STAND on the side of a stream and consider two things: the imbecility of your private nature and the genius of your common kind.
For you cannot cross the stream, you—Individual you; but Man (from whence you come) has found out an art for crossing it. This art is the building of bridges. And hence man in the general may properly be called Pontifex, or "The Bridge Builder"; and his symbolic summits of office will carry some such title.
Here I will confess (Individual) that I am tempted to leave you by the side of the stream, to swim it if you can, to drown if you can't, or to go back home and be eaten out with your desire for the ulterior shore, while I digress upon that word Pontifex, which, note you, is not only a name over a shop as "Henry Pontifex, Italian Warehouseman," or "Pontifex Brothers, Barbers," but a true key-word breeding ideas and making one consider the greatness of man, or rather the greatness of what made him.
For man builds bridges over streams, and he has built bridges more or less stable between mind and mind (a difficult art!), having designed letters for that purpose, which are his instrument; and man builds by prayer a bridge between himself and God; man also builds bridges which unite him with Beauty all about.
Thus he paints and draws and makes statues, and builds for beauty as well as for shelter from the weather. And man builds bridges between knowledge and knowledge, co-ordinating one thing that he knows with another thing that he knows, and putting a bridge from each to each. And man is for ever building—but he has never yet completed, nor ever will—that bridge they call philosophy, which is to explain himself in relation to that whence he came. I say, when his skeleton is put in the Museum properly labelled, it shall be labelled not Homo Sapiens, but Homo Pontifex; hence also the anthem, or rather the choral response, "Pontificem habemus," which is sung so nobly by pontifical great choirs, when pontifications are pontificated, as behooves the court of a Pontiff.
Nevertheless (Individual) I will not leave you there, for I have pity on you, and I will explain to you the nature of bridges. By a bridge was man's first worry overcome. For note you, there is no worry so considerable as to wail by impassable streams (as Swinburne has it). It is the proper occupation of the less fortunate dead.
Believe me, without bridges the world would be very different to you. You take them for granted, you lollop along the road, you cross a bridge. You may be so ungrateful as to forget all about it, but it is an awful thing!
A bridge is a violation of the will of nature and a challenge. "You desired me not to cross," says man to the River God, "but I will." And he does so: not easily. The god had never objected to him that he should swim and wet himself. Nay, when he was swimming the god could drown him at will, but to bridge the stream, nay, to insult it, to leap over it, that was man all over; in a way he knows that the earthy gods are less than himself and that all that he dreads is his inferior, for only that which he reveres and loves can properly claim his allegiance. Nor does he in the long run pay that allegiance save to holiness, or in a lesser way to valour and to worth.
Man cannot build bridges everywhere. They are not multitudinous as are his roads, nor universal as are his pastures and his tillage. He builds from time to time in one rare place and another, and the bridge always remains a sacred thing. Moreover, the bridge is always in peril. The little bridge at Paris which carried the Roman road to the island was swept away continually; and the bridge of Staines that carried the Roman road from the great port to London was utterly destroyed.
Bridges have always lived with fear in their hearts; and if you think this is only true of old bridges (Individual), have you forgotten the Tay Bridge with the train upon it? Or the bridge that they were building over the St. Lawrence some little time ago, or the bridge across the Loire where those peasants went to their death on a Sunday only a few months since? Carefully consider these things and remember that the building and the sustaining of a bridge is always a wonderful and therefore a perilous thing.
No bridges more testify to the soul of man than the bridges that leap in one arch from height to height over the gorge of a torrent. Many of these are called the Devil's Bridges with good reason, for they suggest art beyond man's power, and there are two to be crossed and wondered at, one in Wales in the mountains, and another in Switzerland, also in the mountains. There is a third in the mountains at the gate of the Sahara, of the same sort, jumping from rock to rock. But it is not called the Devil's Bridge. It is called with Semitic simplicity "El Kantara," and that is the name the Arabs gave to the old bridges, to the lordly bridges of the Romans, wherever they came across them, for the Arabs were as incapable of making bridges as they were of doing anything else except singing love songs and riding about on horses. "Alcantara" is a name all over Spain, and it is in the heart of the capital of Portugal, and it is fixed in the wilds of Estremadura. You get it outside Constantine also where the bridge spans the gulf. Never did an Arab see bridges but he wondered.
