Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: Richard Maurice Bucke to Walt Whitman, 31 March 1891

Date: March 31, 1891

Whitman Archive ID: loc.08131

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.

Editorial note: The annotation, "see notes April 1st 1891," is in the hand of Horace Traubel.

Contributors to digital file: Cristin Noonan, Zainab Saleh, Andrew David King, Brandon James O'Neil, and Stephanie Blalock

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Medical Superintendent's
31 March 1891

re "Goodbye My Fancy"2

Ruskin3 says of great writers that they "express themselves in a hidden way and in parables."4 I have understood this of you, Walt, for many a year and I am bold enough to say that I believe I have followed the subtle winding & burrowing of your thought as far as anyone. I have known well from the first that "there are divine things well enveloped—more beautiful than words can tell."5 It is this mystic thread—running through all your poems that has facinated me from the first more than any thing else about them. I have noted the (by most people) "unsuspected author." . . . "spiritual, godly, most of all known to my sense."6 and I understand (tho' you will never tell—perhaps could not tell us) where the secret prompting comes from. Well, the "haughty song—begun in ripened youth . . . never even for one brief hour abandon'd"7 is finished, and the singer soon departs . . . and the present listeners soon depart. But the song remains and will do its work—that same song is the most visible, potent and live thing on this earth today—and the singer and the listeners they go the way provided for them but they will not let out of the range of this prophetic utterance. I congratulate you, dear Walt, today, upon having completed the greatest, most divine, most humanly helpful work that has ever so far proceeded from any individual man—and this claim for L. of G. I will maintain while I live

I am, dear Walt,
with love and admiration,
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. This letter is addressed: Walt Whitman | 328 Mickle Street | Camden | New Jersey | U.S.A. It is postmarked: [LONDON] | AM | MR 31 | 91 | CANADA; NY | 4-1-31 | 830 AM | 7; CAMDEN, N.J. | APR | 1 | 4 PM | 1891 | REC'D. [back]

2. Whitman's book Good-Bye My Fancy (1891) was his last miscellany, and it included both poetry and short prose works commenting on poetry, aging, and death, among other topics. Thirty-one poems from the book were later printed as "Good-Bye my Fancy" in Leaves of Grass (1891–1892), the last edition of Leaves of Grass published before Whitman's death in March 1892. For more information see, Donald Barlow Stauffer, "'Good-Bye my Fancy' (Second Annex) (1891)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

3. John Ruskin (1819–1900) was one of the leading art critics in Victorian Great Britain. Whitman sent Leaves of Grass and a "couple of photographs" to Ruskin via William Harrison Riley in March 1879 (see the letter from Whitman to Riley of March 18, 1879). Ruskin, according to Whitman, expressed "worry...[that] Leaves of Grass is...too personal, too emotional, launched from the fires of...spinal passions, joys, yearnings" (see the letter from Whitman to William O'Connor of October 7, 1882). Whitman, late in life, said to Horace Traubel: "[I] take my Ruskin with some qualifications." Still, Ruskin "is not to be made little of: is of unquestionable genius and nobility" (Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Thursday, January 24, 1889, 17). [back]

4. In his book Sesame and Lilies (1865), in the lecture "Of Kings' Teasuries," Ruskin writes of "genius" and notes that "if the author is worth anything, . . . you will not get his meaning all at once. . . . Not that he does not say what he means, and in strong words too; but he cannot say it all; and what is more strange, will not, but in a hidden way and in parables, in order that he may be sure you want it." [back]

5. Bucke here abbreviates two lines from Whitman's "Song of the Open Road": "Be not discouraged, keep on, there are divine things well envelop'd, / I swear to you there are divine things more beautiful than words can tell." [back]

6. The phrase "unsuspected author" comes from Whitman's poem "Shakespeare Bacon's Cipher" and the line "spiritual, godly, most of all known to my sense" comes from Whitman's poem "To The Sunset Breeze." Both poems were reprinted in Whitman's Good-Bye My Fancy (Philadelphia: David McKay, 1891). [back]

7. Bucke is referencing Whitman's "L. of G.'s Purport" from Good-Bye My Fancy (Philadelphia: David McKay, 1891). The two lines Bucke refers to are "Begun in ripen'd youth and steadily pursued" and "Never even for one brief hour abandoning my task" (18). [back]


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