Posted by: jessicaa | 2nd Dec, 2009

Visitor’s Center Script

       Although Walt Whitman is now a highly respected and acclaimed writer, he was writing during a time that was very different to today’s society.  His thoughts on democracy, spirituality, and sexuality were massively forward thinking for their time, but were also highly influential.  Those who had a positive reaction to Whitman’s work went on to use his ideas to create new works of poetry and prose that attempted to influence society in the manner in which Whitman intended.  Two of these individuals are Dr. Richard M. Bucke (R.M. Bucke) and Edward Carpenter. 

            R.M. Bucke was a Canadian psychiatrist who greatly admired Whitman.  He was the author of Whitman’s biography, and also wrote many other works including Man’s Moral Nature and Cosmic Consciousness. The ideas in Bucke’s writing were heavily inspired by Whitman’s work, which can be seen when assessing the passages of Bucke’s prose.  In his article “The myth of a Canadian Boswell: Dr. R.M. Bucke and Walt Whitman” S.E.D. Shortt says of Bucke, “his ideas, he believed, simply derived from years of empirical study of Walt Whitman’s character and his principal work, ‘Leaves of Grass.’ Indeed, Bucke correctly saw a continuity in his scholarship to which the notion of cosmic consciousness was merely the logical capstone” (Shortt 56).  Bucke believed that through his study of Whitman, and his understanding of Whitman’s philosophy, his own writings were adding to the same body of work, and were furthering the influence of these ideas onto society. 

            Bucke was part of a group of scholars who would gather to enjoy many esteemed authors, including Browing, Wordsworth, and specifically Whitman.  In Bucke’s book Cosmic Consciousness he recounts one such gathering where, after leaving, he had an experience of absolute transcendence which he attributes to the recollection of Whitman’s work.  Shortt quotes the experience as follows:

“…Into his brain streamed one momentary lightning-flash

of the Brahmic Splendor which has ever since lightened his life; upon

his heart fell one drop of Brahmic Bliss, leaving thenceforward for

                        always an after taste of heaven. Among other things he did not come

to believe, he saw and knew that the Cosmos is not dead matter but

a living Presence, that the soul of man is inmortal, that the universe

is so built and ordered that without any peradventure all things work

together for the good of each and all, that the foundation principle

of the world is what we call love and that the happiness of everyone

is in the long run absolutely certain…” (Shortt 56-57).


              The ideas that all things in the universe work together for the good of everything is exactly the same idea that Whitman conveys in many of his works, specifically Leaves of Grass. In “Song of Myself” Whitman says, “I resist anything better than my own diversity, and breathe the air and leave plenty after me, and am not stuck up, and am in my place.  The moth and the fisheggs are in their place, the suns I see and the suns I cannot see are in their place, The palpable is in its place and the impalpable is in its place” (Whitman 43).  The idea here is that all of these things have their role in the universe, and that all of these parts make up the living breathing thing that is the universe.  This idea is exactly what Bucke was expanding upon in Cosmic Consciousness, in attempt to influence social thought on spirituality and the nature of man.  In Part I of Bucke’s Cosmic Consciousness he wrote, ““that the universe is so built and ordered that without any peradventure all things work together for the good of each and all, that the foundation principle of the world is what we call love and that the happiness of everyone is in the long run absolutely certain” (Bucke in Shortt).  Bucke was trying to further pass on to society the ideas from Whitman’s work that inspired him.   

              However Bucke was not the only writer at this time so powerfully influenced by Whitman.  At the same time Edward Carpenter was also enamored with Whitman’s philosophies, and after meeting with Whitman on several occasions Carpenter recorded his experiences and published Days with Walt Whitman.  Carpenter was influenced by Whitman’s ideas of democracy, as well as his social and spiritual claims, and went on to publish a book titled Towards Democracy, which was a collection of poems expanding on Whitman’s ideas of democracy and equality.  In this piece Carpenter writes, “Freedom! At Last! Long sought, long prayed for – ages and ages long..”  (Carpenter 3).  Many of the poems speak of democracy in much the same positive light as Whitman does.  As influenced by Whitman, Carpenter’s writings on “sexuality, religion, aesthetics, and a range of political topics won him international renown as a progressive thinker” (jrank).  Carpenter became an active speaker on social issues such as environmental rights and women’s suffrage.  Openly homosexual, Carpenter was inspired by Whitman to speak out about his sexual preferences and be an example for society.  “In his emulation of Whitman, Carpenter became one of the first of many disciples, spreading Whitman’s message into another country and another century” (Kantrowitz).

                     It can be seen that Whitman had a very strong effect on Bucke and Carpenter, and many other writers who came after.  Whitman’s philosophies of religion, democracy, sexuality, and social interactions paved the way for many other writers to write openly about social issues that were not commonly explored.  Both of these writers were so inspired they not only wrote on similar topics as Whitman, but wrote about Whitman himself, which further shows their respect and admiration for Whitman as a poet, and as a social influence. 


Works Cited


Carpenter, Edward. “Towards Democracy”.  Kessinger Publishing, LLC (May 31, 1942)


Kantrowitz, Arnie. “Carpenter, Edward [1844-1929]”.  J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.


Shortt, S.E.D.  “The myth of a Canadian Boswell: Dr. R.M. Bucke and Walt Whitman”.  Canadian Bulletin of Medical History, Vol 1, No 1 (1984)


Whitman, Walt.  “Whitman: Poetry and Prose”. Penguin Books USA Inc. 1996. Literary

Classics of The United States, Inc. New York, N.Y.


Edward Carpenter Biography – (1844–1929), Days with Walt Whitman, Towards Democracy, England’s Ideal



The idea of transcendence also rings true with Whitman’s late poems, like those in “Sands at Seventy.” The idea of transcending past physical bounds–symbolized by traveling by ship across the sea and into the great behind–seems like it fits into the same thematic idea.

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