SUBJECTS — Biography/Whitman; Literature/U.S.; World/Canada; Medicine;

SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Male Role Model; Mental Illness; Breaking Out; Friendship;


AGE: 12+; MPAA Rating — PG-13

Drama; 1992, 108 minutes; Color. Available from


One of the Best! This movie is on TWM’s list of the ten best movies to supplement classes in English Language Arts, High School Level.

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This film is a fictionalized account of a real-life friendship between Walt Whitman and Dr. Richard Bucke, the director of an insane asylum located in a small town in Canada. The conflicts faced as Dr. Bucke attempts to bring progressive treatment to those suffering from mental illness and neurological conditions, provide a context in which the value of Whitman’s humanistic philosophy comes alive and the meaning of his poetry is enriched. Rip Torn’s portrayal of Whitman is masterful.


Selected Awards: None.

Featured Actors: Rip Torn, Colm Feore, Wendel Meldrum, Sheila McCarthy, Colin Fox.

Director: John Kent Harrison.


Students who have seen “Beautiful Dreamers” feel that they have a personal relationship with Walt Whitman, and they are interested in what he has to say. After they have seen this movie, students at all levels have an increased interest in reading Whitman’s poetry. This movie is an excellent addition to any lesson plan on Whitman and his poetry.

The film also shows the barbaric treatment of the mentally ill, the mentally handicapped and those with neurological conditions during the 1800s. Dr. Bucke was a pioneer in fashioning more humane and effective therapies for the mentally ill and neurologically afflicted. The techniques he developed stem directly from the idea that feeling underlies thought, a concept clearly illustrated in Whitman’s poetry. Dr. Bucke serves as a model of courage and tolerance; he is a good and sensitive physician who is willing to risk disapproval by those in his community and his profession in order to improve the lives of his patients.


MODERATE. Dr. Bucke’s wife happens upon her husband and Whitman sitting naked by a lake smearing themselves with mud and singing opera. (Whitman was devoted to Italian opera.) When she arrives, the men immediately jump into the water to hide their nakedness. Emboldened by Whitman’s poetry and to the further embarrassment of the men, the wife begins to disrobe. Whitman, the “libertine,” is so distressed by this that he swims away. We are shown a full frontal view of the wife’s unclothed (and beautiful) body as she enters the water to swim with her husband. This scene relates to liberation of the spirit rather than sensuality, and it has been shown to many classes without ill effect.


This movie will put a face and persona behind Walt Whitman’s poetry. If your child is studying Whitman in English class, show this movie. It will help immensely. See the Benefits section. Also give your child a little background on Whitman and Dr. Bucke. See the Helpful Background section.



Walt Whitman (1819-1892), originally a printer, journalist, and for a time, a teacher, self-published his most famous work, Leaves of Grass, a 90-page book including 52 verses called “Song of Myself” and twelve untitled poems. Decorated with drawings of leaves, as was fashionable at the time, the book introduced to the public an entirely unique poetic style and included images and ideas considered inappropriate to many readers. Whitman’s poems were banned in some locations. He perfected and expanded Leaves of Grass throughout his life.

Whitman’s poetry celebrates democracy, equality, individualism, and sensual pleasure. Whitman was an advocate of social, filial, and erotic love. Considered a libertine, Whitman was dismissed from his position as the editor of the Brooklyn Times for writing an editorial in support of increased sexual freedom for women. Historians argue about Whitman’s sexuality, an issue addressed obliquely in the film and suggested in several poems. His alleged homosexuality was never documented and most readers consider his open-mindedness on sexuality as a whole to be far more important than his own personal experiences.

Whitman’s egalitarianism applied to both men and women. He was the first American poet to speak out for gender equality and was the founding editor of Brooklyn Freeman, a free-soil, anti-slavery journal printed in 1849. Whitman opposed slavery; he was convinced that the American democratic system could eliminate slavery through legal reform rather than through violence. During the Civil War, Whitman worked with injured soldiers without regard for whether they wore a blue or a gray uniform; he saw only a suffering human and sought to offer relief.

