Introduction


 

Shortly after plans were announced in 1884 for the construction of a bridge over the Saint John River at Fredericton, New Brunswick, M.H. Pengilly, who was temporarily "imprisoned in the. . .[New Brunswick] Lunatic Asylum" ("Preface" np), composed Fredericton Bridge, A Prophetic Warning (1885), a moralistic tract alerting the citizens of Fredericton to the possibility that in some future Spring the proposed bridge "might hold the ice and assist in forming a dam that could not fail to flood the city, if it did not sweep it entirely away" (7).  Because the plan to build the bridge had the full support of the Premier of New Brunswick, Andrew Blair (who wanted "to link Fredericton to the villages growing up around the railway line and the factories of Alexander Gibson, his most prominent supporter" [Young 77]), Pengilly's dire warnings went unheeded, and construction of the three-quarter mile structure designed and built by a local engineer, Alfred Haines, went rapidly ahead in 1884-85 (see Young 77 and Hall 435).  As indicated by the dedication of The Building of the Bridge.  An Idyl of the River Saint John (1887) to Blair, the Fredericton Bridge was formally opened on November 27, 1885.1

"Dubbed 'Blair's Paper Bridge' by critics" because it consisted of "cribwork piers [or Burr trusses]2 and a wooden superstructure" rather than the "more expensive stone and steel" (Young 77, Hall 435),3 the "New Bridge" survived without incurring or causing damage until 1905, when its two wooden arches were destroyed by fire.  No evidence that Pengilly was responsible for the fire has yet come to light.

The Building of the Bridge.  An Idyl of the River Saint John (1887) by the Fredericton poet and journalist Barry Straton (1854-1901) is one of the many treatments of bridges and bridge building in Canadian literature, the best-known of which is indubitably Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion.  Inspired by the building of "Blair's Paper Bridge," not least by the fact that its components were "Culled from the eloquent solitudes / Of fair New Brunswick's wealthy woods" (247-48), Straton's idyl is much more accomplished than might be expected without the knowledge that when he wrote it he already had a substantial volume of poems to his credit (Lays of Love, and Miscellaneous Poems [1884]) and that he would go on to have no fewer than four poems included in William Douw Lighthall's Songs of the Great Dominion (1889).  In the biographical notes to his anthology, Lighthall describes Straton as "[a] very promising poet" (463), an assessment probably derived at least in part from a comment by Straton's cousin, Charles G.D. Roberts, that the "Fredericton youth" is "deficient [in] education" but has "a fine ear for melody. . .[and] has printed some better things [than appear in Lays of Love, and Miscellaneous Poems] in the University Monthly, in Fredericton" (84).

If Straton was "deficient [in] education" this is scarcely apparent in The Building of the Bridge.  After an epithalamic opening poem in which the Fredericton Bridge is figured as "bind[ing]" the waters of the Saint John River "like a golden marriage band" (4), he draws on Samuel Smiles' The Engineers and other sources to describe the evolution of "the Bridging Art" from its "barbarian" beginnings in "the treacherous stepping-stone / By nature placed" (an engineering equivalent of architecture's primitive hut) to the "iron bridges" of Abraham Darby, the builder of the Coalbrookdale Bridge (1779) over the River Severn in England, and Robert Stephenson, the inventor, of course, of the system of tubular plates employed in the Britannia Bridge (1846-50) over the Menai Strait in Wales (30-221).4  En route, Straton refers to several natural and primitive bridge forms, and provides capsule accounts of various major developments in the history of bridges and bridge building, including the defense of Rome at the Sublician Bridge by the legendary Horatius and his two companions as recounted by Macauley in Lays of Ancient Rome (1842) and the foundation of a brotherhood of bridgebuilders by St. Bénezèt and other churchmen in the twelfth century (103-159 and 77-91).  The climax of this section of the poem entitled "The Building of the Bridge" is an account of the bridges built by Napoleon's army across the Berezina River during its retreat from Moscow in November 1812.

The second and central section of "The Building of the Bridge" (225-372) is not explicitly addressed to Haines and his construction workers but it would certainly have been taken personally by them, as would the ensuing passage on "Elected Architects of State" by Blair (373-399).  Haines had no formal training as an engineer (Young 77), but he is included by association among engineers who are "skilled, ingenious" and "Versed in the records of [their] art" (227-28).  His "builders" and "skilled mechanics" are credited with "Following the plan in every line" and heralded as exemplars of "the dignity of toil" (257, 285, 288, 299).  And Blair and his fellow politicians are enjoined to "work. . .on our Bridge of State" to create a "purer Union" based on "The people's. . .will" and "need," "Statecraft wise and bold," and "full Provincial Rights" (an exhortation arising, no doubt, from the knowledge that Blair had gone ahead with the construction of the bridge "in defiance of federal authorities, who maintained that the province had no authority to pass legislation for the construction of a bridge over navigable water" [Young 77]).  The poem concludes with a lengthy celebration of the commercial, aesthetic, and recreational aspects of the Saint John River (400-542) and an "Envoi" in which the "mystic River" when seen from the Bridge represents the flow of "Time and tide" that will continue long after "bridge and toilers" have passed away (543-60).

