Richard Maurice Bucke (1837-1902)
Richard Maurice Bucke is a figure situated at an early intersection of literary criticism, comparative mysticism, and psychiatry. He is perhaps best known in literary circles as Walt Whitman's biographer, doctor, literary executor, and disciple. However, Bucke was also a pioneer in the field of mental health, instituting a wide variety of reforms in the London, Ontario asylum where he served as superintendant. As the author of Cosmic Consciousness (1901), one of the first works to place mystical experience in a secular, psychological framework, Bucke was also one of the pioneers in the study of comparative mysticism. Bucke's own mystical experience of "cosmic consciousness" was used by William James as an example in The Varieties of Religious Experience and has since become one of the classic accounts used by scholars of mysticism. However, many of the scholars who use Bucke's experience as an example fail to understand the profound and far reaching effect which Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass had on Bucke's experience, how he chose to express it, and the ideas that it opened up and authorized for him.
Richard Maurice Bucke was born in Methwold, Norfolk, England, in 1837. He was the seventh of ten children of his father, the Rev. Horatio Walpole Bucke, a Cambridge-educated curate of the Church of England who read seven languages and brought a library of over a thousand volumes with him when the family emigrated to North America. The family settled on a large farm some miles outside of London, Ontario, Canada.
Richard Maurice was one
year old at the time of the move, and grew up with free range of both
the surrounding countryside and his father's library. He describes his
chores about the farm: tending animals, working in the hay fields, driving
oxen and horses. His "pleasures," he writes, were
In 1872, on a trip to England
to recuperate from a lingering illness, Bucke had an experience which
would change his life. The way in which he relates the moment that marks
what he called his "real and sole initiation to the new and higher
order of ideas" (10) deserves a close look. Of particular note is
the privileged position he gives to his understanding of Whitman's poetry:
© 2002 Steve Marsden