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William Carlos Williams: A Doctor’s Faith, a Poet’s Faith


By Robert Coles | June 1986

When I was a college student I wrote a long paper on the poetry of William Carlos Williams. He was then (1950) by no means the giant figure in American letters he would only become posthu­mously — when numerous awards were tossed at his memory. (He died in 1963 at the age of 80 — and so he had waited in vain for a long time to re­ceive a nod or two from his writing colleagues.) I was a senior at Harvard when I wrote my essay, and my advisor was Perry Miller, who had given years of his life to a study of the New England Pur­itan tradition. I had hoped to pursue a similar line of inquiry myself — study early American Protes­tantism through recourse to history and literature rather than theology. But Miller must have sensed some restless anarchic energy in me, because he kept telling me I’d “enjoy” Williams’s poetry — no matter that important figures in Harvard’s English Department at the time had no great affection or respect for him! “You’ll like him; he gives hell to the Ivy League, and to lots of other fake orna­ments of secular America,” I was told.

I did like Williams’s writing. Eventually I got to know him, and got to witness the medical part of his life. He was an old-fashioned “general prac­titioner,” who labored long and hard (and often enough, for little if any recompense) among the largely immigrant poor of northern New Jersey. When I applied to medical school (no matter my poor grades in the sciences) it was because I’d been much inspired by his example. He was forever being stimulated by his patients — healed by them, I began to realize, with the help of his wonderfully patient and shrewdly understanding wife, Flossie, whom I knew well and kept visiting until her death in 1976. “Bill was always complaining about how hard it was for him — to be a full-time doctor, and to write as much as he did — but he could never have done it any other way,” she once told me. She explained that observation with this terse fol­low-up remark: “He needed those visits to those tenement houses; the people there expanded his imagination, and I noticed over the years how much they healed him.”

He had, more abstractly, acknowledged as much several times in the course of our talks. I well remember one visit I made to him. I was a third-year medical student, and was feeling overwhelmed by the sheer volume of facts I had to absorb — not to mention the growing realization of the responsi­bility a doctor’s life demands. He listened to my worries and complaints, brushed them aside a bit impatiently: “Look, the rewards are great. All the time there is the satisfaction of doing something half worthwhile — and being helped to feel better about yourself by the appreciative affection of those you’ve treated. They treat you!” He was, himself, quite sick when he spoke those words — hence the poignancy of the next statement he made: “I miss my patients. I need them now. They’d make me feel a hell of a lot better — I know — if I could see them!”

No one who has written about Williams has said much about his religious views, his spiritual life — and understandably, I suppose. He was no church-goer; and he could be devastatingly sardon­ic as he contemplated the phony side of 20th-cen­tury Christianity, not to mention its long and sad institutional history: persecutions, wars, greed and plunder, murders of so many people — all in the name of this or that creedal orthodoxy. He had his own way of saying what the Catholic philosopher Romano Guardini asserted with these words: “The Church is the Cross on which Christ was crucified.” Williams’s words went like this: “They keep nailing Him — in His name!”

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