very rarely is. There was nevertheless a great deal of poetry in the present in the Middle Ages. Facts to explain (Rubish, 1).
[b. ] On a jacket that accompanies that of the chapter:
Piece that began the chapter and that must be deleted, I believe, as written in an affected style and above all verbiage./
I would like to portray the influence that democratic institutions exercise in the United States on the poetic genius of man, but beyond the fact that the subject is placed outside of the ordinary circle of my thoughts, a first difficulty stops me.
I do not know if anyone up to now has taken care to provide an uncontested definition of the thing I am attempting to speak about. No one can deny that poetry ≠has not ≠obtained great power over the imagination of men; but who has ever said clearly what poetry was; how many different and often dissimilar things we have gathered under this very name!
[In the margin: Show in a more striking way what is useful in poetry. The Romans./
It is not sufficiently understood that men cannot do without poetry./
Poetry and poetic faculty to distinguish. Taste for the ideal./
I want to examine not only if democracy leads men to do works of poetry but also if it suggests poetic ideas to them./
The one is not the necessary consequence of the other, for a people can have a great number of poetic ideas and not have the time or the art of writing or the taste for reading. But in general you can say that these two things go together.]
A small rhymed epigram is a work of poetry; a long epic in verse is as well. I see enormous differences between these two productions of the human mind, but they have something similar in the form. I understand that it is to form that the word begins to be attached, and I conclude from it that poetry consists of carefully enclosing the idea in a certain number of syllables symmetrically arranged. But no. I hear that these verses are poetic and that those are not. Some grant that there is poetry in a prose work and others contend that they find no trace of it in a long poem. So poetry rests not only in the form of the thought, but also in the thought itself. It can reside in the two things united or inhabit each one of them separately. So what definitively is poetry? This could become the topic for a dissertation, with which I do not intend to fatigue the reader. So instead of trying to find out what language has wanted to include in the word poetry, I will say what I include in it myself and I will fix the meaning that I give to it in the present chapter.
On a page bearing the title of poetry in america, you read this first beginning of the chapter: “I often wondered while traveling across the United States if, amid this people exclusively preoccupied by the material cares of life [v: commercial enterprises], among so many mercantile speculations, a single poetic idea would be found, and I believed I recognized several of them that appeared to me eminently to have this character.”
[c. ] “The greatest proof of the misery of man is poetry. God cannot make poetry; he sees everything clearly” (rubish of these chapters,Rubish, 1).
[d. ] “You idealize a small object, you are poetic without being great.
“You represent a great thing in its natural state, you are great or sublime, but not poetic” (Rubish, 1).
[e. ] “I will go still further and without limiting the name of poet to writers I will readily agree to extend it to all those who undertake to offer images to men, provided that they represent by them something superior to what is. Raphael will seem to me to merit this title as well as Homer” (rubish of these chapters,Rubish, 1).
[f. ] In the margin: “<This sentence is found word for word, I believe, in revolutions. Vary it in one place or the other. The idea is necessary to both.>”
[g. ] In the margin: “<While the middle classes, although they have more leisure, show it almost not at all. From that you can see clearly that it is less the constraint of work that stops the poetic impulse than the spirit that is brought to work.>”
[h. ] “Doubt itself prosaic in detail is immensely poetic over all. Byron proved it very well. What poetry in the why and the how of man in face of God and of nature.
“Audacious doubt is eminently democratic” (rubish of these chapters,Rubish, 1).
[j. ] “Democracy diverts the human mind from the contemplation of external objects in order to concentrate it on itself. ‘Man is the most beautiful study of man’, Pope said. That is true for all peoples, but there is no more evident truth for a democratic people. Almost the whole of its literature is contained in this single expression” (Rubish, 1).
[k. ] “I cited this example of America not only because America is the particular object of my discourse, but also because I believe that in this it provides me with insights about what must happen among democratic peoples in general” (Rubish, 1).
[m. ] Milton, democratic poet./
“Byron idem. /
“The one is democratic because he drew his generative idea from Christianity.
“The other by the natural impulse of his time” (rubish of these chapters,Rubish, 1).
[n. ] “There is until now only a single writer who has felt and could produce this admirable poetry of wild nature such as the wilderness of America reveals to us, and this great poet is not American” (Rubish, 1).
[o. ] “So I do not fear that democratic peoples lack poetry, but I am afraid that this poetry aims for the gigantesque rather than for grandeur. For it, I fear the influence of their poets more than their timidity, and I am afraid that the sublime there may be several times closer still to the ridiculous than anywhere else” (rubish of these chapters,Rubish, 1).
