Loose-Reined Careers of Poetry

selection: Elegy on the Death of Thomas Shepard
Urian Oakes (1631–1681)

OH! that I were a Poet now in grain!
How would I invocate the Muses all
To deign their presence, lend their flowing Vein,
And help to grace dear Shepard’s Funeral!
How would I paint our griefs, and succours borrow
From Art and Fancy, to limn out our sorrow!

Now could I wish (if wishing would obtain)
The sprightli’est Efforts of Poetick Rage,
To vent my Griefs, make others feel my pain,
For this loss of the Glory of our Age.
Here is a subject for the loftiest Verse
That ever waited on the bravest Hearse.

And could my Pen ingeniously distill
The purest Spirits of a sparkling wit
In rare conceits, the quintessence of skill
In Elegiack Strains; none like to it:
I should think all too little to condole
The fatal loss (to us) of such a Soul

Could I take highest Flights of Fancy, soar
Aloft; If Wits Monopoly were mine:
All would be much too low, too light, too poor,
To pay due tribute to this great Divine.
Ah! Wit avails not, when th’Heart’s like to break,
Great griefs are Tongue ti’ed, when the lesser speak.

Away loose rein’d Careers of Poetry,
The celebrated Sisters may be gone;
We need no Mourning Womens Elegy,
No forc’d, affected, artificial Tone.
Great and good Shepard’s Dead! Ah! this alone
Will set our eyes abroach, dissolve a stone.

Poetick Raptures are of no esteem,
Daring Hyperboles have here no place,
Luxuriant Wits on such a copious Theme,
Would shame themselves, and blush to shew their face
Here’s worth enough to overmatch the skill
Of the most stately Poet Laureat’s Quill.

Ancient Distastes: Poetry

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 this respect aristocracy is far more favorable to poetry; for things commonly grow larger and more obscure as they are more remote, and for this twofold reason they are better suited to the delineation of the ideal.

After having deprived poetry of the past, the principle of equality robs it in part of the present. Among aristocratic nations there is a certain number of privileged personages whose situation is, as it were, without and above the condition of man; to these, power, wealth, fame, wit, refinement, and distinction in all things appear peculiarly to belong. The crowd never sees them very closely or does not watch them in minute details, and little is needed to make the description of such men poetical. On the other hand, among the same people you will meet with classes so ignorant, low, and enslaved that they are no less fit objects for poetry, from the excess of their rudeness and wretchedness, than the former are from their greatness and refinement. Besides, as the different classes of which an aristocratic community is composed are widely separated and imperfectly acquainted with each other, the imagination may always represent them with some addition to, or some subtraction from, what they really are.

Of Some Sources of Poetry Among Democratic Nations

Alexis De Tocqueville: Democracy in America, published 1835–1840

Democrats Afloat in Matters of Faith

Aristocracy, by maintaining society in a fixed position, is favorable to the solidity and duration of positive religions as well as to the stability of political institutions. Not only does it keep the human mind within a certain sphere of belief, but it predisposes the mind to adopt one faith rather than another. An aristocratic people will always be prone to place intermediate powers between God and man. In this respect it may be said that the aristocratic element is favorable to poetry. When the universe is peopled with supernatural beings, not palpable to sense, but discovered by the mind, the imagination ranges freely; and poets, finding a thousand subjects to delineate, also find a countless audience to take an interest in their productions.

In democratic ages it sometimes happens, on the contrary, that men are as much afloat in matters of faith as they are in their laws. Skepticism then draws the imagination of poets back to earth and confines them to the real and visible world. Even when the principle of equality does not disturb religious conviction, it tends to simplify it and to divert attention from secondary agents, to fix it principally on the Supreme Power.

Of Some Sources of Poetry Among Democratic Nations

Alexis De Tocqueville: Democracy in America, published 1835–1840

Aristocratic Notions vs. Democratic Nations

It must, in the first place, be acknowledged that the taste for ideal beauty, and the pleasure derived from the expression of it, are never so intense or so diffused among a democratic as among an aristocratic people. In aristocratic nations it sometimes happens that the body acts as it were spontaneously, while the higher faculties are bound and burdened by repose. Among these nations the people will often display poetic tastes, and their fancy sometimes ranges beyond and above what surrounds them.

But in democracies the love of physical gratification, the notion of bettering one’s condition, the excitement of competition, the charm of anticipated success, are so many spurs to urge men onward in the active professions they have embraced, without allowing them to deviate for an instant from the track. The main stress of the faculties is to this point. The imagination is not extinct, but its chief function is to devise what may be useful and to represent what is real. The principle of equality not only diverts men from the description of ideal beauty; it also diminishes the number of objects to be described.

Of Some Sources of Poetry Among Democratic Nations

Alexis De Tocqueville: Democracy in America, published 1835–1840