Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Canada, Whitman's Visit to
Author:
Mason-Browne, N.J.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

In the summer of 1880, shortly after a journey to the western United States, Whitman spent four months in Canada. He did so at the invitation of Dr. Richard Maurice Bucke, a fervent admirer who was much taken with the poet's mystical attributes. For the most part, Whitman stayed with the Buckes in London, Ontario, but he went on a number of excursions. In a photograph of him taken at the time, he has the look of a latter-day biblical patriarch, bundled up in a greatcoat, walking stick in hand, leaning casually against a parapet.

In his biography of Whitman (published in 1883), Bucke relies heavily on the observations he made during the poet's visit. Extensive and detailed, those observations include a quasi-medical inventory of Whitman's physical measurements and traits. Among other things, Bucke is struck by the inordinate size of his visitor's ears, which are "remarkably handsome" (Bucke 49). And he is persuaded that Whitman's acuity of hearing is such that he is able to hear the growth of vegetation.

Bucke reports that during his stay Whitman was happiest when strolling out of doors. He had a special fondness for flowers and children. He was often singing a little tune to himself and liked to recite poetry (including Tennyson's "Ulysses"). He read the newspapers every day, but the rest of his reading was for the most part erratic. From time to time, he wrote letters to the Canadian papers, reporting and reflecting on his situation, and sent out copies of these in lieu of personal correspondence. Apparently Whitman was not very talkative that summer and had scarcely anything at all to say about Leaves of Grass. Asked why he had never married, he replied that he could not have tolerated the constraints of marriage. In the context of a conversation about religion, he remarked that he "never had any particular religious experiences...never had any...distrust of the scheme of the universe" (qtd. in Bucke 61).

Whitman himself was keeping a diary during those summer months. Some elements of it would be subsequently dressed up for inclusion in Specimen Days (1882). Considerably edited, the rest would appear as Walt Whitman's Diary In Canada in 1904. His own account of events was that of a good-natured and observant tourist rather than a holy man. In fact, the first observations of the diary set the tone for everything which follows: "Calm and glorious roll the hours here—the whole twenty four. A perfect day, (the third in succession)" (Daybooks 3:611). Whitman was evidently much impressed by what he saw of Canadians and Canadian life. He made an impromptu visit to a school in Sarnia, Ontario, and came away with a strongly favorable impression of its students. He rode around in a bus in Toronto and found it a dynamic and engaging city. In Montreal he was the guest of a Dr. Hunt and wrote: "Genial host, delightful quarters, good sleep" (Daybooks 3:632).

From a technical standpoint, Whitman's original and unedited diary is a fascinating document. As was the case with a number of the poet's notebooks and journals, it was used as a repository for every kind of scribble and discursive exercise imaginable. Lists of Canadian crops, mailing addresses, and columns of figures rub elbows with fragmentary reminiscences, half-formed prose poems, and curious, small-scale anticipations of the poetic movement imagism. Above all, the diary contains elliptical and evocative characterizations of Canadian scenery and wildlife. The language of such passages is at times impressively vivid and affecting, and their rough edges afford them an unsettled, contemporary quality all their own.

Bibliography

Bucke, Richard Maurice. Walt Whitman. 1883. New York: Johnson Reprint Corporation, 1970.

Doyle, James. "Whitman's Canadian Diary." University of Toronto Quarterly 52.3 (1983): 277–287.

Greenland, Cyril, and John Robert Colombo, eds. Walt Whitman's Canada. Willowdale, Ontario: Hounslow, 1992.

Lynch, Michael. "Walt Whitman in Ontario." The Continuing Presence of Walt Whitman. Ed. Robert K. Martin. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1992. 141–151.

Whitman, Walt. Daybooks and Notebooks. Ed. William White. 3 vols. New York: New York UP, 1978.

____. Specimen Days. Complete Poetry and Collected Prose. Ed. Justin Kaplan. New York: Library of America, 1982. 869–926.

Zweig, Paul. Walt Whitman: The Making of the Poet. New York: Basic Books, 1984.


Comments?

Published Works | In Whitman's Hand | Life & Letters | Commentary | Resources | Pictures & Sound

Support the Archive | About the Archive

Distributed under a Creative Commons License. Ed Folsom & Kenneth M. Price, editors.