Last Updated September 6, 2023.
Readers familiar with Tennyson’s wider body of work may recognize the similarities between “Crossing The Bar” and his 1842 poem “Ulysses.” That poem is about the eponymous Greek hero who, now a “gray spirit,” yearns for his final journey, which will take him by sea across an invisible boundary. In “Ulysses,” the titular speaker wants
To sail beyond the sunset, and the bathsOf all the western stars, until I die.
The poem’s situation and symbolism are paralleled in “Crossing The Bar”: both speakers are old, aware that their lives are drawing to a natural end, and anticipating a final journey by sea which will carry them across a dividing line which seems to indicate the end of the living world. In “Crossing The Bar,” that divide is the “bar” itself, a sandbar which must be crossed before the traveler can reach his final, figurative destination.
The major difference, however, between Ulysses and Tennyson’s biographical speaker in “Crossing the Bar” is that while Ulysses is rallying his men to make a journey to an unknown place, Tennyson’s other speaker knows where he is going, and he places his trust in his “Pilot.” Another key difference is that Tennyson’s speaker here, unlike in “Ulysses,” is a modern man with a modern faith. He knows that his Pilot, God, is directing his journey, and that it will lead him “home.” Beyond the boundary of the sandbar, which he hopes will be passable with no “moaning,” lies the kingdom of God, a “boundless deep” from which the speaker believes he first emerged.
The core idea of the poem is simple, and Tennyson therefore approaches it in relatively simple form and language. The four brief stanzas of the poem comprise four lines each and follow an abab rhyme scheme and a varied metrical scheme. The first and third stanzas each begin with a shorter trimeter line, and thus the line “Twilight and evening bell” directly evokes “Sunset and evening star.” The first stanza describes the time of the day which metaphorically represents the speaker’s age; the third stanza does the same thing but from a point of relative progression. Given the clear connection between these two stanzas, it can be understood that the phrase “may there be no moaning of the bar” has two potential meanings. First, it seems to be an appeal to the forces of nature to keep the seas calm for the speaker’s final journey. A “moaning” sandbar is usually an indication of disturbance at sea, and the speaker does not wish for his final journey to be rocky. However, in the third stanza, the speaker asks that there be “no sadness of farewell.” It is therefore tempting to understand “moaning of the bar” as having a second meaning: the speaker may be asking those left behind to contain their “moaning” and lamenting for him, something which he makes clearer in the third stanza when the “dark” of death has drawn nearer.
Likewise, the second and fourth stanzas have similar structures—each begins with a pentameter line—and discuss similar ideas. In the second stanza, the speaker discusses the fact that this journey will represent a journey “home” for him and that he will be going back to the “boundless deep” of his origins. He will not be traveling in fear to a place he does not know. The fourth stanza elaborates upon these ideas of homecoming. It clarifies that the “bourne of Time and Place” which represents the living world is not actually the speaker’s home at all, so he does not fear leaving it. On the contrary, he is living in...
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anticipation of seeing his “Pilot,” God, when God takes him “home.” There can be no lamenting for a man so sure of his destination and of what will await him when he reaches it.
The speaker’s tone in this poem, established through Tennyson’s choices of diction and punctuation, is worth examination. The exclamation marks in the first and third stanza seem to underscore the speaker’s conviction and anticipation. He knows that he has heard a “clear call,” and the thought seems to excite him. Likewise, he knows that “the dark” is coming, but rather than this being an expression of fear, the following line is a loving request to the speaker’s friends and family, stating that there should be no “sadness.” Overall, the speaker’s tone is one of wisdom, dignity, calm acceptance, and spiritual anticipation.
