Prior to the twentieth century, fire was one of the most potent factors in the shaping of built environments in Canada. Between 1642, when a fire destroyed a substantial part of Quebec's Lower Town, and 1886, when a fire destroyed much of downtown Vancouver, Montreal, St. John's, Calgary, and numerous other Canadian towns and cities were to a greater or lesser extent ravaged by fire and, as a result, faced with both the challenge and the opportunity of (re)construction. More affected by major fires than most cities was Saint John, New Brunswick, large sections of which were destroyed by conflagrations in 1824, 1826, 1837, 1845, 1849, and 1871. Written and printed (tellingly, in "Merritt's Brick Buildings") in the same year as the third of these, The Burning City: a Descriptive Poem; in Commemoration of the Lamentable Fire which Took Place in the City of Saint John, N.B. on the Memorable Night of Saturday 14th January, 1847 is one of two poems by Arthur Slader in The Conflagrations, the other being The Burning Boat: a Serio-Satiric Poem of the Destruction by Fire of the Steamer Royal Tar, (of Saint John, N.B.) in Penobscot Bay, on the 25th October, 1836. Beyond the fact that "he ran a private school[,]. . .exhibited some of his paintings in Saint John. . .[and] published a short lyric in the British Colonist of 22 February 1833" (Stuart iv), little is known about Slader, but one thing is abundantly clear: he was keenly interested in fires and their implications.
Deeply indebted both in form and tone to the Byron of Don Juan, The Burning City resembles The Burning Boat in being a "Serio-Satirical" treatment of what most people would consider an unmitigated disaster. By turns jaunty ("No more of this—I have 'a tale t' unfold,' / Therefore proceed to tell what can be told" [15-16]) and moralistic "Satan was there—not a mere looker-on,— / As much on the alert as any one" [135-36]), the poem contrives to see the "farce" as well as the "tragedy" (134) of what has occurred, the reason being that it rests on an essentially comic view of the world and its workings. In The Burning City, as in Alexander Pope's An Essay on Man, God works "In a mysterious way, to man unknown" (or, at least, insufficiently understood), "educing real good" from "seeming ill" (246-48). What this means from an architectural perspective is spelled out in the stanzas that describe the final moments of the fire and look forward to its aftermath:
That the destruction of Saturday night was followed by the "sun" of a "Sabbath morn" can only have reinforced Slader's conviction that the fire was God's "will" (247), as quite obviously did the fact that "the care / Of Heaven for wayward mortals" ensured that "no mortal tenement / Was crush'd beneath" the many domestic, commercial, municipal, and ecclesiastical buildings that were destroyed by the fire (258-62). To Slader's eyes, as Ross Stuart observes in his Introduction to the Loyal Colonies Press edition of The Burning City, the fire of 1837 was of benefit to Saint John both "[s]piritually" and "[s]ocially": it "burnt away man's pride in his earthly goods and possessions" and it "cleared away space for new development" (v).
Although Slader's remarks on the futile attempts of many citizens of Saint John to save their "terrene"—that is, earthly—"possessions" (148) from the fire are freighted with moral condemnation, his account of the fire itself conveys a vivid sense of the havoc and destruction that it caused and only occasionally succumbs to the humour that is as much a by-product of the ottava rima form as of his disdainful attitude to material concerns (see, for example, stanzas X-XI). Similarly, his belief that no "earthly pow'r / Can frustrate" a "mandate from on high" does not prevent him either from commenting sympathetically on the desperate but futile attempts of fire-fighters and citizens alike to douse the flames that eventually destroyed well over a hundred buildings or from drawing a practical conclusion from the disaster:
The mention in Slader's final stanza of a fire that partly destroyed a brewery in Saint John "not twice ten days" (340) after the conflagration of January 14, 1836 adds force to his contention that the city urgently needs an efficient fire brigade to mitigate if not prevent future disasters.
In January 1836, The New Brunswick Courier published an account of the Saint John conflagration that so closely anticipates The Burning City as to raise the possibility that it was either written by Slader (as Stuart surmises) or provided him with much of the inspiration for his poem. For this reason, and for the additional information that it provides, the Courier report is included here as an Appendix.
The Present Text
The present text of The Burning City is based on that in The Conflagrations, which was "Printed for the Author" by D.A. Cameron in Saint John in 1837.
Works Cited in the Introduction