Rejecting social conventions may have been a function of his values, but rejecting poetic conventions was clearly a function of Whitman’s sense of aesthetics. He eschewed regular meter and rhyme in favor of a flowing free verse. As he put it, Whitman sought to create a new democratic literature, “commensurate with a people” “simple and unconquerable,” written by a new kind of poet who was “affectionate and brawny.”

Scholars are unsure about where Whitman may have gotten his unique poetic style. He had only a grammar school education, and there is no evidence that he studied poetry or particular poets. His biographers note that he loved Italian opera and the King James Bible, both of which can be seen as tools for shaping a poetic style. He was always closely linked to words and wordsmiths; at one point in his life, he operated a bookstore and his own printing office.

Whitman’s love for the American people and his faith in democracy are apparent in many of his poems. Still, towards the end of his life he concerned himself with what he saw as increased materialism in the American value system and a decline in spirituality. He is nonetheless seen as a fiercely patriotic American whose love of country included its flora, fauna, and all manner of human inhabitants. He was quite popular in his lifetime although his reputation as a poet has increased immeasurably since his death. Whitman has been translated into all major languages and has influenced many modern American poets and authors.

Whitman also wrote prose essays now considered classic statements of democracy. They are collected in a book entitled Democratic Vistas.

Whitman had a coterie of devoted followers, of whom Dr. Bucke was one. They believed that Whitman was the epitome of a new type of man with a consciousness closely related to the cosmos. They defended and cared for Whitman throughout the controversies and vicissitudes of his life,.



Born in England in 1837, Dr. Bucke grew up in Ontario, Canada where he eventually became well known as an adventurer, a writer, and a leader in the movement to reform treatment of the mentally ill. Dr. Bucke’s basic philosophy can be found in his most famous book, Cosmic Consciousness: A Study of the Evolution of the Human Mind. In this 1901 publication, Bucke asserts that humans are beginning to develop an awareness of the order in the universe and are increasingly attuned to the concept of the life force existing in all things. These ideas mirror the themes found in Whitman’s poems.

Dr. Bucke became friends with Whitman late in the poet’s life. When Dr. Bucke served as the medical superintendent of the Lunatic Asylum in London, Ontario, Whitman paid a visit to the hospital and, although there is no evidence that the events described in the film actually happened, it is clear that the two men were simpatico. Dr. Bucke practiced medicine at a time when treatment of the mentally ill did not have the benefit of Sigmund Freud’s discovery of the subconscious nor Carl Jung’s concept of individuation. Science had not yet understood the influence of chemicals on the brain or the nervous system. Mentally ill people, including those who were mentally handicapped or who had disorders of the nervous system, were called lunatics and were often drugged, forcibly restrained, or mutilated by surgeons searching for cures. Good treatment of mental disorder depended upon men willing to trust their intuition and who could use the force of their personality rather than any scientifically valid system.

According to the events in the film, Dr. Bucke rejected the more intrusive treatments, and parallel to the values expressed by Whitman, moved beyond the patient’s actions and the judgments passed by society; he focused upon the emotions that lay behind behavior. This appears to be a precursor of modern psychological and medical methods of dealing with mental disorders. Dr. Bucke wrote Man’s Moral Nature in 1879 in which he made clear his notion of humans as extraordinary beings fully capable of intellectual enlightenment. He was said to have memorized Whitman’s “Song of Myself” and believed that the human soul is immortal. Like Whitman, Bucke held to the notion that love is the guiding principle of life and that happiness is the fundamental nature of man.

In 1883, Dr. Bucke published a biography of Walt Whitman, a work both fostered and edited by the poet himself.


Note on Historical Accuracy:

Whitman was a man who personally and through his poetry aroused strong feelings in people. Dr. Bucke was a pioneering physician who Whitman met and asked to treat his brother. Bucke came to admire Whitman greatly. Whitman did visit Dr. Bucke one summer at the asylum in Canada. However, we have not been able to determine how many of the events of the visit, as shown in the movie, really occurred. We assume that many are fictionalized. For example, the movie shows Dr. Bucke’s wife slowly coming to appreciate Whitman. Actually, Mrs. Bucke did not like Whitman but hid her feelings. Only later when her husband proposed a second visit by Whitman did Mrs. Bucke disclose to him her true feelings and that she would prefer that Whitman not come again. Bucke, surprised, bowed to his wife’s wishes.