Tennyon uses two classic poetic tropes to figuratively describe the speaker’s life and death. The extended metaphor of life as a journey by sea, guided by God the Pilot, is accompanied by references to the passage of time and the journey of day towards night. Dark, then, follows “twilight and evening bell” in an inevitable way. It is not something for the speaker to fear but rather an indication that time is moving on and that soon he will be in another world where there is no “Time and Place” to consider—only the face of God.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar” is a sixteen-line poem divided into four four-line stanzas of differing metrical structure. The predominantly iambic lines vary in length, ranging from four-syllable lines (dimeters) to ten-syllable, iambic pentameter lines. The stanzas follow a consistent abab rhyme pattern.
The opening line establishes the poem’s temporal setting, an unspecified ship that is ready to sail at sunset. As the sun descends, the light of the evening star, a beacon for mariners, rises. Line 9 again draws attention to the approaching evening but calls it “twilight” rather than “sunset.” Once the final rays of light disappear, darkness will cover the world. This element neatly divides the poem into two sections, each containing 2 stanzas.
On the literal level, Tennyson’s poem begins with the barest elements of setting. A ship is about to set sail on a long voyage at “Sunset and evening star.” After a formal announcement, the “one clear call,” the vessel will sail out of the harbor, across the sandbar at the harbor’s entrance, and into the sea. The anxious passenger, the poem’s persona, hopes for a gentle crossing out of the harbor, one without turbulence associated with “moaning of the bar.” Instead, he hopes for a tide that is “Too full for sound and foam” because such a gentle tide would be like the one “which drew [him] out the boundless deep” and into port. This realization allows the traveler to think of this voyage out as if it were merely a voyage “again home.”
The second section of the poem (stanzas 3 and 4) echoes the poem’s first line with a second reference to the approaching night. Instead of the clear call, the sound of the “evening bell” signals the darkness and the scheduled sailing. Hoping for a cheerful departure, one with “no sadness of farewell,” the persona senses the importance of this journey, whose course will lead far beyond the limits of “Time and Place.” Still, the persona takes confidence in the hope of seeing the “Pilot face to face” after crossing the bar that separates the harbor and sea.
Perhaps one of Tennyson’s best-known short poems, “Crossing the Bar” also has a interesting history. Written in October, 1889, the poem was conceived as an expression of thanksgiving. Tennyson, then eighty, had recently recovered from a serious illness. Biographers point out that the poem was written on the back of an envelope in twenty minutes, the length of the ferry crossing from Lymington to Yarmouth on the Isle of Wight. The poem gained immediate popularity and was eventually set to music. It was one of two anthems sung three years later at the poet laureate’s funeral in Westminster Abbey on October 12, 1892. At Tennyson’s request, the poem is included as the final poem in all editions of his poetry.
At first glance, “Crossing the Bar” seems simple and uncomplicated in its rhyme scheme and metrics. The four-line quatrains resemble ballad stanzas, with their alternating rhymes that are consistently masculine and exact. Tennyson, however, carefully manipulated the rhymes, making “bar” a rhyming word in the first and last stanzas of the poem. Another skillful variation occurs with the metrics. Rather than employing the traditional pattern of the ballad, Tennyson extends one line in each of the first three stanzas into a single, graceful iambic pentameter line. In the final stanza, the first and third lines are pentameters. This changes the rhythm and even creates a wavelike motion. The poem’s rhythm slows down with the final line, “When I have crossed the bar,” and ends powerfully on a final, accented syllable, the word “bar.”
The simple language of this poem again recalls the ballad, and like the ballad the poem uses familiar vocabulary. Most of the words are common and monosyllabic, such as “star,” “call,” and “home.” In fact, the poem contains no words of more than two syllables. The word “bourne,” however, deserves attention. The one-syllable word, an obsolete term meaning “boundary” or “limit,” stands out. Here it refers to a geographical boundary between harbor and ocean. At the same time, it applies equally well a spiritual boundary, one that separates the temporal world and the limitless regions beyond. In addition, “bourne” resembles words found in folk ballads, but the word’s simplicity and eloquence suit the poem perfectly.
