Thursday, August 23, 2007

The Bridge and the Beloved

From Dr. Thursday:

Much as Jesus called attention to a piece of recent news ("How about those 18 killed by the falling tower in Siloe?" Lk 13:4) and GKC to the June 30 flooding in London including his then hometown of Battersea (ILN July 21 1906 CW27:238) our faithful bloggmistress called our attention to the recent disaster in the Twin Cities, so near to the home of our intrepid and daring friend Sunday - er - I mean the president of the ACS.

In a strange coincidence I happened to just finish re-reading the awesome Builders of the Bridge, D. B. Steinman's biography of John Roebling and his son Washington, who together with Washington's wife Emily are the three great ones whose dedication gave us the Brooklyn Bridge - considered the engineering marvel of the 19th century. These three were great engineers, amazing people, hard workers, heroic exemplars of America.

I wish I had time to review that book, or another text, also awesome - The Great Bridge by David McCullough - but as fascinating as these books and the Brooklyn Bridge are, this posting is about Chesterton, and I will try to keep on topic for once. (Yeah, right.) But perhaps as we pray for those who died or were injured in Minnesota, and discuss the important issues of civil Engineering brought to the fore by this recent event, we might ponder bridges in a somewhat larger - and Chestertonian - approach, for GKC tells us: "It is wrong to fiddle while Rome is burning; but it is quite right to study the theory of hydraulics while Rome is burning." [GKC What's Wrong With the World CW4:43]
Click here to you wish to study the theory of bridges.
Near the end of 1907, GKC wrote about the death of a great English poet, Francis Thompson, who wrote one of the most mystical and entrancing poems I know - "New Year's Chimes". GKC's entire essay is a wonderful introduction, but I shall just give you the one relevant paragraph:
In one of his poems, he [Thompson] says that abyss between the known and the unknown is bridged by "Pontifical death." There are about ten historical and theological puns in that one word. That a priest means a pontiff, that a pontiff means a bridge-maker, that death is certainly a bridge, that death may turn out after all to be a reconciling priest, that at least priests and bridges both attest to the fact that one thing can get separated from another thing - these ideas, and twenty more, are all actually concentrated in the word "pontifical." In Francis Thompson's poetry, as in the poetry of the universe, you can work infinitely out and out, but yet infinitely in and in. These two infinities are the mark of greatness; and he was a great poet.
[GKC, ILN Dec 14 1907 CW27:603-4]
Where does the "beloved" come in? It is a very touching story, and one quite thoroughly in keeping with both the poetic and engineering aspects of bridges. Except for the hint in the paragraph I am about to quote, you will not find it in Chesterton's own work - but Maisie Ward tells us that "Gilbert stood on a little bridge in St. James's Park. It seemed to him in that hour to be the bridge of his first memory, across which a fairy prince was passing to rescue a princess. On this bridge he asked Frances to marry him, and she said yes." [Return To Chesterton 27-8] Indeed! But let us hear Uncle Gilbert tell us of that moment:
It was fortunate, however, that our [his and Frances'] next most important meeting was not under the sign of the moon but of the sun. She has often affirmed, during our later acquaintance, that if the sun had not been shining to her complete satisfaction on that day, the issue might have been quite different. It happened in St. James's Park; where they keep the ducks and the little bridge, which has been mentioned in no less authoritative a work than Mr. Belloc's Essay on Bridges, since I find myself quoting that author once more. I think he deals in some detail, in his best topographical manner, with various historic sites on the Continent; but later relapses into a larger manner, somewhat thus: "The time has now come to talk at large about Bridges. The longest bridge in the world is the Forth Bridge, and the shortest bridge in the world is a plank over a ditch in the village of Loudwater. The bridge that frightens you most is the Brooklyn Bridge, and the bridge that frightens you least is the bridge in St. James's Park." I admit that I crossed that bridge in undeserved safety; and perhaps I was affected by my early romantic vision of the bridge leading to the princess's tower. But I can assure my friend the author that the bridge in St. James's Park can frighten you a good deal.
[GKC, Autobiography CW16:151]
Wow. Leave it to GKC to use the most perfect symbol of unity in its most perfect manner!

Francis Thompson was not the only poet to ponder bridges and their building. A certain fraternity I know makes much of a poem about a bridge-builder who was "going a lone highway" and about a certain Greek conjunction... Curiously, its most recent history concludes with a poem by GKC - a poem which summarises all my own attempts at explanation:
For Four Guilds: II. The Bridge Builders

In the world's whitest morning
As hoary with hope,
The Builder of Bridges
Was priest and was pope:
And the mitre of mystery
And the canopy his,
Who darkened the chasms
And doomed the abyss.