[p. ] In a first draft, this paragraph followed: “ ≠The sight of what is happening in the United States makes me reflect on democratic peoples in general, and these new reflections modify the opinion that I had had formerly that democracies could not fail to extinguish the poetic genius of man and to substitute for the empire of the imagination that of good sense. That is true, but to a lesser degree than I had believed at first. So I think that there is a kind of poetry within reach of democratic peoples, and I am persuaded that great writers who will be born among them will not fail to see it and to take hold of it ≠”(Rubish, 1).
[q. ] Note on the other side of the jacket that contains the rubish of the chapter: “In aristocracy, the detail of man poetic. Homer portrays Achilles. In democracy, humanity independently of the particular forms that it can take in certain places and in certain times. Byron, Childe Harold, Chateaubriand, René” (Rubish, 1).
[r. ] “What is more poetic than the Discours sur l’histoire universelle of Bossuet? Only God and the human species are present there, however” (Rubish, 1).
[s. ] We have had today (22 April 1837) an interesting conversation on poetry.
We all fell into agreement that the intervention of the divinity in human affairs was essentially poetic by nature and particularly necessary to epic poetry.
The discussion turned on the means of making the intervention of the divinity felt today, of making it perceptible.
By common agreement we abandoned mythological divinities, personified passions ...,as operatic machines that chilled the spectator.
I maintained that today you had equally to avoid using saints, demons and angels, since the spirit of the century was drawn more and more to grasp the idea of the entirely intellectual and non-material action of the divinity on souls, without intermediaries in whom you scarcely believe. But the difficulty arose of making this action, conceived by the mind alone, felt and making this invisible agent seen in the very play of human passions.
Charles [Stoffels? (ed.)] maintained that man was so made that you could never make him conceive of the intervention of the divinity without visible agents. I maintained the opposite, but without being able to develop my thought practically.
[In the margin: Humanitarian poetry.
Poem of man. Human destiny.
Jocelyn. Human condition.
This merits being carefully examined (rubish of these chapters,Rubish, 1).
[t. ] “Sensual poetry.
Arabs. Appropriate to democratic peoples” (rubish of these chapters,Rubish, 1).
[u. ] In the manuscript, you find in place of this sentence two paragraphs that repeat ideas present in other places of the chapter.
[v. ] Miseries of man./
[In the margin: To put perhaps with sentiments. Transition.
Put somewhere because good.
In preface probably when I say that I am speaking about the difficulty of the subject.]
If you examine the conduct of men, you easily discover that tastes direct them much more than opinions or ideas.
Where does the instinctive, almost physical sensation that we call taste come from? How is it born, is it supported? Where does it take us and push us? Who knows?
Thus man does not know even the principal motive of his own actions and when, tired of looking for truth in the entire universe, he comes back toward himself, obscurity seems to redouble as he approaches and wants to understand himself.
[In the margin: This text is better.
And when, tired of looking for what makes his fellows act, he tries hard at least to untangle what pushes himself, he still does not know what to believe. He travels across the entire universe and he doubts. He finally comes back toward himself and obscurity seems to redouble as he approaches himself more and wants to understand himself.]
9 March 1836 (YTC, CVk, 1, pp. 12–13).
Tocqueville here is referring to Pascal, very specifically to the fragment on the disproportion of man (pensée 390 of the Lafuma edition).
In 1831, he had already written to Ernest de Chabrol a letter with accents of Pascal:
The more I examine this country and everything, the more I see and the more I am frightened by seeing the few certainties that man is able to acquire in this world. There is no subject that does not grow larger as you pursue it, no fact or observation at the bottom of which you do not find a doubt. All the objects of this life appear to us only like certain decorations of the opera that you see only through a curtain that prevents you from discerning the contours with precision.
There are men who enjoy living in this perpetual half-light; as for me, it tires me out and drives me to despair. I would like to hold political and moral truths as I hold my pen, and doubt besieges me.
Yesterday there was an American who asked me how I classified human miseries; I answered without hesitating that I put them in this order: chronic illnesses, death, doubt. . . . He stopped me and protested; I have reflected about it since and I persist in my classification, but this is enough philosophy (letter of 19 November 1832, YTC, BIa2).
[w. ] Henry Reeve added Faust to these examples.
[x. ] I do not know if poetry such as I have taken care to define it, poetry that does not consist of a particular form but [of (ed.)] a certain kind of ideas, is not among the literary tastes most natural to democracy <because it is enjoyed without preparation and in a moment and it rapidly removes the soul from the middle of the pettiness and monotony of democratic life.
The great images of poetry seize so to [speak (ed.)] the soul without warning; they draw it as if by force far away from its everyday habits.> The enjoyments that poetry provides are more instinctive than reasoned; you enjoy them without preparation, you obtain them for yourself instantaneously. They seize so to speak the soul without warning and draw it as if by force far away from its everyday routine.
What fits democracy better than all that? (rubish of these chapters,Rubish, 1).