Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
London, Ontario, Canada
Author:
Cederstrom, Lorelei
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Walt Whitman spent the summer of 1880 at the home of his friend and biographer, Dr. Richard Maurice Bucke, who was at that time the superintendent of the London Asylum for the Insane, located two miles outside of the city.

Although its population today is 161,000, at the time of Whitman's visit London was a small town of 19,941. Nonetheless, London could boast of two newspapers, and both reported Whitman's arrival with Bucke, who had accompanied him from Camden. Bucke had already aroused local curiosity about Whitman by proclaiming him the prophet of a new moral state during a lecture to the local teachers' association. This led to a flurry of letters to the London newspapers in March of 1880 "criticising both Bucke and Whitman" (Rechnitzer 78). In interviews with the London Free Press and London Advertiser Whitman discussed his work in the hospitals during the Civil War. He also spoke about Leaves of Grass, in particular about the difference between the "strong and rank" (qtd. in Rechnitzer 78) nature to which he gave voice and the work of other poets.

Except for their trips to Sarnia, Toronto, and the Thousand Islands in Ontario, and to Montreal and the Saguenay River in Quebec, Whitman spent most of the summer quietly at the Bucke residence on the asylum grounds. Whitman's Diary in Canada and Specimen Days record his observations of nature and his enjoyment of the quiet countryside. He was immediately impressed with the "long stretch'd sunsets" and "lingering, lingering twilights" of the north (Daybooks 3:612) and wrote frequently of local birds and flowers. He noted the great numbers of "big, tame" robins (3:620) and of the "free swallow dance" he observed over a lawn (3:622), adding that he had never "heard singing wrens . . . to such advantage" (3:620). He wrote enthusiastically as well about the tall delphiniums, scarlet peonies, and wild tansy.

Bucke's enlightened treatment of his patients interested Whitman, and he recorded his favorable impressions. He called the London Asylum one of "the most advanced, perfected, and kindly and rationally carried on, of all its kind in America" (Specimen Days 239). During one visit "those crazed faces" of the inmates impressed Whitman, not because they were "repulsive or hideous" but for the "common humanity," the "woes and sad happenings of life and death" he saw reflected in them (238).

Whitman said very little about the local people he met, but did note that Londoners seemed very temperate and clean. "I have seen no drunken man (nor drunken woman)—have run across no besotted or low or filthy quarters of the town either" (qtd. in Dunbabin). Bucke has recorded Whitman's interaction with the children at a picnic for London's poor: "During the day I lost sight of my friend for perhaps an hour, and when I found him again he was sitting in a quiet nook by the river side, with a rosy-faced child of four or five years old, tired out and sound asleep in his lap" (Walt Whitman 55).

Most of the information about Whitman's character, personality, and habits that Bucke reports in his biography were the results of his observations of Whitman during that summer. Bucke's admiration and respect for Whitman continued to grow during that period, and their lifelong friendship was firmly established. However, both Peter Rechnitzer's recent study and the Canadian film Beautiful Dreamers, which depicts Whitman's relationship with Bucke during that summer in London, suggest that Mrs. Bucke did not entirely share her husband's enthusiasm for Whitman and vetoed a second visit planned for the summer of 1882. Nonetheless, to the end of his life in London, Bucke continued to champion Whitman's work and to herald him as a prophet of "cosmic consciousness."

Bibliography

Beautiful Dreamers. Dir. John Kent Harrison. Prod. Micheal Maclear. A National Film Board of Canada Production. With Colm Feore and Rip Torn. 108 minutes. 1992.

Bucke, Richard Maurice. Cosmic Consciousness: A Study in the Evolution of the Human Mind. 1901. New York: Dutton, 1969.

____. Walt Whitman. 1883. New York: Johnson Reprint, 1970.

Dunbabin, Thomas. "Walt Whitman Found London 'A Great Place for Birds.'" London (Ontario) Free Press 3 Feb. 1962.

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

Rechnitzer, Peter A. R.M. Bucke: Journey to Cosmic Consciousness. Canadian Medical Lives 12. Toronto: Fitzhenry and Whiteside, 1994.

Whitman, Walt. The Correspondence. Vol. 3. Edwin Haviland Miller. New York: New York UP, 1964.

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

____. Specimen Days. Vol. 1 of Prose Works 1892. Ed. Floyd Stovall. New York: New York UP, 1963.


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