By The Editors / November / December 1999
November 5th, 2007
It was always just as the sun began to cast haunting shadows against the brick buildings that I would walk across the Brown campus and settle into a chair to read the Romantic poets: Wordsworth and Coleridge, Blake and Keats. Through them, I began to understand the importance of literature. The Child is father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.

How old was I when I first came across those lines from Wordsworth? A sophomore, nineteen years old?

More than thirty years have passed, and I am talking about Wordsworth with a group of under- graduates in a classroom at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth. They look, I imagine, much as I did in my days at Brown. I ask a young man to comment on the assigned poem, Wordsworth's story of Michael and his son Luke.

Than that a child, more than all other gifts
That earth can offer to declining man,
Brings hope with it, and forward-looking thoughts.
And stirrings of inquietude.

I want the student to tell me about these lines, what he sees in them, what he believes. He may not yet fully comprehend them, but I am convinced he will remember their cadence and eventually come to their meaning.

Like Wordsworth, I believe literature can redeem us. It can, at its best, save us from the sting of death. A shared story is a covenant that binds us together. As Wordsworth's Michael tells his son while they work side by side, shortly before Luke leaves for the city, never to be seen again:

'T will be between us; but, whatever fate
Befall thee, I shall love thee to the last,
And bear thy memory with me to the grave.

Wordsworth knew the simple dignity of labor and the joy of shared memory. When I read him with my students today, though, I recall fragments of a different story - one he did not tell, but one he would have appreciated. It is a story about a young man whose gravestone stands in a grassy field, marked with these dates: February 9, 1969 - August 20, 1995. It is the gravestone of my son, Jonathan Blake Waxler, who died as a result of an insidious drug addiction when he was twenty-four.

The circumstances of his death may have been stark, but they reflect so little of what Jonathan truly was, and how he lived. My son lived passionately and with unusual concern for others. He kept two posters on the wall of his bedroom. One depicted Cesar Chavez, a reminder of Jonathan's commitment to the struggle for social justice. The other depicted Jerry Garcia, an emblem of Jonathan's love of music and a lifestyle that felt easy and free, communal and ongoing.

Jonathan's friends agreed he had a rare sparkle that could light up a room. Even his infectious, hearty laugh could transform an awkward moment into a wonder. No doubt he would have set the world on fire if he had had the time. Some workers at a labor gathering once said that Jonathan had changed their lives by helping them to organize a strike in Albany. They said he had taught them something important, something about the human heart.

I loved him with a radiance and joy that Wordsworth would have understood.

Then sing ye Birds, sing sing a joyous song!...
We in thought will join your throng
Ye that pipe and ye that play
Ye that through your hearts today
Feel the gladness of the May!
What though the radiance that was once so bright
Be now for ever taken from my sight.

When Jonathan was young, I would make up cowboy stories for him at bedtime, long after the sun had gone down. Cowboy Jonathan became a character of end-less adventure, riding off to meet his next challenge, returning home weary, yet always ready for another journey out. We were never certain what would happen to Cowboy Jonathan when he set out on his ride, but we rooted for him, felt his danger, and celebrated his triumphs.

Cowboy Jonathan lived in a mythical place between father and son, a place mixed with "memory and desire," in the words of T.S. Eliot. It is a place that remains as real and important to me as any other location I have shared with friends or family. That is what Wordsworth knew: literature can give us a place, a habitation through which to live and dream.

In my imagination Jonathan and I are waiting for his plane to be called at LaGuardia Airport. The bright sun catches his hair and makes it sparkle as he reads a poem to me. It might have been Wordsworth:

The Child is father to the Man
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.

A professor of English at the University of Massaschusetts at Dartmouth, Robert Waxler lives in North Dartmouth, Massachusetts.

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November / December 1999