If poetry, as Tocqueville argues, searches after the “ideal” rather than the truth, then democracies—which prefer the real to the ideal—must lack the gift and taste for poetry that characterizes aristocracies. While aristocracies encourage people to contemplate the past, democracy prefers the present; while aristocracies allow great characters to rise above the crowd as proper subjects of poetry, democratic equality levels all subjects to mediocrity.
Tocqueville has already characterized American philosophy as preferring the real over the ideal, and here he extends that characterization to poetry. Toqueville believes that the leveling effect that he has identified in democracies necessarily influences the poetry (or lack thereof) that such societies will develop.
Tocqueville nonetheless identifies a new subject for poetry in an age of democratization: inanimate nature, that is, descriptive poetry. This, he thinks, is not a characteristic of a democratic age, but rather of an age in transition to democracy: eventually, democracies will inevitably turn back toward writing about man, since democratic peoples are only really concerned with describing and observing themselves. While poets in a democracy can’t distinguish any one exceptional person for a subject, they will come to write about all people with the same imagery—this will become their ideal.
Tocqueville’s analysis of the influence of democracy on literary and artistic affairs is particularly striking, even eccentric: he goes so far as to say that politics affects not just poetry in general but even the specific sub-genre of poetry that is preferred. The argumentation may seem questionable at times, and it leads him to surprising—if confusing—conclusions.
Tocqueville thinks that America has no poets, but does have poetic ideas. Americans don’t pay close attention to the wonders of the nature around them, but they admire their own march across the wilderness and their ability to subdue nature as they conquer the continent. The life of an American is unpoetic, but the common striving of all Americans toward improvement lends them a kind of epic force: they come to consider their own striving as a poetic ideal. Aristocratic poets may succeed in portraying incidents in a nation’s history, but democratic ones embrace the destiny of all humankind. Democratic poets shouldn’t try to write about gods on earth, but instead should connect their nation’s great events with Providence and God’s will. Because their language, dress, and daily life is not poetic, poets must search beneath these qualities and study the hidden depths of human nature, finding poetry within. Since the world has started to democratize, Tocqueville notes, authors like Goethe and Chateaubriand who sought to record the actions of a great individual have begun to disappear in favor of writers who throw light on qualities of the human heart: this is poetry’s future.
Although Tocqueville has identified descriptive poetry as the proper sphere for societies transitioning to democracy, he considers America to be a society that has reached a greater level of democratization than any other. As a result, he argues, Americans have turned away from the description of nature towards the depiction of themselves as a common, magnificent, force of history (even if their daily life is “unpoetic”). It’s sometimes difficult to grasp the nuances of Tocqueville’s argument in these passages because he almost never gives examples of American poets; it’s not always even clear if he’s talking about specific poets or if he’s focusing instead on what is “poetic” about American society—and thus what will come to be poetic about a newly democratic world.