The Building of the Bridge.

 

by Barry Straton

 

AN IDYL

OF

The River Saint John

 


 

The Building of the Bridge.

 

POEM.

 

TO THE RIVER SAINT JOHN.

 
Since thy waters sprang from the black night chaotic,

Alien from thy orient shore, mourned thy hesperian strand;

Past is now thy power vast of tides despotic,

For our bridge shall bind them like a golden marriage band.

What we join together,

5

May no stress of weather,

Winds that war above this pledge with lightning and hoarse thunder,
Or thy rushing spring-flood, with crushing ice-floes under,

Put ruthlessly asunder.

 

Broad, majestic stream, for knowledge I beseech thee;

10

Move my soul to song as strong as thy resistless flow!

Water, elemental in man's nature, teach me;

Tell me what thy murmurs mean, and ripples whispering low!

I, a minstrel idle,

Fain would sing the bridal

15
Of thy sunny shores, with blissful peace and plenty crowned,

Fain would weave some story

As tribute to thy glory.

Fair New Brunswick's proudest stream, in our fond hearts enthroned!



Respectfully Dedicated to
The Hon. A.G. Blair,

Attorney General
of the Province of New Brunswick,

On the Occasion of the Opening of the Bridge at
Fredericton, November 27th, 1887.

 

The Building of the Bridge.

 

Who gazes on this graceful bridge,

20
The offspring of prosperity,
The people's pride and privilege,
Each arch a rainbow to assure
This tide shall bar our path no more,
Sees more than outward eye may see, 25
If, giving flow to fantasy,
He  follows where sweet thoughts allure,
Nor deems it weakness to possess
A mind such pleasures may impress.
 

All arts must have their infancy

30
And gradual growth, whether they be
Mechanical, which toil and build,
Rearing this bridge with skillful hand,
Or those which cultured ease demand,
And each holds honor for its guild, 35
And all spring from necessity.
 

Far backward in barbarian years

I see the treacherous stepping-stone
By nature placed, or, haply, thrown
By skin-clad man to thwart the stream, 40
And capped by safer fire-wrought beam,
Reared by the rude arch-architect,
The prime inception of these piers
And airy spans which we perfect.
 

But ere the birth of building Man

45
In Asia, cradle of the Race,
Nature, who loves to educate,
Had reared a strange aerial span,
A bridge of massive strength and grace,
Which man may never duplicate, 50
In this New World. In that demesne
Named from the English Virgin Queen,
The ponderous limestone arch was hung
When new-born spheres together sung.
Like life of man, now cloud, now sheen, 55
The brooklet brattles through the glade,
At bottom of that dark ravine
By ancient torrents slowly made,
So deep, who gazes from below
Beholds all day the stars aglow. 60
 

As crude as stepping-stones and trees

Are those rough ropes of twisted bark,
And sliding baskets, stretching o'er
Debarring canons, deep and dark,
Where down the sheer declivities 65
Of the rich Andes torrents pour,
Bursting in spray with thunder loud,
Born of eternal snows and cloud.
 

Another curious bridge behold

At Iwakuni, in Japan, 70
The Nation's pride, three centuries old,
Whose arches five no roadway bear,
No easy, level thoroughfare,
But up and down them beast and man
Climb on a toilsome wooden stair, 75
Like boats by lazy billows rolled!
 

In all the Bridging Art's advance,

Of all the records of its lore,
None educates, none pleases more,
None reads more like a sweet romance, 80
Than that which tells how Benezet
Sainted by Church for deeds of good
Long years ago in Southern France,
Pleasant with vale and rivulet,
Formed that Bridge-Building Brotherhood 85
Who built the welcome Inn at fords,
As free to paupers as to lords,
And bridged the deeper streams, or made
Safe boats, that none might be delayed,
And wore, for work or worship drest, 90
The pick emblazoned on the breast.
 

     These toilers were akin to thee,

     Fair River,thou who teachest me,
     For as the centuries sped on,
     Did they not join in Chivalry 95
     The Knightly Order of Saint John?
 

Full well they builded in their day,

And on the walls of time we read.
"They wrought in services of peace,
That light might be and groping cease; 100
They strove to fill their people's need:
Their glory passeth not away."
 