To eastward and westward
Spread wings at his word
The arch with the key-stone
That stoops like a bird;
That rides the wild air
And the daylight cast under;
The highway of danger,
The gateway of wonder.

Of his throne were the thunders
That rivet and fix
Wild weddings of strangers,
That meet and not mix;
The town and the cornland;
The bride and the groom;
In the breaking of bridges
Is treason and doom.

But he bade us, who fashion
The road that can fly,
That we build not too heavy
And build not too high:
Seeing alway that under
The dark arch's bend
Shine death and white daylight
Unchanged to the end.

Who walk on his mercy
Walk light, as he saith,
Seeing that our life
Is a bridge above death;
And the world and its gardens
And hills, as ye heard,
Are born above space
On the wings of a bird.

Not high and not heavy
Is building of his:
When ye seal up the flood
And forget the abyss,
When your towers are uplifted,
Your banners unfurled,
In the breaking of bridges
Is the end of the world.
[GKC, Collected Poems 86-87]

Maybe it's time for us to get out the old hard hat and transit, and work hard towards real unity... for it is right to study civil engineering when a bridge has fallen.

--Dr. Thursday

PS: Just in case you wish to know a little more about the Brooklyn Bridge, or others, here are two from Dover which I have, and can thoroughly recommend: A Picture History of the Brooklyn Bridge and Bridges of the World: Their Design and Construction.


  1. Consider the Latin word for 'bridge builder' -- pontifex.

    In ancient Rome, the pontifices were priests who regulated the worship of the various deities. The term probably refers to their connection to a sacred bridge over the Tiber, but it's easy to think of them as 'bridges' between the secular and sacred orders.

    The term was taken up by the Roman Catholic Church and is of course the origin of the word 'pontiff.'

    I think Chesterton alludes to this bit of etymology somewhere -- perhaps in his Autobiography? (I'm thinking of the 'man with the golden key' in the toy theater, who was crossing a bridge ... help, somebody?)

  2. Besides the above ref in ILN, there are several places where GKC talks about the meaning of "pontiff" - perhaps the most dramatic and personal is indeed the last sentences of his Autobiography:

    But for me my end is my beginning, as Maurice Baring quoted of Mary Stuart, and this overwhelming conviction that there is one key which can unlock all doors brings back to me the first glimpse of the glorious gift of the senses; and the sensational experience of sensation. And there starts up again before me, standing sharp and clear in shape as of old, the figure of a man who crosses a bridge and carries a key; as I saw him when I first looked into fairyland through the window of my father's peep-show. But I know that he who is called Pontifex, the Builder of the Bridge, is called also Claviger, the Bearer of the Key; and that such keys were given him to bind and loose when he was a poor fisher in a far province, beside a small and almost secret sea.

    The other which is excellent as well as deep, and quite clearly an echo of the above memorial to Thompson is this:

    Sergius, the High Pontiff in Macaulay's ballad, remarked of the secret of the Great Twin Brethren that "he knew, but might not tell." Several explanations of his silence might be suggested; as that he had in actual fact forgotten, being an elderly gentleman; or that the conduct of the Great Twin Brethren was not such as could be suitably described to the boys and old grey-headed men who kept the walls of Rome. But another and better explanation is that, like a true mystic, he knew the meaning of what he saw, but could find no words to embody it. This is the sound Greek meaning of a mystery, and the chief difference between a mystery and a mere puzzle. It is not merely that a mystery generally means something too large to be discovered, and a puzzle something too small to be discovered. It is also that a mystery is not a thing which we do not understand at all, but a thing which we partly understand, and about which we put our hand upon our mouth. [cf Job 39:34] The Pontiff probably felt himself really unequal to doing justice to the subject of Mars and Vesta; and left it to be partly uttered, as all such ancient enigmas have always been partly uttered, in emblem and ritual, in stiff dances or sacramental feasts. And among these ancient enigmas which, as the Pontiff felt, one can fully feel without fully comprehending is, of course, the very title of the Pontiff himself. "Pontiff" means a man who builds a bridge. Why a priest should be a man who builds a bridge is for pedants a puzzle: but for poets it is a mystery; a truth too large to be taken in.
    [ILN Aug 17 1912 CW29:342-3]

    Quite a lot also appears in The Resurrection of Rome.

    I hope this helps. If you need more, I suggest you appeal to the Quotemeister or send e-mail to our esteemed Blogg-mistress...

    --Dr. Thursday


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