Prior to 1848, anyone wanting to cross the Niagara River had to do so by ferryboat, making it difficult for people and cargo to travel between New York and Upper Canada. Endeavoring to better connect the Atlantic coast with new territories in the West, entrepreneur William Merritt got permission to build a railway suspension bridge over the river, two and a half miles north of Niagara Falls. Charles Ellet Jr. was hired as the chief engineer.
Ellet’s first challenge was how to get a line across the gap. Cannonballs, rockets, and steamers were among the proposals, but Ellet ultimately decided to use a kite. To generate publicity, he held a kite-flying contest in January 1848, offering a cash prize to the first boy to anchor a string from country to country, 800 feet across the chasm and about 240 feet above the Whirlpool Rapids. Sixteen-year-old Homan Walsh won, flying his kite from the Canadian shoreline to the American side, where he had it fastened to a tree. Ellet’s team attached a light cord to Walsh’s kite string, then pulled the joined lines back across. Over the next month or so, they pulled successively heavier and stronger lines back and forth, back and forth, until the final bridge cable was in place.
Edwin Markham (1852–1940) interprets this story as a parable in his poem “Anchored to the Infinite,” likening faith and love to cords that grow in strength the more they are sent out, and that have their anchor in God.
“Anchored to the Infinite” by Edwin Markham
The builder who first bridged Niagara’s gorge,
Before he swung his cable, shore to shore,
Sent out across the gulf his venturing kite
Bearing a slender cord for unseen hands
To grasp upon the further cliff and draw
A greater cord, and then a greater yet;
Till at the last across the chasm swung
The cable then the mighty bridge in air!
So we may send our little timid thought
Across the void, out to God’s reaching hands—
Send out our love and faith to thread the deep—
Thought after thought until the little cord
Has greatened to a chain no chance can break,
And—we are anchored to the Infinite!
(Related post: “ESSAY: ‘The Poetry of Jesus’ by Edwin Markham”)
This poem is very close in form to a Petrarchan sonnet—it consists of an octave and a sestet in iambic pentameter, with a caesura (turn) between them, but it doesn’t rhyme.
The first stanza recounts the construction of Ellet’s suspension bridge across the Niagara River, especially his use of a kite to hang the initial cable.
The second stanza identifies in this historic building project an extended metaphor of spiritual significance. We are the children who stand at the edge of a vast unknown, timidly putting our faith and love out there, just hoping it will be received and answered. Sure enough, God stands on the other side, reaching out to grab ahold of our most feeble efforts to know him and to trust him, and anchor us to himself.
The last phrase (and the poem’s title)—“anchored to the Infinite”—is not quite a paradox, but it is difficult to visualize: being fixed to that which has no limits. Infinity cannot be pinned down, and yet it (or should I say “he”) pins us down, stabilizes us. We need only faith as small as a mustard seed, or as thin as a kite string, and God will catch it from across the void, attaching us securely to himself.
Terry Widener produced a beautiful, impressionistic illustration on page 32 of the children’s book The Kite That Bridged Two Nations that shows Homan Walsh flying his kite over Niagara Gorge. Although it is meant to be taken literally—an artistic interpolation of a historic event—it speaks volumes to me about what it means to exercise faith. Unfortunately, my request to reproduce it here was denied by the publisher, but I can describe it: Two rocky, snow-capped precipices rise up on either side of the picture, and a turbulent river courses between them, moving down a slight fall and crashing against four large rocks that protrude from the riverbed. The top fifth of the painting is blue sky, and a cumulus cloud hangs dead center, making visible a tiny red speck of a kite on a wisp of a string. Follow that string to the right side, and you can just barely make out a human figure holding the reel on the edge of the cliff. Because the gorge dominates the painting, the mood at first glance is one of panic and tumult. But in the upper register there’s a sense of peace and calm, as the kite drifts above the waves in search of an anchor. It’s still a scary endeavor—the small traversing the vast—and there’s the risk of losing the kite altogether, but there’s a thrill in it, in putting yourself out there.
One aspect of the metaphor that’s not addressed in Markham’s poem is the wind, which in the Bible is associated with the Holy Spirit. Just as the wind gives the kite lift, so does the Spirit give flight to our faith and love, powering us forward toward God.
As we unreel those two virtues, God works with us to “thread the deep”—to bridge the gap between finite and Infinite. And he strengthens us in them so that one day we will be able to walk out over the rapids, all the way across to the other side.
“Anchored to the Infinite” by Edwin Markham originally appeared in The Shoes of Happiness and Other Poems (New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1919) and is now in the public domain.