Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: Richard Maurice Bucke to Walt Whitman, [12 June 1882?]

Date: June 12, 1882

Source: Transcribed from digital images or a microfilm reproduction of the original item. For a description of the editorial rationale behind our treatment of the correspondence, see our statement of editorial policy.

Notes for this letter were derived from The Letters of Dr. Richard Maurice Bucke to Walt Whitman, ed. Artem Lozynsky (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1977).

Location: The Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

Whitman Archive ID: med.00756

Contributors to digital file: Alex Kinnaman and Nicole Gray

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The motto that you send for the title-page1 would do extremely well2—meantime I had picked out one from Lucretius as follows: Quae cum magna modis multis miranda videtur
gentibus humanis regio visendaque fertur,
rebus opima bonis, multa munita virum vi,
nil tamen hoc habuisse viro praeclarius in se
nec sanctum magis et mirum carumque videtur.
carmina quin etiam divini pectoris eius
vociferantur et exponunt praeclara reperta
ut vix humana videatur stirpe creatus.

which being interpreted is:

Now though this great country is seen to deserve in many ways the wonder of mankind and is held to be well worth visiting, rich in all good things, guarded by large force of men, yet seems it to have held within it nothing more glorious than this man, nothing more holy marvellous and dear. The verses too of his godlike genius cry with a loud voice and set forth in such wise his glorious discoveries that he hardly seems born of a mortal stock.

It is vulgarly supposed that by "this great country" Lucretius meant Sicily and by "this man" Empedocles; but it is plain enough that he really meant America and Walt Whitman—Any one can see that "Vociferantur" must have been intended to apply to the "barbaric yawp". Isn't it so?


Should I take the motto from Lucretius I am uncertain whether to use the latin or the translation—the latin of course wd be the best but unfortunately so few read it.

Richard Maurice Bucke (1837–1902) was a Canadian physician and psychiatrist who grew close to Whitman after reading Leaves of Grass in 1867 (and later memorizing it) and meeting the poet in Camden a decade later. Even before meeting Whitman, Bucke claimed in 1872 that a reading of Leaves of Grass led him to experience "cosmic consciousness" and an overwhelming sense of epiphany. Bucke became the poet's first biographer with Walt Whitman (Philadelphia: David McKay, 1883), and he later served as one of his medical advisors and literary executors. For more on the relationship of Bucke and Whitman, see Howard Nelson, "Bucke, Richard Maurice," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998).


1. Although only the final two pages of this letter have survived, it may be dated with some certainty. On June 10, 1882, Whitman made the following entry in his Commonplace Book: "sent letter to Dr Bucke, ab't 'motif' of his book / & ab't printing in Phila" (Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.). Whitman's letter to Bucke of June 10, 1882, is listed among the lost letters in The Correspondence, ed. Edwin Haviland Miller (New York: New York University Press, 1961–77), 3:437. If the normal pattern of delivery and response was followed, Bucke would have received the letter on June 12, 1882, and probably would have answered the same day. On June 17, 1882, Whitman wrote to Rees Welsh & Company of Philadelphia about the publication of Bucke's book (Walt Whitman [Philadelphia: David McKay, 1883], 1131). [back]

2. Since Whitman's letter to Bucke is lost and Bucke's Walt Whitman was published without an epigraph, it is impossible to determine Whitman's "motto." Whitman rejected the quotation from Lucretius (De Rerum Nature, 1, ll. 726–33), and Bucke acquiesced (see the letter from Bucke to Whitman of May 28, 1883). Bucke was, however, fond of the quotation, and after Whitman's death he used it—in English—for the title page of In Re (1893). It is important to note that Bucke selected an epigraph from Lucretius, one of the most prominent of the materialist philosophers. [back]


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