Read with the class the poems described at the beginning of this section. The following lessons and assignments are designed to foster appreciation for Walt Whitman’s work and to develop analytical skills that will enable students to find links between poetry written over 150 years ago and the conflicts, values and ideas that effect society today. The assignments are aligned to standards being applied nationwide.


Excerpts of From Song of Myself:

1. Studies indicate that asking students to memorize may serve to increase their ability to recall information. Whether or not this idea can hold up, it is worthwhile to have students commit their favorite verse, or part of a verse, to memory and recite it to the class. Have students select their favorite poem written by Walt Whitman. It can be from the list set out at the beginning of this section or from any part of Leaves of Grass. Students should be required to memorize their selection and present the poem to the class. In their presentations, students should introduce their selection, recite it, and then explain why they selected this particular bit of Whitman’s work. The selection must be more than a fragment; it must offer listeners a complete thought. Verse one, the invitation to “Song of myself,” is a good choice for this assignment because it is short, aesthetically pleasing, implies the value of empathy and camaraderie, and suggests that simply observing a small part of nature is good for the soul. This short verse is exemplary of the principles Whitman expresses throughout his work.

2. Verse six is Whitman’s metaphorical explanation of grass itself. There are five remarkable metaphors that begin this verse. Have students identify the metaphors and explicate their meaning in a one paragraph essay. Students should then relate the metaphor they have chosen to the verse’s theme shown in lines 126 to 130 in which Whitman makes clear that the continual existence of grass negates the very existence of death.

3. Lines 188 to the end of verse 10 describe a runaway slave for whom Whitman has provided sanctuary. These lines can easily be translated into narration. Ask students to shift the poetry to narrative, describing the slave, the event, and Whitman’s fearless response to the call to assist a man seeking escape from oppression. In your narrative describe action (including dialogue), reveal thoughts (including internal monologues), describe observations by the characters, use descriptive language (including images of people, places and things), and compare one thing to another.

4. Verse 11 fits nicely into the scene in the film when Dr. Bucke and Whitman are joined by Mrs. Bucke in the lake. The verse shows a woman reluctant to join in the water who fantasizes the freedom she lacks. Ask the students to narrate a time in their lives when they witnessed an experience in which they wanted to participate but restrained themselves. They should be encouraged to show meaning in five ways: 1) action, 2) dialog, 3) comparison, 4) thoughts and 5) descriptive language. Instruct students to make the experience seem inviting and tend carefully to point of view.

5. Much of Whitman’s work is fiercely patriotic; his love for the diversity in America is expressed in verse 16. Ask students to take pad and pencil and circulate throughout the classroom gathering background information from their fellow students in terms of ethnic background, national original, religious heritage, and race. Once they have interviewed each other, a chart can be made showing the numerous countries, nations, states or cities from which their ancestors or the students themselves have come. There will be surprising variety in these tabulated results. Compare them to the locals mentioned in the poem.

6. Verse 17 is short and easy to understand. Ask students to explain, in one concise paragraph, how metaphorically this particular verse is a precursor to globalization.

7. Verse 18 shows Whitman’s respect for the losers as much as the winners in any conflict. This verse can evoke strong opinions about the winner-take-all value system that now dominates society. Ruminations, short essays in which students use first person to explore ideas, can be written from this verse. See that students stay on topic, although they may range in focus from sports to warfare to relationships.

8. Although difficult, verse 21 emphasizes gender equality. Have the students take lines 425-427 and show them in a poster created to illustrate the value of women as well as men.

9. Verse 26 is all about the sense of hearing. Whitman lists sounds and enjoys them all. Take the students outside, if possible, or ask them to do the assignment out of doors on their own time. Have them sit quietly and listen to whatever sounds they hear. Tell them to turn off their iPods and cell phones and pay rapt attention to the tiniest of noises. Then ask them to describe the sounds so that their readers can hear what they are hearing. If possible, they should write up the experience in a poetic style similar to that used by Whitman.

