‘Crossing the Bar’ is about death. Which sounds bleak! But it really isn’t, in fact, the narrator states twice that they don’t want people to moan or be sorrowful about their situation. The poem uses the metaphor of a voyage at sea to describe the journey from life to death. Although Tennyson is famed for his poems based on mythology this poem does not fall under that umbrella except for a possible reference to a “pilot” which I have theorized may be an elusion to a mythological creature such as the “ferryman”.
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Summary of Crossing the Bar
‘Crossing the Bar’ is about the journey into death from life and was written by Tennyson in his advancing years when he was starting to think about death (No surprises there!) The poem begins with the poet taking note of the setting sun and Venus. It feels to him in these moments as though he’s been called on. He also considers the sea and what will happen if he journeys there. He hopes it will refrain from sounding mournful and will instead be full and unable to contain sound. The speaker is striving to find some kind of peace in the scene.
Next, the speaker pronounces the day done and his departure looming. This is, of course, an extended metaphor for death itself. Despite his advancing doom, he doesn’t want anyone mourning him or worry about him. His mind is fixed on what he’s going to find when he’s crossed the sand bar. It is ideally, his “Pilot,” meaning God.
Themes in Crossing the Bar
WIthin ‘Crossing the Bar’ Tennyson explores several important themes. These include death, time, and the sea. The first is the most important and is prominently discussed and alluded to throughout the poem. From the first line to the last the speaker is preparing for a journey into the afterlife. Each element of the landscape has something to say about that journey, as does his desire to alieve the sadness of any possible mourners. Time is another important element of the poem and is referenced directly and indirectly through descriptions of the setting sun.
Structure of Crossing the Bar
‘Crossing the Bar’ is a four stanza poem that’s divided into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. These quatrains follow a consistent rhyme scheme of ABAB. The lengths of the lines vary, but the first and third tend to be a bit longer than the second and fourth. In addition to influencing the rhythm of the poem, this gives the text an increased visual interest. It might also hint at the up and back motion of the ocean.
Poetic Techniques in Crossing the Bar
Tennyson makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Crossing the Bar’. These include alliteration, enjambment and metaphor. The latter is the most important literary device used in the poem. A metaphor is a comparison between two unlike things that does not use “like” or “as” is also present in the text. When using this technique a poet is saying that one thing is another thing, they aren’t just similar. As the speaker describes the ocean, his prospective departure and the journey he’s going to undertake, he is, in reality, referring to death.
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, “clear and call” in line two of stanza one as well as “face to face” in stanza four.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For example, the transition between lines three and four of the second stanza.
Form and Mood
‘Crossing the Bar’ is written in free verse in four stanzas which each contain four lines. It contains a strict ABAB rhyming pattern. Despite the gloomy subject matter, the mood is never dull or gloomy in its tone, perhaps the rhyming pattern was put in place in order to avoid this. It seems to view death almost as an adventure. The poem is presumably not autobiographical (It is nearly impossible to write a poem whilst dead!) but is told from a first-person perspective.
Analysis of 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,
The very first line of this stanza of ‘Crossing the Bar’ puts the poem in a particular time of day. The evening star that it describes is another name for Venus, Venus is known as both the Evening Star and the Morning star dependent on whether it is winter or summer which means this poem is based in the winter.
Whilst Venus represents the goddess of love this is certainly no love poem and its inclusion is clearly just to point to what the “time” is. I’m not sure what the narrator is referencing when they mention a “clear call” the poem is quite dated, but it doesn’t appear to be a nautical term. Perhaps this line is meant to be taken literally. Maybe it is made to suggest that the narrator’s voice carries, perhaps due to the weather or the location. Or, alternatively, he feels as though he’s being called to by the heavens.
The bar, which is physically a sand bar, represents the line between living and dying. When the narrator says there is to be no moaning at the bar they are saying that there shouldn’t be any sadness or complaining about their passing. Throughout this poem, the narrator makes references to being at sea. Travelling at sea is used as a metaphor for the journey from life on into death.
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.
This stanza of ‘Crossing the Bar’ is quaint sounding. It describes the current as very minimal, not very powerful, and does so beautifully. Does this line denote that the narrator’s journey to the afterlife is a peaceful one? Dying in their sleep perhaps? The idea of the full tide suggests that the metaphorical ship being sailed is in deep water.
The lack of sound and foam indicates that the vessel is in the deep sea. This might lead one to think that it isn’t at the start of the journey but nearer the end. Note how the narrator doesn’t say this but subtly hints, leaving clues for a reader like Hansel and Gretel leaving a trail of breadcrumbs.
The third line of this stanza is even more nuanced. It’s drawing from the “boundless deep,” the sea. These lines aren’t entirely clear, but it likely the narrator is still referencing the tide as this seems to be the theme for this stanza. It then continues to say it turns again home. This suggests that the tide is turning; does this mean that it is becoming less calm? It’s doubtful, but it certainly doesn’t suggest that the narrator isn’t going to cross over after all, the tide isn’t going to carry them “back to shore”.
Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;
Events are once again taking place at twilight. This helps to create a visual picture of the surroundings. The use of evening bell evokes images of the funeral toll often associated with death. The next line would certainly lend credence to that idea as following the bell there is darkness. Is this a sign that the narrator has finally passed on? One thing is clear and that is that the narrator doesn’t want people to make a big deal out of their passing as they reiterate the sentiment from the first stanza of ‘Crossing the Bar’ by saying that they don’t want sadness.
Their passing to the other side is referred to as “embarking”. This fits in nicely with the nautical theme. It almost sounds like the experience is an adventure, which holds its contrast with the descriptions that have made the episode seem serene and peaceful.
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.
The themes of time and place are prominent throughout ‘Crossing the Bar’. You can see as they have been used several times throughout the narrative. This stanza seems to act almost like a summary detailing a very much abridged version of the journey that has taken the narrator from their birth up to their eventual demise. When they talk of the flood I think this is another way of describing the “endless sea” that has carried them towards their destination, their passing into death.
When the narrator talks about the pilot they are effectively referring to the person that has controlled their journey. This could be the grim reaper, or the ferryman! (These are characters from mythology that help people transition to the afterlife) but it could also be a reference to god. Perhaps the narrator wants to “meet their maker”. Crossing the bar is a phrase that essentially means crossing over from life into death. It is also the name of the poem ending on this line gives it prominence.
About Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Alfred Lord Tennyson is one of the most famous poets to have lived. He died in 1892 at the ripe old age of 83. For much of Queen Victoria’s reign he acted as Britain’s poet laureate. A lot of his more famed works were based on mythology, such as Ulysses. His poems are often rich with imagery which shows the influence of the romantics on his poetry. He is also noted for coining several phrases that have become ingrained in British vernacular. These include: “‘Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all”.