Our people also, though they were not of the sort to stand with their mouths open in front of bridges or anything else, felt the mystery of these things. And they put chapels in the middle of them, as you may see at Bale, and at Bradford-upon-Avon, and especially was there one upon old London Bridge, which was dedicated to St. Thomas a Becket, and was very large. And speaking of old London Bridge, every one in London should revere bridges, for a great number of reasons.
In the first place London never would have been London but for London Bridge.
In the second place, bridges enable the people of London to visit the south of the river, which is full of pleasing and extraordinary sights, and in which may be seen, visibly present to the eye, Democracy. If any one doubts this let him take the voyage.
Then again, but for bridges Londoners could not see the river except from the Embankment, which is an empty sort of place, or from the windows of hotels. Bridges also permit railways from the south to enter London. If this seems to you a commonplace, visit New York or for ever after hold your peace.
All things have been degraded in our time and have also been multiplied, which is perhaps a condition of degradation; and your simple thing, your bridge, has suffered with the rest. Men have invented all manner of bridges: tubular bridges, suspension bridges, cantilever bridges, swing bridges, pontoon bridges, and the bridge called the Russian Bridge, which is intolerable; but they have not been able to do with the bridge what they have done with some other things: they have not been able to destroy it; it is still a bridge, still perilous, and still a triumph. The bridge still remains the thing which may go at any moment and yet the thing which, when it remains, remains our oldest monument. There is a bridge over the Euphrates--I forget whether it goes all the way across--which the Romans built. And the oldest thing in the way of bridges in the town of Paris, a thing three hundred years old, was the bridge that stood the late floods best. The bridge will remain a symbol in spite of the engineers.
Look how differently men have treated bridges according to the passing mood of civilization. Once they thought it reasonable to tax people who crossed bridges. Now they think it unreasonable. Yet the one course was as reasonable as the other. Once they built houses on bridges, clearly perceiving that there was lack of room for houses, and that there was a housing problem, and that the bridges gave a splendid chance. Now no one dares to build a house upon a bridge, and the one proceeding is as reasonable as the other.
The time has come to talk at random about bridges.
The ugliest bridge in the world runs from Lambeth to the Horseferry Road, and takes the place of the old British trackway which here crossed the Thames. About the middle of it, if you will grope in the mud, you may or may not find the great Seal of England which James II there cast into the flood. If it was fished up again, why then it is not there. The most beautiful bridge in London is Waterloo Bridge; the most historic is London Bridge; and far the most useful Westminster Bridge. The most famous bridge in Italy to tourists is the old bridge at Florence, and the best known from pictures the Bridge of Sighs in Venice. That with the best chance of an eternal fame is the bridge which carries the road from Tizzano to Serchia over the gully of the muddy Apennines, for upon the 18th of June, 1901, it was broken down in the middle of the night, and very nearly cost the life of a man who could ill afford it. The place where a bridge is most needed, and is not present, is the Ford of Fornovo. The place where there is most bridge and where it is least needed is the railway bridge at Venice. The bridge that trembles most is the Bridge of Piacenza. 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; for even if you are terrified by water in every form, as are too many boastful men, you must know, or can be told, that there is but a dampness of some inches in the sheet below. The longest bridge for boring one is the railway bridge across the Somme to St. Valery, whence Duke William started with a horseshoe mouth and very glum upon his doubtful adventure to invade these shores—but there was no bridge in his time. The shortest bridge is made of a plank, in the village of Loudwater in the county of Bucks, not far from those Chiltern Hundreds which men take in Parliament for the good of their health as a man might take the waters. The most entertaining bridge is the Tower Bridge, which lifts up and splits into two just as you are beginning to cross it, as can be testified by a cloud of witnesses. The broadest bridge is the Alexandre III Bridge in Paris, at least it looks the broadest, while the narrowest bridge, without a shadow of doubt, is the bridge that was built by ants in the moon; if the phrase startles you remember it is only in a novel by Wells.
The first elliptical bridge was designed by a monk of Cortona, and the first round one by Adam....
But one might go on indefinitely about bridges and I am heartily tired of them. Let them cross and recross the streams of the world. I for my part will stay upon my own side.
~Hilaire Belloc: On Something.