10. Students ordinarily love animals and have had a variety of experiences with them. Verse 32 allows them the opportunity to share these experiences. Ask students to write the name of their favorite animal and then write three reasons this animal earns such high regard. When they are finished, ask students to share their responses. But first explain to them that they probably picked an animal reflective of characteristics they either possess or want to someday possess. For example, a boy who chooses a tiger as his favorite animal because it is strong, good looking and intelligent may be seeking this sort of image in himself. Students will find this exercise enjoyable and enlightening; they love insight into themselves.

11. Students can be asked to write a discussion of the validity of verse 39 which extols a romanticized image of an uncivilized man. Ask the students to address this verse critically by writing a brief essay, on whether or not there is any truth to what Whitman is saying. Have them cite support from the poem and comment of the citation. Students are being asked to discuss whether or not there is any merit in his concept; this is an opinion piece.

12. Verse 48 is about God. Have the students find a phrase, an image or a few lines that speak directly to their own notions of God. They should write a one paragraph reflection on the line chosen in which they explain the importance of the line, the meaning of the words or images and how it applies to their own education or experience with the concept of God.


“When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer”

This poem points out to students what they may have intuited long ago: education associated with experience beats book-learning.

Have the students gather in groups of three and develop a lesson plan that would teach their own age group a lesson that texts books now try to communicate. Tell them that they have no restraints; they can send the students to a lake or a foreign city or a war zone or to the moon if this would help their stated learning goals. Be sure that they follow an outline: intended lesson, reason for the lesson, experience designed to teach the lesson, method of measuring whether or not the lesson has been learned. This should be fun, although it may be difficult. The intended lesson must be in sync with the goals of education in general: Will the knowledge gained in the lesson help the students in the future? Provide them with the ability to get into college or to get and hold a good job?


“For You O Democracy”

Walt Whitman’s love for democracy is apparent in many of his poems as well as in the prologue to Leaves of Grass and in Democratic Vistas, two essays he wrote criticizing the state of American democracy after the Civil War. His poem, “For You O Democracy” is a concise summary of his ideas about the very nature of democracy. Ask the students to write a formal analytical essay in response to the following prompt:

Whitman’s poem, “For You O Democracy” illustrates the essential element in the preconditions necessary for democracy to work. In your essay identify the speaker and the concept the speaker intends to use in creating a functioning democracy. Back up your points with direct reference to the work.

Note to Teachers: In this poem Whitman suggests that caring for compatriots is the key to democracy.



1. Ask the students to use their knowledge of history to see how reconciling with an opponent such as the Marshall Plan, the actions of the black majority after the end of apartheid in South Africa, or the many instances of the use of non-violent mass action has fomented peace. They may be able to show how when reconciliation has not occurred, such as in the Treaty of Versailles, Chechnya, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and further conflicts have ensued.

2. Ask the class to write informally about forgiveness and to reflect upon when it has been important in their own lives. See that they explore the personal characteristics required in order to be able to forgive. Ask them to look at the elements of the word “for/give” and to consider what it is that they give to someone when they pardon an offence.


“When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”

This long poem is one of Whitman’s most famous; it deals directly with the assassination of a beloved president. Whitman wrote four elegies about Lincoln which can be found in “Drum Tap”, his category for war related poems. In this poem, Whitman describes the funeral train that passed through various cities carrying the body of Lincoln to Illinois where he was buried. By noting the deep respect for Lincoln held by President Obama, this poem can be linked to current affairs.

Divide the class into groups. Give each group one or two of the verses, depending upon length and the number of students in the class, to explicate and present to the class as a whole. The groups should present the verses in order and use whatever visuals or music, posters or any other creative technique available to bring the poem to life for their peers.


“O Captain! My Captain!”

This is one of Whitman’s most popular poems. It is used meter and rhyme, unlike most of Whitman’s poetry. Walt Whitman paid close attention to the manner in which his poems were printed and the spacing of the lines. Show the class this document from the Library of Congress in which Whitman corrected a corrupted version of the poem which had been published. He sent this corrected version to the publisher and asked them to correct it in any future printings.

