Last Updated on July 12, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 846
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 baths
Of 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 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...
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