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Titles By Richard Maurice Bucke

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Richard Maurice Bucke [1837 – 1902] was a Canadian psychiatrist and student of the human mind who became one of Walt Whitman’s most devoted friends and supporters in the poet’s later years. Always a wide-ranging reader, Dr. Bucke first encountered Whitman’s work in 1867. He read Whitman’s poetry with intensity and fascination for several years, committing much of it to memory.

In 1872, while in London, Dr. Bucke had the most important experience of his life, a fleeting mystical experience that he said consisted of a few moments of cosmic consciousness. Dr. Bucke did not record the details and interpretation of his experience at that time. This was not done till years later, and only after he had researched much of the world’s literature on mysticism and enlightenment and had corresponded with many others about this subject.

Dr. Bucke’s magnum opus was his book Cosmic Consciousness: A Study in the Evolution of the Human Mind. The book is a compilation of various theories rather than a simple record of his original mystical experience. He borrowed the term “cosmic consciousness” from Edward Carpenter, who had traveled and studied religion in the East. Carpenter derived the term “cosmic consciousness” from the Eastern term “universal consciousness”. Dr. Bucke describes his own experience, the experiences of contemporaries (most notably Walt Whitman), and the experiences of historical figures, including Jesus, Saint Paul, Plotinus, Dante, Francis Bacon, William Blake, Buddha, and Ramakrishna.

Dr. Bucke created a theory that posited three stages in the development of consciousness: the simple consciousness of animals, the self-consciousness of the mass of humanity, encompassing reason and imagination, and cosmic consciousness, an emerging faculty which is the next stage of human development.

Dr. Bucke’s biography of Whitman was an unconventional book, as much an anthology of documents about the poet as biography. It was also a collaboration. Whitman advised throughout, revised Dr. Bucke’s text, and wrote significant portions of the book himself. Cosmic Consciousness was in a sense the book that Whitman would not let him write in the biography, because it does not merely present Dr. Bucke’s theory of moral and spiritual evolution but also uses Whitman as central example.

In 1880 Whitman spent the summer with Dr. Bucke at his home in Canada. His observations of religious service at the asylum are recorded in a haunting entry in Specimen Days (1882). They traveled together down the St. Lawrence River, and the following year, in preparation for the biography, they visited places important in Whitman’s earlier years in Long Island and Manhattan. The 1880 visit was the basis for an engaging but factually unreliable Canadian feature film, Beautiful Dreamers with Rip Torn as Whitman and Colm Feore as Dr. Bucke.

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