The eloquence of “Crossing the Bar” lies in its use of metaphor. Like so many works dealing with the sea, its central metaphor compares a sea voyage to the final journey that is part of the human condition, the journey from life to death. Tennyson’s numerous correspondences raise the poem beyond the level of mere metaphor to the realm of allegory. Almost every aspect of the poem works on two levels, literal and allegorical. Thus the journey across the bar becomes the crossing from the harbor of life into the dark, unknown sea or the afterlife. The twilight setting lends a sense of foreboding, for the approach of darkness and the sun’s setting in the west are traditional references to death. Images such as the “moaning of the bar” and the “sadness of farewell” enhance the somber tone and apply aptly to both dying and the voyage. The sandbar that separates the harbor from the sea becomes the demarcation between life and death.
Even the tidal motion of the sea has significance. Like the traveler, everyone hopes for a peaceful crossing of the bar, one whose “moving seems asleep” because it is “Too full for sound and foam.” No one knows what the moment of dying will actually be like, so the journey into death is generally frightening. The traveler finds comfort in the paradoxical nature of the journey, which is both a departure and a homecoming. Furthermore, it will allow Tennyson’s traveler to see the Pilot “face to face” after crossing into to death. In capitalizing “Pilot,” Tennyson equates the Pilot with God, but God in the guise of a specially qualified mariner who guides the ship through difficult waters in and out of the harbor.
The presence of the Pilot, however, has caused considerable controversy. The poem suggests that the Pilot appears only after the ship has “crossed the bar” rather than quitting the ship after passing the obstacle. Tennyson explained that the Pilot had been aboard all along, identifying him as “that Divine and Unseen Who is always guiding us.”
The enduring popularity of this short, meditative lyric lies in its ability to appeal to many people on many levels, despite attempts to limit it to one interpretation. The poem’s themes of death and dying have made it a popular selection for memorial services over the years, including Tennyson’s own. The poem, however, has significance for all readers. Daily life, a journey in itself, requires individuals to travel regularly from the safety of home, across a threshold, and into the unknown. Like the world of Tennyson’s traveler, the world beyond the safe region is dark and mysterious, yet at day’s end, people return home.
In this way, “Crossing the Bar” draws parallels between familiar and repeated patterns of ordinary, daily routine with nature’s daily cycles, such as night and day and the flow and ebb of the tide. Similarly, Tennyson includes the “evening star” and the Pilot as reminders of sources that guide individuals. These elements eloquently diminish the horror of death by drawing attention to the fact that the journey into death is merely part of a cycle: The going out is also a return home to “the boundless deep,” from which this traveler, like all people, came.
The themes of sea and death recur frequently in Tennyson’s life and work. As a child, Tennyson first saw the sea on a family vacation at Mablethorpe on the Lincolnshire coast, a place he revisited often for comfort and solitude when an adult. One critic posits that the poet somehow mentally linked the sea at Mablethorpe with the Mediterranean and the Aegean. This seems to be the case in works like “Ulysses”(1842), a poem about the famous epic hero’s final voyage at the end of his life. Like the traveler in “Crossing the Bar,” Ulysses, now an old man, sails off into the Mediterranean for one final adventure rather than simply yielding to death at home. In “The Passing of Arthur” (1869), Tennyson again connects voyage and death, giving readers the enduring picture of King Arthur’s bier floating out on the dark lake into the unknown. In each case, as in this simple lyric, the final voyage is majestic and dignified.
Even with its strong Christian overtones, “Crossing the Bar” appeals to a universal audience of all faiths and even nonbelievers. Everyone can respond to the image of the journey into the unknown. Tennyson carefully avoids using the words “heaven” and “hell,” “reward” and “punishment.” In Tennyson’s view the final crossing includes no judgment. Dying, then, is simply a stage, and the afterlife, a return home to the same unknown place from which individuals emerge. The Pilot, perhaps the clearest reference to God, is, in the poet’s own words, “the Divine Presence”—God and yet not necessarily the Christian God, but all the same some greater power that controls and guides human activity.