There is no written exercise for this poem. Read it in class, but before reading it, ask the class to imagine our country, bitterly divided in a civil war, with millions of dead, including their friends and relatives. During the Civil War the U.S. had a population of about 31,000,000 people. Currently, its population is more than 300,000,000. Six to seven hundred thousand people, mostly men, died in the Civil War. It would be as if more than 6 million died in today’s America. The leader who saw the country through to victory in that struggle, and who was beloved by tens of millions in the North, was Abraham Lincoln. And then, suddenly, he is struck down by an assassin’s bullet.


In preparing for the lesson, have available any number of the following verses of “Song of Myself” and four selected poems that most clearly illustrate Whitman’s remarkable skills as both a writer and a thinker. The best texts of Whitman’s work can be found in the last authorized edition of Leaves of Grass, published in Philadelphia in 1891-2. The discussion questions are organized by the order of appearance of the scenes which suggested them and should be addressed prior to work on the poems. Assignments on each of the poems follow the discussion questions.

From Song of Myself: (These are not titles; they are topics)

Verse 1; Introduction, invitation into the 52 verses;
Verse 6: What is the grass;
Verse 10: Runaway slave;
Verse 11: Twenty eight bathers;
Verse 16: Egalitarianism;
Verse 17: Disclaimer about origin of ideas;
Verse 18: Respect for the defeated;
Verse 21: Gender equality;
Verse 26: On listening;
Verse 32: Respect for animals;
Verse 39: Respect for non-civilized man;
Verse 48: About God.

Other Poems:

When I heard the Learn’d Astronomer — from By The Roadside;

For You O Democracy — From Calamus;

Reconciliation — from Drum-Taps;

When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d, Verse 10 — from Memories Of President Lincoln;

Oh, Captain, My Captain — from Drum-Taps.

Click here for a printable version of these poems.

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These questions have two purposes. The first is to enhance students’ understanding of the film and their identification with Whitman. The second is to impart the information called for in the questions.

For these questions, there are generally no single correct answers. Instead, there are strong or weak answers depending upon the logic used and the evidence marshalled to support the response.

1. Early in the film, Dr. Bucke watches the treatment of the patient named Leonard Thomas, a character who is important throughout the film. Dr. Bucke tells Leonard that, “I believe we are doing this for your own good. ” Explain the irony in this statement.

Suggested Response:

Dr. Bucke does not believe that any of the harsh methods of treating the mental patients will work. In this statement he points out how the medical professionals are operating with the intention, however misguided, of helping the patients.


2. Dr. Bucke asks the bloodied surgeon if the operations performed on the patients improve their lives. The surgeon says he does not understand the question. What do we learn from his response?

Suggested Response:

We learn that the professionals treating the mental patients are concerned with relief of symptoms but do not factor into their practices the quality of life that may result from their methods.


3. When Dr. Bucke’s daughter is playing the piano, she shifts from a sedate tune to a jazz riff. Dr. Buck expresses delight; his wife objects. What is revealed in this scene?

Suggested Response:

This scene shows the attitudes of the wife, who represents the culture at large and is concerned with propriety, in opposition to the attitudes of Dr. Bucke, who is more playful and willing to show passion. Dr. Bucke’s attitude expresses the progressive philosophy of Whitman.


4. The lecture hall in Philadelphia illustrates the kinds of treatments available to mental patients at the time. How does Dr. Bucke respond, and what idea does he suggest that impresses Whitman?

Suggested Response:

Dr. Bucke feels shame and embarrassment and says that he is convinced that “feeling precedes thought.” He is suggesting that the current system of treatment robs patients of their dignity and that attention must be paid to their feelings.


5. Whitman plays with his apparently mentally handicapped brother in the scene in which Dr. Bucke visits his home. Whitman says to his brother, “You make me rich. Rich like a king.” This line is echoed later when Dr. Bucke comforts Leonard. What does repetition of the line reveal about Dr. Bucke?

Suggested Response:

Dr. Bucke has been learning a great deal from Whitman and is now applying these lessons to his methods of dealing with his patients; he understands the power of caring.