When Rome's proud sceptre swayed the earth,

Not all of War her warriors taught:
In public works her people wrought, 105
And first the graceful arch applied
To safely span the treacherous tide,
Giving the Bridging Art new birth.
Vast aqueducts o'er sloping vales,
Which to their towns sweet waters bore, 110
Whose ruins read like fairy tales,
Arch above arch her builders reared,
Which, high and strong, yet light appeared,
And bridges famous in old lore.
 

Who turns not fondly to the page,

115
Dreamed over in scholastic youth,
Which witnesses the bridge which stood,
Through years of happiness or ruth.
Above the sacred Tiber's flood,
Where, in the Commonwealth's early age 120
The three brave Romans held at bay
Etruria's conquering array!
Base Tarquin, banished, held in hate
The liberated Roman State
By Brutus freed, and now he came 125
With Tuscan foes and chiefs of fame,
And vanquished on the plains about
The Roman force that sallied out.
Across the bridge the Romans poured,
And, hard behind, the Tuscan horde 130
Came rushing and had won the town
Before the bridge were overthrown,
And given it to sack and sword,
Had not Horatius held in play
The foe within that narrow way, 135
With Spurius Lartius on his right,
Herminius on his left, to fight.
Here they withstood the swift attack;
Fierce were the blows they gave and took,
And, when behind the timbers shook, 140
Herminius, Lartius, sped them back,
But still Horatius faced the foe,
Brave as a lion mad with blood
Who rules the jungle as his own,
Until into the droumy flood 145
Swollen and eddying below,
The sundered bridge fell thundering down.
 

Then, in his battered armor girt,

And weak from many a bleeding hurt,
With sword in sheath and shield in hand, 150
Horatius lept into the tide,
And swam to reach the other side,
Welcomed with mighty shouts to land.
 

O, glorious man, of gallant deed!

Thou and thy comrades shall not die, 155
But live with us in minstrelsy,
And in fair Canada's direst need
The tale shall fire our soldiery,
And teach our sons to fight and bleed.
 

As years sped on, man's cultured brain

160
Evolved more glorious industry:
Our builders new material sought,
And thus, in Britain's Isle we see
How Stephenson and Darby wrought
Their iron bridges, which remain 165
Their monuments of skill and thought!
Full well he builded in his day,
Wise Stephenson! a seer of those
Who nobly strive, with mighty throes,
The spirit's promptings to obey, 170
Of whom Fate's voice is heard to say,
"However good the work he plan
Though arts advance and truths be found
His quest is never won of man,
His work and wisdom have their bound, 175
For, if he solve all mystery,
He equaleth his Deity."
 

Though man be stubborn, strong, and stern,

There dwells within much tenderness,
Warm loves which starve for happiness, 180
Emotions which for kindness yearn
As children crave a fond caress,
Nor is it strange that he should turn
From some vast bridge with arts aglow,
And think more fair the moss-grown bow, 185
Which, in some country solitude,
Where babel trade may not intrude,
Spans some sweet whisper-hiding burn,
Where, in the gloaming, lovers meet
Beneath the kindly arching boughs, 190
To breathe the old, old tale, and vows
Heart-born and holy, strong and sweet.
 

 

A different scene, in shadows dun,
The pitying soul now broods upon, 195
And sees on Beresina's flood
Two bridges, red and dank with blood,
Built for his perishing army's flight,
When through cold Russia's wintry gloom
Napoleon hastened from his doom, 200
When, hovering round him day and night,
The Cossacks on the sufferers fell,
Coming like shadows unawares,
Like leopards leaping from their lairs,
Revengeful, strong, inplacable, 205
The exhausted, striving pontoniers
Died as they wrought, and when each pass
Was choked with the retreating mass,
The Russian batteries on the bank
Hurled crashing ball and shrieking shell, 210
All aimed and timed so deadly well
They swept the victims, rank on rank,
Mangled and torn, beneath the wave,
Of thousands the untended grave.
 

