1.  Cowboy Jonathan

It was always just as the sun began to cast its haunting shadows against the brick buildings in Providence that I would walk across the Brown University campus green in the 1960s and settle into a chair in the John Hay Library. Resting my book on the long wooden table illuminated by a Tiffany-style lamp, I would read the Romantic poets: Wordsworth and Coleridge, Blake and Keats. Through them, I began to understand the importance of literature, how it could make a difference in our lives.

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?

Nearly forty years have passed, and I am talking about Wordsworth with a group of undergraduates at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth. They look much as I did in my days at Brown. I ask a young man to comment on the poem assigned this autumn day, 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 him to tell me about these lines, what he sees in them, what he feels, what he believes. He may not sense the full weight of these lines in the classroom today, but I am convinced he will remember their cadence and eventually come to their meaning.

Like Wordsworth, I know literature can redeem us. It can, at its best, soothe the sting of death itself. A shared story serves as a covenant that binds us together. As Wordsworth’s Michael tells his son Luke, as they work together side by side, shortly before Luke goes off into the city never to be seen again:

‘Twill be between us; but, whatever fate

Befal thee, I shall love thee to the last,

And bear thy memory with me to the grave.’

Wordsworth knew the simple dignity of honest labor and the joy of shared memory called forth through the language of the heart. When I read him with my undergraduates today though, I often silently recall fragments of another story, one he did not know, but one he would have appreciated.

It is a story about another young man, my son Jonathan Blake Waxler, whose gravestone stands in a grassy field with other gravemarkers and quietly reads back to us these dates:

February 9, 1969 - -August 20, 1995.

Like most fathers, I loved him with a radiance and joy that Wordsworth would have fully 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 to-day

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 endless 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 any particular night, but we cared about him, rooted for him, felt his danger, and celebrated his triumphs. He became part of our collective memory, and we carried with us traces of his story wherever we went.

Cowboy Jonathan lived in a mythical place between father and son, a place that Wordsworth helped to define, a place mixed with memory and desire (as T. S. Eliot said). It is a place that remains as real and significant to me as other locations of shared experience. That is what Wordsworth knew: Literature can give us a place, a habitation and a name through which to live and dream.

In my imagination now, I am sitting once again at a wooden table in the John Hay Library recalling one of the final times I saw Jonathan. The bright sun catches the curls of his light brown hair, sparkling as he reads a poem to me while we wait patiently for his plane in La Guardia airport in New York. It could have been Wordsworth:

The Child is father of the Man

And I could wish my days to be

Bound each to each by natural piety….

 

                                                            ***

 

                                               

Jonathan Blake Waxler was my first son, born in 1969 in a fierce snow storm in Boston with family surrounding him, dead in 1995 lying on a bed alone in San Francisco with a needle stuck in his vein. That is the starkness of it, but it says nothing about the beauty and truth of the man or the story.

His middle name came from the poet William Blake, a visionary artist who, like Jonathan, celebrated the imagination as life itself. Blake lived a long life, played out his robust potential. Jonathan did not, although, in his short life, he accomplished more than most achieve through many years. He taught and he wrote, endlessly struggled for those less fortunate than himself, knew more about compassion than anyone else I ever met.

His friends always claimed he had a rare sparkle that could light up a room, a gift from childhood when he would race around our house, opening cupboards, exploring new hideouts, exciting everyone with his boundless exuberance. “Energy is Eternal Delight,” Blake once wrote, and Jonathan perfectly embodied that fiery aphorism. His hearty laugh could transform an awkward moment into a wonder.

Yet the delight of a sparkler is always short-lived, I suppose, like those slim silver rods I remember when I was young on the Fourth of July, stirring excitement and wonder with their blue sparks electrifying the air and then quickly fizzling and fading into darkness.

 

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Last updated
02/14/05
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