A German View of the Tay Bridge Disaster

Andrew Kirkham

The sinking of the Titanic in 1912 was a profound shock to those who believed in technological progress and the ability of human ingenuity to subdue nature. The disaster prompted Thomas Hardy to compose his powerful poem The Convergence of the Twain:

Over the mirrors meant
To glass the opulent
The sea-worm crawls – grotesque, slimed, dumb, indifferent
Dim moon-eyed fishes near
Gaze at the gilded gear
And query: 'What does this vaingloriousness down here?'…

While the Titanic still maintains a fascination in the public mind, the Tay Bridge disaster of 1879 has perhaps faded from public awareness, but at the time it must have had a comparable impact; and it also brought forth a poetic response. The author was Dundee's own Poet and Tragedian William McGonagall:

Oh! ill-fated Bridge of the Silv'ry Tay,
I must now conclude my lay
By telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay,
That your central girders would not have given way,
At least many sensible men do say,
Had they been supported on each side with buttresses,
At least many sensible men confesses,
For the stronger we our houses do build,
The less chance we have of being killed.

But McGonagall's was not the only poem to commemorate the disaster; the story was reported work-wide, and when the German writer Theodor Fontane read of the events, he also felt compelled to respond in verse; he worked quickly and his Ballad Die Brücke am Tay was in print ten days later.

Fontane's reputation as a writer is rather different from McGonagall's; he is considered to be one of Germany’s greatest novelists but was also a journalist and political commentator; this work took him to London and led him to travel widely throughout Great Britain. He has a romantic vision of Scotland influenced by the writings of Scott and Shakespeare: Die Brücke am Tay is consciously written in the style of a Scottish ballad and it is headed by the line (in English) "When shall we three meet again?" from Macbeth.

In spite of the contrast between the respective authors, it is interesting to note some parallels between the poems; the anticipation of seasonal festivities; viewpoints alternating between the occupants of the train and the observers onshore; technological achievements thwarted by malign supernatural agents. Both poems specifically mention that the train came from Edinburgh, something that might puzzle a reader who knows that the Forth Bridge was not opened until 1890. However a through service had been operating since 1850 by means of a roll-on-roll-off train ferry between Granton and Burntisland.

I first encountered Die Brück’ am Tay in a German railway book. A few years ago during a spell of unemployment I decided to occupy myself by attempting a translation into English. It was a lengthy and rather laborious task entailing constant reference to a rhyming dictionary, but in the end I think most of the meaning has been preserved.

