The Poetry of Democracy

By diderot

July 7, 2018

quill democracy.jpg

don’t know much about poetry.  I always liked Robert Frost’s Road Not Taken, but it took me decades to learn that the title might have been ironic; that he regretted the paths he took.  Huh.

Especially I liked W.B. Yeats’ The Second Coming and its “widening gyre”: “Things fall apart, the center cannot hold.  Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”  Such drama! So thrilling to hear as a young man!

But these days…it’s more like chilling.

Recently our devoted subscriber Kildo from New Jersey sent along a couplet from a poem by an English poet that dealt with democracy. I had never thought about that in combination; poems are mostly about flowers and forests…and democracy is dealt with in serious analysis, right?

I was wrong.  Turns out there are a lot of poems written about democracy, and you don't have to look too closely to see a constant connection between the tone of their verses…and the tenor of their times.


n 1867 we had finally escaped the deadly slaughter of the Civil War, and “America’s poet”, Walt Whitman, wrote in, As I Walk Through These Broad Majestic Days:

…we support all, fuse all,

After the rest is done and gone, we remain;

There is no final reliance but upon us;

Democracy rests finally upon us (I, my brethren, begin it,)

And our visions sweep through eternity.

Such hope and resolve!  But times change.

September 1, 1939 was both the day that World War II began and a poem of the same name by W.H. Auden.  Within, you can feel the dread—and the defiance:

Defenceless under the night

Our world in stupor lies;

Yet, dotted everywhere,

Ironic points of light

Flash out wherever the just

Exchange their messages:

May I, composed like them

Of Eros and of dust,

Beleaguered by the same

Negation and despair,

Show an affirming flame.


During that war, amid the most existential of threats, in America there was a powerful current of joint purpose and mutual resolve.  It was captured in the lines of Freedom’s Plow by African-American Langston Hughes:

Free hands and slave hands,

Indentured hands, adventurous hands,

White hands and black hands

Held the plow handles,

Ax handles, hammer handles,

Launched the boats and whipped the horses

That fed and housed and moved America.

Thus together through labor,

All these hands made America.

The people often hold

Great thoughts in their deepest hearts

And sometimes only blunderingly express them,

Haltingly and stumblingly say them,

And faultily put them into practice.

The people do not always understand each other.

But there is, somewhere there,

Always the trying to understand,

And the trying to say,

"You are a man.
Together we are building our land.”


But by 1949, America was more than 80 years past passage of the Emancipation Proclamation, and Hughes, writing Democracy, was getting restless:

Democracy will not come

Today, this year

Nor ever

Through compromise and fear.

I do not need my freedom when I'm dead.

I cannot live on tomorrow’s bread.

In 1960, Bulgarian-born Elias Canetti wrote On Crowds and Power in a prose-like form that was dense and dark and focused not on democracy--but on those who would manipulate it for their own gain.  He had lived through Franco and Hitler and Stalin…and he issued a warning about ego-driven tyranny:

Fame is not fastidious about the lips which spread it.

So long as there are mouths to reiterate the one name,

It does not matter whose they are.

The fact that to the seeker after fame

They are indistinguishable from each other and are all counted as equal

Shows that this passion has its origin

In the experience of crowd manipulation.

Names collect their own crowds.

They are greedy, live their own separate lives,

Hardly at all connected with the real natures of the men who bear them. 


es, we can hear that echo now, more than half a century later.  After all, this is not the best of times for democracy. Our future, again, is uncertain.

 But we seek a remedy.  And returning to Auden, there is a prescription that was both his…and can be ours: 

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie.

Friends…keep unfolding.

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