Selected Criticism

Cosmic Consciousness
Ignoffo, Matthew
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Canadian psychiatrist Richard Maurice Bucke, M.D. (1837–1902), met Whitman in Philadelphia (18 October 1877), instantly befriended him, and wrote the poet's first biography (Walt Whitman, 1883). At Bucke's invitation, Whitman visited the doctor's insane asylum in London, Ontario, for four months during the summer of 1880, an event dramatized in the film Beautiful Dreamers (Hemdale Pictures, 1992). Thomas B. Harned and Horace L. Traubel joined Bucke as Whitman's literary executors.

Bucke's book Cosmic Consciousness (1901) defined the state of mystical illumination which Bucke believed was evident in such people as Buddha, Moses, Socrates, Jesus, Mohammed, Dante, Wordsworth, and Whitman. These people possessed a profound awareness "of life and order in the universe," "a state of moral exaltation," and "a sense of immortality" (3).

According to Bucke, Cosmic Consciousness caused all doubts about God and the purpose of life to dissolve in a sudden revelation of universal truth and beauty. This spiritual awakening was mankind's "Saviour" (6). Under its influence, a person's soul would be revolutionized through intuitive discovery that the whole universe is alive and good. All religions would melt into one powerful state of heightened spiritual awareness, a state which Buddha called Nirvana, Jesus called the Kingdom of God, St. Paul called Christ, Mohammed called Gabriel, Dante called Beatrice, and Whitman called My Soul.

Bucke believed that he himself attained Cosmic Consciousness early in the spring of 1873 while reading the works of William Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats, Robert Browning, and especially Walt Whitman. The doctor wrote that Whitman was the "best, most perfect, example the world has so far had of the Cosmic Sense" (225). In Bucke's view, Whitman revealed his own moment of cosmic illumination in section 5 of "Song of Myself" (Bucke used Leaves of Grass, 1855 and 1891–1892); "As in a Swoon" (this poem appeared in only three editions: Leaves of Grass, 1876, which Bucke used; Good-Bye My Fancy, 1891; Complete Prose Works, 1892); and "Hast Never Come to Thee an Hour" (Bucke used Leaves of Grass, 1891–1892). These passages describe a dramatic revelation during which Whitman ecstatically discovered the mystical interconnection of everything in the universe and the love, both erotic and divine, which is the basis of all existence.

Bucke traced the transformation in Whitman's personality, themes, and writing styles to this moment of cosmic awakening. While describing Whitman's pre-illumination writings as "of absolutely no value," Bucke maintained that the enlightened Whitman wrote poetry so powerful that each page expressed the words "ETERNAL LIFE" written in "ethereal fire" (226). Viewing the poet almost as a god, the enthralled doctor even adopted Whitman's appearance of full beard and broad-rimmed hat.

Bucke summed up Whitman's Cosmic Consciousness as a complete freedom from fear of sin or death resulting in a transcendent awareness of eternal life. Bucke believed that Whitman's illumination was greater than that of Buddha and St. Paul, but not as clear as that of Jesus. While warning that the attainment of the cosmic faculty must not be used to gratify human vanity, Bucke felt that this highest state of consciousness was nevertheless "truly Godlike" (232).


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

____. Richard Maurice Bucke, Medical Mystic: Letters of Dr. Bucke to Walt Whitman and His Friends. Ed. Artem Lozynsky. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1977.

Ignoffo, Matthew. "The Intellectual American Revolution: Whitman as 'New Age' Poet." Christian New Age Quarterly July-Sept. 1989: 1, 6, 12.

Lozynsky, Artem. "Dr. Richard Maurice Bucke: A Religious Disciple of Whitman." Studies in the American Renaissance: 1977. Ed. Joel Myerson. Boston: Twayne, 1978. 387–403.

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.

Shortt, S.E.D. "The Myth of a Canadian Boswell: Dr. R.M. Bucke and Walt Whitman." Canadian Bulletin of Medical History 1 (1984): 55–70.


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