For them the roof-trees wait in vain;

215
No welcome swells their hearts again;
No friends shall shout on their return,
No wifely lips shall kiss and yearn,
No leaping babes shall laugh and prate,
And hearts and homes are desolate. 220
 

Ah, River! strife is weariness, and woes and want its wages;

   Bid Death destroy his bridge of boats, and wars forever cease.
Their records read with dreariness,oh, close the bloody pages!
   I listen for thy glistening notes which sing our bridges of peace.
 

For light and strong our bridge shall be;

225
No wasteful weight our builders rear;
The skilled, ingenious Engineer,
Versed in the records of his art,
Seeking great strength, with symmetry,
The points of weight and strain defines, 230
And builds his structure on these lines,
Rejecting every useless part;
With arch and truss-work aptly joined
He plans for strength and grace combined.
 

That People shall not retrograde

235
Who view, in daily life displayed,
The love of beauty. He who sees
The pleasing structures of his land,
Though he be slow to understand,
Must grasp some meaning by degrees, 240
Must feel some thoughts within him stir,
Must hear some promptings which aver,
"They point to life more broad, more grand
They tell of things more fair then these."
Then shall his heart know warmer moods, 245
His soul reach higher altitudes.
 

Culled from the eloquent solitudes

Of fair New Brunswick's wealthy woods,
Tough birch, outlasting years of years,
Shall form foundations for the piers. 250
Jointed and bolted, and hemmed around
By ponderous piles which pierce the ground,
And filled with anchoring tons of rocks,
Deep in the stream the stout cribs lie
And stem the tide which rushes by 255
And bravely bear the ice-floe's shocks.
O, builders! lay them true and strong;
For if the humbler work go wrong
The finer parts ye rear in vain:
Even so the social life of man, 260
Which national strength may ne'er attain
Unless each fill his destined sphere.
However lowly in life's plan,
With patient hearts, that toil and bear,
Defying fortune, large with cheer. 265
 

And next the stalwart piers we raise

Of cedar, wood which Solomon
Hewed from the slopes of Lebanon
When building to his MAKER'S praise
     Ah! Solomon, in glory dressed, 270
     Was not arrayed like one of these
     Nude lilies slumbering on thy breast,
     O, thou fair stream of mysteries!
We sheathe them in the water-ways
With planks of birch, that ice and drift 275
May take no hold, may find no rift,
To work them harm: the sloping prows
We plate with iron, like mighty plows.
To cut the ponderous floes which lift
When, strong as death, which none may fly, 280
The giant spring-flood crushes by.
 

Meanwhile, upon the eastern bank,

Where timber for each span is stored,
The shores resound with busy clank
As skilled mechanics ply their trade, 285
Shaping the solid Southern pine
For arch and brace, and post, and chord,
Following the plan in every line,
Till every shapely part is made
And fashioned to the true design. 290
The sturdy blows fall thick and fast,
The sundered chips fly left and right
From early dawn to early night,
As leaves before a wintry blast
From skeleton trees are scattered down, 295
And loudly from the waiting town
The impatient, watchful whistles blow
As the tides of labor ebb and flow.
 

Behold the dignity of toil!

These are our Country's flesh and bones, 300
These are the Nation's beams and stones,
First, he who tills the generous soil,
Winning a People's daily food,
And then the mighty multitude
Of laborers and tradesmen skilled, 305
Who work and strive, who plan and build,
In Arts well learned and understood.
Their toil allows the grace and ease
Of those within the wealthy zone,
And they, in turn, their task must own, 310
Nor hide their talents in the ground.
For suffering and gloom abound,
And it is theirs to banish these.
And wherewith shall the strife be laid
Which shackles wealth, and toil, and trade? 315
There is a law within the soul
Whose mandates softly breathe content,
And calm injustice and dissent,
Unwrit save in the Holy Scroll,
The Law of Conscience, this should sway 320
Master and workman night and day.
A generous wage for willing work,
Whether it be of hand or brain,
The toiling arm which does not shirk,
The hand which grasps not all the gain, 325
Smiting the humble laborer,
By these our Nation we shall rear,
Until we be, from sea to sea,
One happy home, one family,
Where wealth, and toil, and trade shall meet 330
And make out National life complete.
 

