Crossing the Bar Themes
The main themes in “Crossing the Bar” are the acceptance of death, journeys and homecomings, and God and faith.
- The acceptance of death: The poem approaches the transition from life to death with wisdom, acceptance, and even anticipation.
- Journeys and homecomings: The speaker’s journey to sea and to death is framed as a homecoming.
- God and faith: The poem considers the possibility that death is a reunion with God, who is figured as the boat’s Pilot.
Last Updated on September 6, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 815
The Acceptance of Death
The central concern in “Crossing the Bar” is death, but while Tennyson has written about death throughout his poetic career, many of his other poems are laments, bemoaning the fact that death must befall loved ones. This is especially true in the case of In Memoriam A. H. H., a book-length poem published in 1850 about the premature death of Tennyson’s beloved friend Arthur Hallam. In “Crossing the Bar,” however, death is approached from a different angle. The speaker knows that he is reaching the end of his life, and he has accepted this. The poem thus frames death as something which the speaker deems inevitable and even desirable. If we read the poem as autobiographical, then the speaker can be seen as a representation of the elderly Tennyson. For him to die would not be unfitting; rather, it would be the conclusion of a natural progression. Part of the speaker’s—and perhaps Tennyson’s— purpose, then, is to soothe the “sadness of farewell” felt by those he must leave behind.
Tennyson conveys the inevitability of death in old age by describing it in concert with other inevitable natural progressions, such as the progression of time. Just as day moves from “sunset” to “twilight” and then to “dark,” human lives follow a similar progression towards age and mortality. The speaker does not resist this fact, for it is simply the way of the world. He also understands his death as being the final destination on a journey which he has been on for his whole life—a journey driven not by himself but by his “Pilot.” The Pilot can be understood as representing God, and therefore there is no resisting his directions, and nor is there any need to fear them. The speaker’s hope is that he will be able to meet his Pilot “face to face” when he dies, underscoring the poem’s favorable attitude towards death.
Journeys and Homecomings
Many of Tennyson’s poems are concerned with journeys and homecomings, particularly in allusion to the journeys and homecomings of classical myth. In “Crossing the Bar,” life is depicted as a journey, specifically a journey upon water, within which the speaker is not the “Pilot” but rather a traveler waiting for his final journey “home.”
Tennyson’s extended metaphor of life as a journey by sea depicts death not as a passage into the unknown but rather as the end of a continuous journey through life. At times, perhaps, the sea—that is, the conditions of his life—have been rough. By contrast, he asks that the tides for his final journey should be so still that they seem “asleep” even when they are moving. His time living on the human “bourne of Time and Place” is shown to be a state of separation from his origin. The converse, death, is thus associated with a kind of spiritual state, a shedding of those particulars of “Time and Place” in favor of something more essential.
When the speaker and his “Pilot” embark again on the last journey over the bar which separates life from death, the speaker will be returning to his true home, the place where he was initially made. This metaphor represents an inversion of common conceptions of home. For a sailor, land and harbor represent home, whereas the sea beyond represents the wider world. For Tennyson’s speaker, life and land are framed as foreign, and the journey seaward takes him homeward. This inversion shows how death defies the logic of everyday existence and brings an end to the normal cycle of departure and return.
God and Faith
The speaker in...
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“Crossing the Bar” accepts his final journey into the “dark” of death in large part because of his faith. He does not make explicit reference to Christianity in the poem, but at the end, he identifies the thing which he is most happily anticipating about his journey into death: he will finally see his “Pilot face to face.”
This brief line conveys a wealth of information about the speaker and his concept of life, death, and faith. By Tennyson’s own account, the Pilot represents “That Divine and Unseen Who is always guiding us.” Indeed, God is the speaker’s Pilot, or navigator, the figure who has steered his ship on its journey from its heavenly home, out into the world, and now back to its source. The speaker’s sense that his ship is guided by God grounds his feelings of acceptance towards death.
The speaker believes that the “bar,” the metaphorical boundary between life and death, is the only thing preventing him from seeing God directly, something which is in line with Christian teachings. The speaker knows that God has been with him for the whole of his life, but death holds for him the possibility of facing and uniting with his maker.