By the time Straton wrote and published The Building of the Bridge.  An Idyl of the Saint John, the term "idyl" had been so expanded in meaning by Tennyson, Robert Browning, and other poets that it could apply to almost any type of poem on any subject.  More than the Tennyson of Idylls of the King (1859) or the Browning of Dramatic Idylls (1879, 1880), Straton employs the term in a manner broadly consistent with its traditional meaning of a "composition which deals charmingly with rustic life" and "ordinarily. . .describes a picturesque rural scene of gentle beauty and innocent tranquillity and narrates a story of some simple sort of happiness" (Congleton 362).  That such a "scene" and such "happiness" can include the building of a bridge is part of Straton's argument: "I, a minstrel idle, / Fain would sing the bridal / Of thy sunny shores, with blissful peace and plenty crowned" run the final lines of his "Proem.  To the Saint John River"—"Fain would weave some story / As tribute to thy glory, / Fair New Brunswick's proudest stream, in our fond hearts enthroned" (14-19).  The presence in these lines of the phrase "peace and plenty" is but one indication in Straton's poem of its affinity with such poems as Alexander Pope's Windsor Forest in which the landscape is a reflection of the combination of political stability and natural abundance that is conducive to health, wealth, and happiness (see "Introduction," Thomas Cary, Abram's Plains).  Straton's choice of variously rhymed octosyllabic lines rather than either (Tennysonian) blank verse or (Popian) decasyllabic couplets for the narrative portions of The Building of the Bridge results in a poem whose combination of formal modesty and order nicely reflects the strength and symmetries of its subject.

 

 

The Present Text

 

 

The present text of The Building of the Bridge.  An Idyl of the River Saint John is based on the first and hitherto only edition of the poem, which was published in 1887 by J. and A. McMillan in Saint John, New Brunswick.

 

 

Notes to the Introduction

 

 

1

Three days earlier, on November 24, 1885, a local resident, Charles Moffitt, recorded in his diary that the "[f]irst horse crossed the New Bridge" (qtd. in Grant 232). [back]

2

Designed by Theodore Burr in the early nineteenth century, the truss that bears his name was widely used in the United States and Canada until as late as the First World War. [back]

3

It seems likely that, like the Broadway Bridge (1933) in Saskatoon, the Fredericton Bridge was partly conceived as a "Depression relief project" (Ball 91) whose wooden components and construction would provide work for local lumbermen and craftsmen at a time when New Brunswick was still suffering from the decline in the wooden shipbuilding industry. [back]

4

See especially Smiles 2: 355-56 (Coalbrookdale Bridge) and 3: 420-40 (Britannia Bridge).  Reference works such as the Encyclopedia Britannica contain most if not all the information that Straton would have needed to write this section of the poem. [back]

 

 

Works Cited in the Introduction

 

 

Ball, Norman R.  "Mind, Heart, and Vision": Professional Engineering in Canada 1887 to

 1987.  Ottawa: National Museum of Science and Technology/National Museums of Canada, 1987.

Congleton, J.E.  "Idyl(l)."  Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics.  Enlarged ed. Alex

Preminger: Princeton UP, 1975.  362-63.

Grant, B.J.  Fit to Print.  Fredericton, NB: Fiddlehead Poetry Books and Goose Lane Editions

1987.

Hall, Isabel Lois.  Fredericton, New Brunswick, North America.  Np: York-Sunbury Historical

Society, nd.

Lighthall, William Douw, ed.  Songs of the Great Dominion: Voices from the Forests and

Waters, the Settlements and Cities of Canada.  London: Walter Scott, 1889.

Pengilly, M.H.  Fredericton Bridge.  A Prophetic Warning.  Lowell, Mass: Monitor Steam Job

Print, 1885.

Roberts, Charles G.D.  Collected Letters.  Ed. Laurel Boone.  Fredericton: Goose Lane, 1989.
Smiles, Samuel.  Lives of the Engineers, with an Account of Their Principal Works;

Comprising also a History of Inland Communication in Britain.  4 vols.  London: John Murray, 1861-65.

Young, D.M.  "Andrew George Blair."  Dictionary of Canadian Biography. 13: 76-85.