6. Dr. Bucke seems to be embarrassed about the injuries that have left him with a serious limp. When Whitman asks to see the wound and shows no repulsion, what lesson does Bucke learn?

Suggested Response:

Bucke learns not to feel ashamed of his deformity; he is not grotesque. Dr. Bucke is relieved of the burden of shame when Whitman says, “To hell with modesty, man. It never healed a person on this earth.”


7. As Whitman’s brother runs in playful circles around them, Dr. Buck listens to advice from Whitman. What is the advice?

Suggested Response:

Whitman says a person’s only duty is to love the earth, the sun and animals. He suggests that people should despise riches and “give alms to anyone who asks.” He tells Dr. Bucke to hate tyrants and to stand up for the weak and the stupid. “Take off your hat to nobody.” Whitman adds, “Don’t argue about God.” He also says that one should re-examine everything learned in school and throw out whatever insults the soul.


8. In the conversation with the journalist, Whitman explains his alleged atheism. How?

Suggested Response:

Whitman says that Jesus and the church “went and got divorced” but nonetheless the Bible is “the best book ever written.” He then tells the journalist what he does not believe: that God is a “petty minded crank” who punishes those people who strive to enjoy their time on Earth.


9. How does Whitman respond to the journalist’s criticism of America?

Suggested Response:

Whitman tells the journalist that he is not pleased with how his country “grows by the gun.” He points out that there is a difference between the government itself and the America he has in his mind which is a democracy made of all races of men and women.


10. When Reverend Haines expresses fear of Whitman’s ideas to the journalist, he says “It’s not the man that concerns me; it’s the voice.” What point is he making?

Suggested Response:

The pastor in concerned that Whitman is someone who will be heard because of his poetry. Whitman is respected, admired and loved. People will listen to his ideas because of who he is and how he expresses himself rather than because of what he says.


11. Soon after Mrs. Bucke leaves the outdoor table in objection to Whitman and her husband eating asparagus with their fingers, she drinks from a hidden bottle of alcohol. What irony can be found here?

Suggested Response:

Mrs. Bucke cannot let go of social conventions that steal away both abandon and joy. She mitigates this sense of restraint and the disappointments of her life through alcohol. There is a parallel between Mrs. Bucke’s drinking and the treatment of the patients in the asylum who are given alcohol to keep them sedated. It could be suggested that Mrs. Bucke is like the patients in her inability to live fully, a notion that is supported later in the film when she seeks help for her depression.


12. In the film’s presentation of Molly, the woman strapped to the chair and smacked with a wet towel, what point is being made about how insanity is defined?

Suggested Response:

Molly is overworked and miserable. She cannot cope with the life that she is forced to live and in her rebellion against the daily struggle she must face, she is brought to the asylum. The suggestion here is that life experiences, rather than internal organ disorders or moral failings may cause an individual to lose both control and perspective.


13. How does Whitman introduce Dr. Bucke to the concept of play as therapy?

Suggested Response:

After Whitman is told the reasons that Leonard is restrained and gloved, he comments, “Nobody has any fun around here.” Whitman then removes Leonard’s gloves and begins to play a game of catch with the wheelchair bound man. He says to Leonard, “You’re going to need a little practice.” Before long, Dr. Bucke has the patients playing cricket.


14. How does Whitman explain the resistance Dr. Bucke meets in his efforts to bring progressive methods of treatment to the asylum?

Suggested Response:

Whitman tells Dr. Bucke that people are afraid of change; he says that they do not know how to respond when they feel the sand shifting under their feet. He says that, “Democracy scares the pants off of them.”


15. When Whitman is invited to recite to the guests on the asylum lawn, he speaks a few lines from “Song of the Open Road,” an invitation to explore life. What is the effect of this poem on the listeners?

Suggested Response:

Some are perplexed; some do not seem to be sure they have actually heard a poem since Whitman’s style is unique and his content challenging. Mrs. Bucke seems to have heard the invitation to live more fully and after this point quotes from Leaves of Grass in several scenes.


