What is the theme of "Crossing the Bar?"
"Crossing the Bar" focuses on the necessity of confronting life's ups and downs with stoicism and manly honor.
This manly honor was perhaps the central component of gentlemanly virtue in the Victorian and Edwardian periods. The British believed the hallmark of a true gentleman was his ability to regard life almost as a game, and to accept its ups and downs in the spirit of "fair play." Indeed, a lot of scholars, like Paul Fussell (The Great War and Modern Memory), have analyzed how this deeply ingrained collective understanding of honor affected the behavior of British soldiers in World War I.
While Rudyard Kipling's "If" (written about five years after "Crossing the Bar") is probably the most widely known poetic examination of this type of honor, the theme was also important to Tennyson, who makes it a theme in his famous "Charge of the Light Brigade." It is also an important theme in his cycle of Arthurian poems, "The Idylls of the King."
Tennyson's central image in the poem is that of a ship setting out into the ocean. To reach the ocean, it will have to cross a sandbar. Crossing the sandbar is a metaphor for death, because death, like the ocean, is a great unknown.
In the first stanza, the narrator realizes that night—which represents the end of his life—is approaching. Instead of complaining that night has come too soon, or complaining about the unfairness of it all, he simply accepts the evening star as "one clear call for me." Furthermore, he hopes that when his ship sets out toward its final destination, it does not do so when one can hear the "moaning of the bar."
As we see in the second stanza, the narrator hopes for a tide "too full for sound or foam" to take him toward the great crossing. (If you are a fantasy literature fan, you might notice some parallels with the way Tolkien talks about death in The Lord of the Rings.) Once again, the narrator is demonstrating his cheerful and willing acceptance of death.
This acceptance is reiterated in the third stanza. Once again, the narrator assures us he is ready to heed the call of the "evening bell." He also shows that he is a proper Victorian gentleman because he urges his loved ones to have "no sadness of farewell/When I embark." Tennyson's intended audience would have understood that this stoic acceptance was a sign of the narrator's rationality, education, and moral virtue.
In the famous final stanza, the narrator expresses the hope that he will "see my Pilot face to face" after crossing the bar. The narrator doubtlessly hopes that the Pilot will be impressed with his sporting attitude and unwillingness to be afraid of death, even though "the flood may bear me far."
The theme of Tennyson's poem centers on the idea of maturation and growth. The journey that Tennyson articulates in the pom is one where courage and maturation are needed in order to effectively cope with the reality that lies outside the harbor, into the sea. The "bar" that has to be crossed lies in this voyage, and being able to understand that one might not be able to fully control it, but rather be able to accept it as a part of being in the world is where the poem's strength lies. The unknown, and what lies outside the realm of the harbor, cannot be tamed nor can it be avoided as all journeys enter "the boundless deep." This cannot be averted and is a part of the ship's purpose, and the journey of consciousness. Tennyson suggests that this is a phase that must be passed, with faith placed in the "Divine and Unseen Who is always guiding us.” In this, the poem's thematic application to death and dying becomes something that resonates throughout, making the poem so significant.