By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Crossing the Bar’ was one of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s last poems, composed in 1889, just three years before the end of a long life and prolific career. (He would be UK Poet Laureate for 42 years in total, from 1850 until 1892, a record never unsurpassed.) Given its elegiac tone, ‘Crossing the Bar’ has often been analysed or interpreted as Tennyson’s elegy for himself: it describes his anticipation of the ‘crossing’ he must make from life to death.
Crossing the Bar
Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,
But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.
Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;
For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crost the bar.
Curiously, ‘Crossing the Bar’ is thought to have been inspired by a bout of seasickness. Tennyson lived on the Isle of Wight, and after a particularly choppy crossing the words for ‘Crossing the Bar’ came to him. And they came quickly: the poem appears to have been composed in one sitting.
‘Crossing the Bar’ loosely recalls an earlier poem by Tennyson, ‘Break, Break, Break’, written over fifty years earlier. Both poems use the quatrain form, both contain sea imagery, and, perhaps most significantly of all, both poems are elegies: ‘Break, Break, Break’ was a sort of elegy for Tennyson’s friend, Arthur Henry Hallam, who died aged just 22 and had been engaged to Tennyson’s sister. (Tennyson would, of course, go on to write a more famous elegy about his friend, In Memoriam A. H. H.)
But ‘Crossing the Bar’ can be analysed as Tennyson’s elegy, not for another person, but for himself. He later commented of the Pilot (who we can analyse as a representative of God – presumably, in fact, God himself): ‘The Pilot has been on board all the while, but in the dark I have not seen him.’
This description of seeing ‘the Pilot’ – i.e. God – ‘face to face’ recalls the lines from 1 Corinthians 13:12: ‘For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.’ In other words, at the end of the journey of life, one will see the person responsible for seeing one through the voyage: God the Pilot, whom Christians believe they will see in heaven.
While we’re on the subject of allusions, Tennyson’s use of the word ‘bourne’ in the final stanza may be a recollection of Hamlet’s description (in his famous ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy) of death as the ‘undiscover’d country, from whose bourn / No traveller returns’. (‘Bourn’ or ‘bourne’ denotes a boundary or limit, though interestingly, the Oxford English Dictionary records the sense of ‘bourn’ denoting a ‘realm’ or ‘domain’, noting that this meaning stems from ‘a misunderstanding of the passage in Hamlet’.)
Both ‘Crossing the Bar’ and Hamlet are about the shadowy boundary between life and death; both are, in part, meditations on the afterlife; and both texts acknowledge the hardship of life (Hamlet’s slings and arrows), which death provides a release from.
‘Crossing the Bar’ utilises the quatrain form and rhyme scheme abab that is sometimes seen in ballads. But rather than relaying a narrative to us, ‘Crossing the Bar’ is, instead, an elegy. It shows Tennyson confronting death at the end of his long life and choosing to face it stoically: ‘I hope to see my Pilot face to face’. Hubert Parry, best-remembered for composing the music for William Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’, also set Tennyson’s poem to music.
If you enjoyed this short discussion and analysis of ‘Crossing the Bar’, discover more of Tennyson’s poetry with this pick of his greatest poems.