"Wann treffen wir drei wieder zusamm'?"
"Um die siebente Stund', am Brück’ndamm."
"Am Mittelpfeiler."
"Ich lösch die Flamm'."
"Ich mit."
"Ich komme vom Norden her."
"Und ich vom Süden."
"Und ich vom Meer."
"Hei, das gibt ein Ringelreihn,
und die Brück’ muß in den Grund hinein."
"Und der Zug, der in die Brück’ tritt
um die siebente Stund'?"
"Ei, der muß mit."
"Muß mit."
"Tand, Tand
ist das Gebild von Menschenhand."
Auf der Norderseite, das Brück’nhaus -
alle Fenster sehen nach Süden aus,
und die Brücknersleut', ohne Rast und Ruh
und in Bangen sehen nach Süden zu,
sehen und warten, ob nicht ein Licht
übers Wasser hin "ich komme" spricht,
"ich komme, trotz Nacht und Sturmesflug,
ich, der Edinburger Zug."
Und der Brückner jetzt: "Ich seh einen Schein
am andern Ufer. Das muß er sein.
Nun, Mutter, weg mit dem bangen Traum,
unser Johnie kommt und will seinen Baum,
und was noch am Baume von Lichtern ist,
zünd alles an wie zum heiligen Christ,
der will heuer zweimal mit uns sein, -
und in elf Minuten ist er herein."
Und es war der Zug. Am Süderturm
keucht er vorbei jetzt gegen den Sturm,
und Johnie spricht: "Die Brück’ noch!
Aber was tut es, wir zwingen es doch.
Ein fester Kessel, ein doppelter Dampf,
die bleiben Sieger in solchem Kampf,
und wie's auch rast und ringt und rennt,
wir kriegen es unter: das Element.
Und unser Stolz ist unsre Brück';
ich lache, denk ich an früher zurück,
an all den Jammer und all die Not
mit dem elend alten Schifferboot;
wie manche liebe Christfestnacht
hab ich im Fährhaus zugebracht
und sah unsrer Fenster lichten Schein
und zählte und konnte nicht drüben sein."
Auf der Norderseite, das Brück’nhaus -
alle Fenster sehen nach Süden aus,
und die Brücknersleut' ohne Rast und Ruh
und in Bangen sehen nach Süden zu;
denn wütender wurde der Winde Spiel,
und jetzt, als ob Feuer vom Himmel fiel,
erglüht es in niederschießender Pracht
überm Wasser unten... Und wieder ist Nacht.
"Wann treffen wir drei wieder zusamm'?"
"Um Mitternacht, am Bergeskamm."
"Auf dem hohen Moor, am Erlenstamm."
"Ich komme."
"Ich mit."
"Ich nenn euch die Zahl."
"Und ich die Namen."
"Und ich die Qual."
Wie Splitter brach das Gebälk entzwei."
"Tand, Tand
ist das Gebilde von Menschenhand"
“When shall we three meet again?”
“On the central pier in the driven rain.”
“At the seventh hour “
“I’ll quench the flame.”
“I too”.
“I’ll come from the north”, said she.
“And I from the south.”
“And I from the sea.”
“We’ll make a ring o’roses round
And bridge shall be smashed and dashed and drowned.”
“And the train, that ventures into view
At the seventh hour?”
“That too.”
“That too.”
"Trinkets, trash!
Man’s handiwork is dust and ash.”
From the watchman’s lodge on the northern side,
Where the outlook is southerly, over the tide,
They keep their vigil and vainly explore
With restless eyes the southern shore.
Waiting and watching, straining to spy
The light that signals: “Here come I!”
The storm may rage; it shall rage in vain!
“Here come I, the Edinburgh train.”
Says the watchman: Look! I can see a light
On the yonder shore. It will be all right!
Don’t fear now! Our Johnnie is longing to see
The candles on the Christmas tree.
So Mother, let’s light up the ones that remain
And celebrate Christmas all over again!
We’ll all be together twice this year
And in just ten minutes he’ll be here.
And it was the train, on the seventh hour
Thundering on by the southern tower.
Says Johnnie: “Now the bridge is near,
But whatever the weather, we’ve nothing to fear.
A sturdy boiler, a good head of steam.
Together we’ll make an unbeatable team.
Let it wrestle and rage and rant – we won’t stop.
We’ll battle the weather and come out on top.
Our bridge is the pride of these modern days
And I laugh to think back on our old-fashioned ways
On the perils and pains of being afloat
On that miserable old ferry boat.
How many a precious Christmas Eve 
I spent in the ferry-house, longing to leave,
And gazed at the lights of home in despair,
And counted, and yearned to be over there.
From the watchman’s lodge on the northern side,
Where the outlook is southerly, over the tide,
They keep their vigil and vainly explore
With restless eyes the southern shore.
Then the wind redoubled its furious cry,
And a fireball suddenly burst from the sky
With an awful glow that seemed to ignite
The waters beneath… Then only the night.
“When shall we three meet again?”
“At midnight, in the driven rain.
By the alder stump on the blasted plain.”
“I’ll come.”
“I too”
“I’ll number the souls, said she”.
“I’ll name them.”
“I’ll tell of the agony.”
How it shattered and fell from the sky!”
Trinkets! trash!
Man’s handiwork is dust and ash.”