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.
Forms and Devices
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...
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