16. In dispute with the journalist who is writing negative reviews of the progressive changes at the asylum, Dr. Bucke quotes from verse 48 of “Song of Myself”: “And whoever walks a furlong without sympathy walks to his own funeral dressed in his shroud.” What point is Dr. Bucke making through the use of Whitman’s words?

Suggested Response:

Dr. Bucke is seeking empathy from the journalist and in quoting this section of Whitman’s poetry he is alluding to the idea that all humans share humanity and none are better or worse than any other. Dr. Bucke wants respect for his patients.


17. In the scene at the river in which Mrs. Bucke finds her husband and Whitman singing opera and taking a mud bath, she seems to have some insight into the old poet’s mind. What do you think the film is suggesting in this scene?

Suggested Response:

Answers will vary. Some may think that Mrs. Bucke is projecting her own feelings of loneliness and isolation onto Whitman; others may think that the film is bringing up, however obliquely, the notion that Whitman was a homosexual and as such felt the social approbation of the times. (There is no documentation of Whitman’s homosexuality although it is generally extrapolated from his work.) Still others may suggest that Whitman experienced the loneliness of the mystic, the spiritual man in a material society.


18. In his poems of procreation, Whitman shows deep appreciation for both the passion and reproduction inherent in human sexuality. This is apparent in the film when Dr. Bucke recites the lines from Whitman’s poem, “A Woman Waits for Me”, calling for an end to shame. Why were such thoughts considered so radical at the time Whitman lived?

Suggested Response:

Answers may vary. Whitman wrote toward the end of what may be referred to as the Victorian Age with its well documented sexual repression. Even piano legs were covered during the years Whitman’s poems were being read. Whitman’s books were banned in several communities, and his references to sexuality were considered obscene by many civic and religious leaders.


19. What purpose is served and what lessons are learned from the cricket match held at the asylum picnic?

Suggested Response:

Dr. Bucke managed to show the townspeople that there was nothing to fear in his progressive treatment of the patients at the hospital. He also reiterated the value of play, despite the fact that according to Reverend Haines, mental patients playing cricket made “a mockery of man’s finest sport.” Even Dr. Bucke’s reluctant surgeon opens windows, takes off his jacket, and joins in the game.


20. When told about the changes apparent in the ethos of Whitman and in the ideas of Dr. Bucke, Reverend Haines, who had earlier excoriated the poet in a sermon, says: “There is a new blade in the guillotine and it is very, very sharp.” What warning is he giving to the mayor in this dialogue?

Suggested Response:

The guillotine was originally invented as a humane alternative to the agony of hanging. Execution by guillotine took just a second. The most frequent early use of the guillotine was during the French revolution when tens of thousands of aristocrats and royalist peasants were beheaded. Reverend Haines’ statement is an allusion to the French Revolution and the use of the guillotine to efficiently execute those who represented the old order. By referring to the guillotine, Reverend Haines is suggesting that persons such as himself who stand firm against what they see as destructive changes in the social system will be destroyed along with the old values that have stood in place for centuries.

21. See Discussion Questions for Use With any Film that is a Work of Fiction.



1. Who is the male role model in this film, Whitman or Dr. Bucke, or both?

2. What are the admirable aspects of the characters of Dr. Bucke and Whitman?


3. What do you think of Dr. Bucke’s innovations in the treatment of the mentally ill? Why?

4. We now understand that many mental illnesses are physically based. This was just the point made by the doctors who Dr. Bucke challenged. Describe the concept of circularity as it relates to medical treatments.


See Quick Discussion Question



5. Did Bucke and Whitman have a co-equal friendship or was it that Bucke gave and Whitman received?


Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.


(Treat others with respect; follow the Golden Rule; Be tolerant of differences; Use good manners, not bad language; Be considerate of the feelings of others; Don’t threaten, hit, or hurt anyone; Deal peacefully with anger, insults, and disagreements)

1. Why did the minister of the local church feel threatened by Whitman? Should the minister have respected Whitman’s views?


Assignment, Projects & Activities Here.


CCSS Anchors Here.


None, other than Whitman’s poetry itself.


This Learning Guide written by Mary RedClay with assistance from James Frieden. Last updated June 1, 2013.

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