Style and Passion in Tocqueville

Style and Passion in Tocqueville

Tocqueville is a writer of immense emotional power, and the secret of that power lies in the poetic rhythms of his prose; and, in the whole of Democracy in America, no chapter offers a clearer or more vivid demonstration of those rhythms and their effect than “The Jury in the United States Considered as Political Institution.” The editors of Dissent have selected their sundry quotations for commentary from that one chapter; but, with the readers’ indulgence, I would like to restore the quotations to Tocqueville’s original setting in order to lay out, in the imagination, the entire chapter in free verse. “The Jury in the United States,” set in verse, begins with an extended strophe of five lines or paragraphs, in this form:

Paragraph one: a single sentence, fairly short, broken in the middle by a comma, roughly the way the “caesura” or traditional pause breaks up a classic French verse line or alexandrine. The one-sentence paragraph conveys, as alexandrines so easily do, a tone of serene lucidity.

Paragraph two: a single sentence broken in the middle, this time by a colon, which makes for an even sharper caesura—a very short one-sentence paragraph, briefer even than its predecessor, yet, because of the severity of the colon, with a sound that lingers slightly longer in the ear.

Paragraph three: a single sentence, this time absolutely longer, with four main components instead of two—a sentence-paragraph that has begun to shake off the constrictions of simple structures and tranquil rhythms.

Paragraph four: a single sentence, this time longer yet, and knottier—a sentence of several clauses, broken up with a semicolon.

The growing length and complexity of these four one-sentence paragraphs build an energetic tension, and the tension, having mounted step by step to its high point, overflows at last into the fifth and final paragraph, which is altogether different. The fifth paragraph consists of five sentences of varied complexity, containing two colons and three semicolons—a paragraph of rich tones, with a conversational ease instead of the attention-attracting qualities of the one-sentence paragraphs that have come before.

Next comes a paragraph of three sentences, announcing a change of topic—a paragraph that serves as a transitional bridge to the chapter’s second strophe. The second strophe turns out to be instantly recognizable—a recapitulation of the general shape of the opening strophe. There are a series of short one-sentence paragraphs (or, in the case of the second paragraph, a very short two-sentence paragraph, corresponding to the second, colon-broken, one-sentence paragraph of the first strophe). The one-sentence paragraphs grow in length, in complexity, and in tension. And the tension resolves by overflowing at last into a full-length paragraph of multiple sentences and complicated rhythms.

You would have to be poetically deaf not to notice th...