Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: Richard Maurice Bucke to Walt Whitman, 11 November 1888

Date: November 11, 1888

Whitman Archive ID: loc.07268

Source: The Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. 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 created by Whitman Archive staff and/or were derived from The Letters of Dr. Richard Maurice Bucke to Walt Whitman, ed. Artem Lozynsky (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1977), and supplemented or updated by Whitman Archive staff.

Editorial note: The annotation, "See Notes Nov. 14 1888," is in the hand of Horace Traubel.

Contributors to digital file: Alex Ashland, Stefan Schöberlein, Caterina Bernardini, and Stephanie Blalock

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Superintendent's Office.
for the Insane
London, Ont.,1
11 Nov 1888

If you have not already read "Jean-Francois Millet" in Sept "19th Century"2 get hold of it and read it. With a few verbal changes, as "poet" for "painter" &c. large passages in it might be read for yourself—Especially the last ½ page. The parallelism in the lives of the two men (yourself & Millet) is wonderful: for instance

1 Both born and brought up near the sea wh exerts a profound influence on the mode of thought & feeling of each.
2 Ms books in youth Bible & Virgil
Ws " " " " Homer & Shakespeare

3 Each born of country people & always stuck to these in preference to city & polished folk
4 Each strongly affected by a wreck at sea on coast near home in childhood
5 M. left country early went to Paris
W. " " " " " N.Y.

6 Sensier3 speaks of M's 12 years apprentiship
in Paris—
John Burroughs4 of W's 12 years preparation
in N.Y.

7 "The true M—Le Grande Rustique—
revealed himself for the first
time in 1850" (36 years old—
born in 1814) "in Le Semeur—
The Sower, which was hailed
by at least one critic as
a fine and original conception"5
The true W. came out 1855 (36 years
old) 1st Ed. L. of G. which was
hailed by one critic (Emerson)6
as a fine and original

8 The fate of both—constant neglect varied by fierce attacks, relieved by the passionate faith and friendship of a few.
9 "This then" (the beauty, pathos and grandeur of labor and of the common laboring many) "was M's (W's) discovery, this the message he had "to give the world. Before his time the peasant had never been held a fit subject for art."7
10 "Here is a man" said Gautier8 "who "finds poetry in the fields, who loves the peasant"9 "In the labor of engines and trades" (says W.) "and the labor of fields I find the developments and find the eternal meanings."10
11 "They wish to drive me into their drawing-room art" (said M.) "No, No, a peasant I was born and a peasant I will die."11 Compare "Lines to a certain civilian"12

The list might be greatly extended.

I have your card of 8th rejoyced to hear that you still hold your own—also that you still think well of Wilkins.13 I hear from Gurd14 now Every few days The patents are not yet in such a shape that it is safe to show the meter but they probably will be in very few more days. I may go east inside of a week—quite likely I may go early next week.

All well here—Weather still keeps rainy (never saw, I think, such a rainy time) today however lovely, bright and warm enough I am going out for a little drive—fresh air

Love to you
R M Bucke

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. This letter is addressed: Walt Whitman | 328 Mickle Street | Camden | New Jersey | U.S.A. It is postmarked: London | AM | No 12 | 88 | Canada; Camden N.J. | Nov | 13 | 1 PM | [illegible] | Rec'd. [back]

2. Bucke is referring to Julia Ady's "Jean-Francois Millet," Nineteenth Century, No. 139 (September 1888), 419–438. [back]

3. Bucke is referencing Alfred Sensier's La Vie et l'oeuvre de J.F. Millet [Life and Work of J.F. Millet] (Paris, 1881). [back]

4. The naturalist John Burroughs (1837–1921) met Whitman on the streets of Washington, D.C., in 1864. After returning to Brooklyn in 1864, Whitman commenced what was to become a decades-long correspondence with Burroughs. Burroughs was magnetically drawn to Whitman. However, the correspondence between the two men is, as Burroughs acknowledged, curiously "matter-of-fact." Burroughs would write several books involving or devoted to Whitman's work: Notes on Walt Whitman, as Poet and Person (1867), Birds and Poets (1877), Whitman, A Study (1896), and Accepting the Universe (1924). For more on Whitman's relationship with Burroughs, see Carmine Sarracino, "Burroughs, John [1837–1921] and Ursula [1836–1917]," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

5. Bucke's quotation is a conflation of two sentences: "He [Millet] thought of Gréville, and painted 'Le Semeur,' which, exhibited at the Salon in 1850, was hailed by at least one critic as a fine and original conception. . . . Here [i.e. in 'Le Semeur'] the true Millet, le Grand Rustique, revealed himself for the first time" (Ady, p. 428). [back]

6. Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) was an American poet and essayist who began the Transcendentalist movement with his 1836 essay Nature. For more on Emerson, see Jerome Loving, "Emerson, Ralph Waldo [1809–1882]," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

7. Bucke omits Ady's qualifying national adjective: "the French peasant had never been held a fit subject for art" (p. 429). [back]

8. Pierre Jules Théophile Gautier (1811–1872) was French poet, journalist, and literary critic. He published several collections of poetry, and a number of plays and novels. [back]

9. Quite significantly, Bucke omits the last part of the quotation from Gautier: "'Here is a man,' said Gautier, 'who finds poetry in the fields, who loves the peasant, paints Georgics after Virgil'" (Ady, p. 432). [back]

10. Bucke is quoting from Whitman's "A Song of Occupations," ll. 2–3 (Leaves of Grass: Comprehensive Reader's Edition[back]

11. The full quotation is: "'They wish to drive me into their drawing-room art,' he said; 'no, no, a peasant I was born and a peasant I will die; I will say what I feel and paint things as I see them'" (Ady, p. 433). [back]

12. Bucke is attempting to draw a parallel between Millet's statement and Whitman's To a Certain Civilian." In the poem, Whitman sets up a contrast between "[t]he drum-corps' rattle" (l. 6) and "the civilian's peaceful and languishing rhymes" (l. 2). As the poet of Drum-Taps, Whitman claims to "have been born of the same as the war was born" (l .5) and to "love well the marital dirge" (l. 6). [back]

13. Edward "Ned" Wilkins (1865–1936) was one of Whitman's nurses during his Camden years; he was sent to Camden from London, Ontario, by Dr. Richard M. Bucke, and he began caring for Whitman on November 5, 1888. He stayed for a year before returning to Canada to attend the Ontario Veterinary School. Wilkins graduated on March 24, 1893, and then he returned to the United States to commence his practice in Alexandria, Indiana. For more information, see Bert A. Thompson, "Edward Wilkins: Male Nurse to Walt Whitman," Walt Whitman Review 15 (September 1969), 194–195. [back]

14. Bucke and his brother-in-law William John Gurd were designing a gas and fluid meter to be patented in Canada and sold in England. [back]


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