Now, rough and strong, from pier to pier

A humble stage the builders rear,
Of posts which pierce the ooze and mud,
And tremble in the tawny flood, 335
To uphold the infant, growing span,
As a mother holds in loving arms,
Trembling for life's unseen alarms,
The child who soon shall be a man.
Then from the yard the beams are brought, 340
To true dimensions deftly wrought
For chord and arch, for post and stay,
And set in place without delay,
Till, one by one, each graceful span
Is reared without a fault or flaw, 345
As trim and true as on the plan,
And smoothly swings the ponderous draw,
A highway o'er a highway thrown,
As busy ships speed up and down.
 

Ah! happy those whose wedded life,

350
If ever marred by passing strife,
Swings easily to its path again,
For life hath darksome days and cares,
And selfishness sets many snares,
But love can let all faults glide past, 355
Then close its portals firm and fast,
More perfect for the break, the pain,
As skies are fairest after rain.
 

Lo, after many toilful days

Of single efforts multiplied, 360
Of minutes chained in their swift flight,
Of labor set in cheerful ways,
Of knowledge ordering all aright,
The sum and end and visible praise
Of mind and hand in work allied, 365
Our Bridge, perfected, crowns the tide!
 

     O, River, tell it to the sea!

     Ring, waves, a marriage melody!
     Sigh, south winds, through each arch of pine,
     Each bridal wreath old loves of thine; 370
    And calmly, winds and waters, dwell
     About the Bridge we love full well!
 

And ye who caused this Bridge to be

Elected Architects of State,
Who plan and build our Country's fate, 375
Who, wisely governing, fulfill
The people's sacred, governing will,
Still build our Country's industry,
Still work in services of peace
That light may be, and groping cease, 380
For gravest thought and strongest deed
Alone can fill our people's need.
Expound our full Provincial Rights,
And jealousies and careless slights
Meet ye with State-craft wise and bold, 385
And thus our purer Union mould.
 

So work ye on our Bridge of State,

Whose graceful spans are happy years
Between the shores we may not see
Of time and far eternity, 390
Unbroke of craven doubts and fears,
Leading to Empire broad and great,
So work ye on our Bridge of State,
Whose piers are deeds of massive strength,
Whose growing roadway's breadth and length 395
Was planned by lives whose lustre fate
May never darken or abate,
That, when these days are ancient years,
Your State-craft shine full bright like theirs.
 

     And wherewith shall I honor thee,

400
     Fair River, gliding to the sea,
     Whose vales and hill-tops lightly bear
     The beauty of a hemisphere?
     Were not our spirits closely wed,
     Were not I by thy music led, 405
     No hand of mine dare fret the string
     That with thy praises joys to ring.
 

When from thy bosom winter lifts,

And, rent, the ice-bond seaward drifts,
Upon thy hurrying, tireless tide 410
The spoils of rifled forests float,
Sent to thy arms from glades remote
By spring-born brooks which wander wide.
This is the lumberer's harvest home!
These, held secure in raft or boom, 415
Shall feed the panting mills which make
Their busy hum on stream and lake,
Coining, with muscles true and tried,
That wooden wealth which, shipped o'er seas,
Or to our growing towns supplied, 420
Returns in golden treasuries.
 

The steamers carrying life and freight,

The fisherman who casts his net,
The keeling yacht with white sails set,
The oarsman in his strength elate, 425
The deep-set ships, the freighter's boat
Planned over summer shoals to float,
By horses towed with patient gait,
Gay with its gaudy banneret,
All these thy generous bosom bears, 430
And each by grace and bounty shares.
 

What day thy skies are blue and bright,

Gorgeous with cloudlets, silvery white,
And thy broad breast is pranked with foam
By winds that waft rich cargoes home. 435
Fair to the merchant is the sight,
And dear to him whose public heart
Joys in the welfare of his mart
What scene inanimate shows more grace
Than these fair schooners, wing and wing, 440
As, speeding to the busy town,
They seem less ship than living thing!
And, resting from the billowy race,
Is there not music in the clink
Of chains uncoiling, link by link, 445
As the ponderous anchor splashes down
To hold each goodly ship in place!
Nor is it strange these barks should be
Fair to the eyes of all who see,
For all the elements they possess 450
Which mould true grace and loveliness
Symmetry, motion, mystery,
Stability, utility.
Nor fair alone, but true, are these;
Are not their cargoes always good, 455
Employing a vast multitude,
And filling their necessities?
O, ye, who nearest Heaven move,
Rich argosies of life and love,
Outwardly graceful, beautiful, 460
Mothers, who give our Nation wives,
And shape our future people's lives,
Be your full powers as dutiful,
And of good works as bountiful!
Ye who shall teach the pliant youth, 465
Dispense the nobler thought and deed!
Instil the broader, cosmic creed!
And, in the light of God's white truth,
The cowardly lies and maudlin strife,
Which mar our homes and public life, 470
Shall find with them no lot nor meed.
 

