Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: Richard Maurice Bucke to Walt Whitman, 17 August 1890

Date: August 17, 1890

Whitman Archive ID: loc.07356

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.

Contributors to digital file: Kirby Little, Ian Faith, Breanna Himschoot, and Stephanie Blalock

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Superintendent's Office.
London, Ont.,
17 Aug 1890

After a long dry spell this morning the blessed rain begins. It is falling soft and steady as I write here at my desk in my office and from time to time look up and out at the windows to realise & enjoy it. How good it is after heat and dust! How lovely and soothing!

"The Poem of Earth—the voice of the rain1
"Giving back life—making it pure & beautiful
"Returning with love."

Well, I have your good letter of 14th2 enclosing Rhys'3 and M. J. Cummings4 (whoever he (or she?) may be—(melancholy enough) the poor soul seems to have had a bad time.

Yes, I got the "Woodberry Piece" all right.5 These foolish, would be visions, lies & liars will one day come to an end—in the mean time I do not know but they do more good than harm—keep things stirred up (Mr Goethe's6 Faust God says the Devil is a good servant of his—that he (Satan) keeps man stirred up while without such prodding man would go, and stay, asleep).— Real glad to hear that you are likely soon to write the O'C7 preface.8

Dr Johnston9 (I am sorry to say) has never turned up in these parts—perhaps he may yet—hope so—want to see him.10

Mr & Mrs Ingram11 are still here—they will go I believe tomorrow—we all like them well and have enjoyed their visit with us.

The meter12 is jogging along slowly—we are getting the shop fitted up—there is a lot to do yet before we have a business established—but we still have confidence and we shall put the thing right through

Your friend
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. Bucke is referring to Whitman's poem "The Voice of the Rain," in which Whitman writes: "I am the Poem of Earth, said the voice of the rain." [back]

2. See Whitman's letter to Bucke of August 14, 1890[back]

3. Ernest Percival Rhys (1859–1946) was a British author and editor; he founded the Everyman's Library series of inexpensive reprintings of popular works. He included a volume of Whitman's poems in the Canterbury Poets series and two volumes of Whitman's prose in the Camelot series for Walter Scott publishers. For more information about Rhys, see Joel Myerson, "Rhys, Ernest Percival (1859–1946)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

4. Little is known about M. J. Cummings. Cummings may be the individual who wrote to Whitman on August 12, 1890, claiming to be "a confirmed and melancholy invalid" and sending Whitman some lines of verse. At the time, Cummings was in San Diego, California. [back]

5. Charles J. Woodbury, who met Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1865, spread the story that Emerson told him that he once met Whitman for dinner at the Astor House in New York, and that the poet showed up without a coat, as if to "dine in his shirtsleeves." Whitman denied the rumor. For one of Whitman's responses to the shirtsleeves story, see Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Monday, August, 11, 1890[back]

6. The German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) was famous for The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) and Faust (1808), in which Faust sells his soul to the devil. [back]

7. William Douglas O'Connor (1832–1889) was the author of the grand and grandiloquent Whitman pamphlet The Good Gray Poet: A Vindication, published in 1866. For more on Whitman's relationship with O'Connor, see Deshae E. Lott, "O'Connor, William Douglas (1832–1889)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

8. On May 29, 1890, Ellen O'Connor asked Whitman to write a preface for a collection of tales by her husband, the late William Douglas O'Connor, which she hoped to publish—The Brazen Android and Other Tales (later entitled Three Tales). After the poet's approval was conveyed to her through Bucke, Mrs. O'Connor wrote on June 1, 1890: "Your name & William's will be associated in many ways, & this loving word from you will be a comfort to me for all time." Not having heard directly from him, she wrote about the preface once more on June 30, 1890[back]

9. Dr. John Johnston (1852–1927) of Annan, Dumfriesshire, Scotland, was a physician, photographer, and avid cyclist. Johnston was trained in Edinburgh and served as a hospital surgeon in West Bromwich for two years before moving to Bolton, England, in 1876. Johnston worked as a general practitioner in Bolton and as an instructor of ambulance classes for the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railways. He served at Whalley Military Hospital during World War I and became Medical Superintendent of Townley's Hospital in 1917 (John Anson, "Bolton's Illustrious Doctor Johnston—a man of many talents," Bolton News [March 28, 2021]; Paul Salveson, Moorlands, Memories, and Reflections: A Centenary Celebration of Allen Clarke's Moorlands and Memories [Lancashire Loominary, 2020]). Johnston, along with the architect James W. Wallace, founded the "Bolton College" of English admirers of the poet. Johnston and Wallace corresponded with Whitman and with Horace Traubel and other members of the Whitman circle in the United States, and they separately visited the poet and published memoirs of their trips in John Johnston and James William Wallace, Visits to Walt Whitman in 1890–1891 by Two Lancashire Friends (London: Allen and Unwin, 1917). For more information on Johnston, see Larry D. Griffin, "Johnston, Dr. John (1852–1927)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

10. Dr. Johnston had visited Whitman, John Burroughs, and Herbert Gilchrist during July 1890, but he returned to England without visiting Bucke. See Johnston and James William Wallace, Visits to Walt Whitman in 1890–91 (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1917), 31–86. [back]

11. William Ingram, a Quaker, kept a tea store—William Ingram and Son Tea Dealers—in Philadelphia. Of Ingram, Whitman observed to Horace Traubel: "He is a man of the Thomas Paine stripe—full of benevolent impulses, of radicalism, of the desire to alleviate the sufferings of the world—especially the sufferings of prisoners in jails, who are his protégés" (Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Sunday, May 20, 1888). Ingram and his wife visited the physician Richard Maurice Bucke and his family in Canada in 1890. [back]

12. 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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