     Fair River! Health and wealth abide

     With all who take or stem thy tide!
     Now, prithee, softly sing for me
     The glory of thy scenery. 475
 

Who, worn with work, would find sweet rest,

May launch his buoyant bark, and glide
Along thy sparkling, rippling tide,
Some little distance to the west,
Where stately elms rear slender stems 480
Begirt by living anadems,
Where emerald islands gem thy breast,
And, domed by fleece-flecked, azure skies,
Through sunny lands thy pathway lies.
 

This balmy morn in bridal June

485
My soul's deep silences are stirred
By thy refulgent views displayed,
As by the love-song of a bird,
A brooklet, draped in mist and shade,
Which dim the brilliant beams of noon, 490
Is haunted, and instinctive made,
And I with thee am held attune.
 

The wandering airs that sway the grass

Hold all the life thy distance gives,
Hold part of everything that lives 495
On mountain, meadow, or morass,
And, gathering sweetness as they pass,
Are redolent of rich perfumes
From resinous pines and berry-blooms.
 

I know the secrets of thy streams,

500
The dusky entrances which lead
To quiet haunts, where herons feed,
Where daylight pauses, sleeps and dreams.
Within this circling woodland mere
The swollen spring-tide swamps the grass, 505
Save where the scattered hummocks rise,
And over fields in harvest bare
The waters eddy everywhere,
And little mist-puffs pause or pass
Like cloudlets in thy mirrored skies. 510
 

Here, where the sunken weed-mesh parts,

Wax-white lilies with golden hearts
Sleep on the stream,fair spirits, they,
Of wooing beams that, on a day,
Sighed through the maple boughs above, 515
And died upon thy breast for love!
 

This is the utter lust of sight

This scene of land and water wed
Lit by the morning's sloping light,
Through shifting screens of alders shed 520
And mingling boughs of arching trees,
Which rather hush than voice the breeze.
The lisping ripples in the reeds,
The heron's foot-fall in the flood,
These, only, mar the quietude, 525
Save when a brown bee homeward speeds,
Or darting, gleaming fishes rise
To feed on circling gnats and flies
Made slumbery by the solitude.
 

The water's verge I cannot trace,

530
But seem to float and drift in space
Upheld by potent, magic spell,
For all this wealth of brown and green
Inverted in the depths is seen,
And past the tree-tops sink the skies, 535
Blue, fathomless infinities,
All formed so truly one scarce can tell
Which are the phantoms, which the real.
 

     Thou enticing River! Whisper not so sweetly!

Long I not for that dear spot, and, lo, the land is sere! 540
     Autumn wild has banished summer mild completely;
Lilies, pines, and berry-blooms must bide the coming year.
 

 

L'ENVOI
TO THE RIVER SAINT JOHN.
 

                    Lo, the song is finished!

                    But no whit diminished
Is the murmuring music of thy ripples on the piers. 545
                    I, who o'er thee leaning,
                    Faintly catch thy meaning,
Sigh, for life is far too short to write the love it bears.
 

                    Thus, thou mystic River,

                    Shalt thou sing forever, 550
Till time and tide are rolled aside and garnered with the years,
                    Sing when bridge and toilers
                    Are garnered by the spoilers,
Time and tide, which shall abide the unbuilding of the spheres.
 

                    Yet shall we take some pleasure

555
                    In our happy leisure
Leaning o'er thee from this bridge to con thy song aright;
                    Basking in thy radiance,
                    Thankful for thy complaisance,
Oblivious, for a little while, of Time's strong westering flight. 560