“Crossing the Bar” as Tennyson’s Poetic Signature

Near the end of his life, poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson instructed all editors of his works to put his elegy ‘“Crossing the Bar’ at the end of all editions of [his] poems” (Hill 496). Since this request, all editors have kept this promise. Tennyson’s career as a poet, playwright, and writer spanned sixty years. In those six decades, he wrote and published scores of poetry ranging from his narrative poems in “Idylls of the King” about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, and his 1854 narrative poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade” about a heroic charge made by horsemen during the Crimean War, to his poems that explored ancient Greek mythology such as “To Ulysses” and his dedicatory poem to his good friend and fellow poet Alfred Henry Hallam, “In Memoriam.” Considering the vast array of lyrics laid down by Tennyson during his tenure as a poet, I feel like it’s important to understand what makes “Crossing the Bar” the one poem that Tennyson chose to put at the end of every published edition of his poetry. What is it with an elegy that describes a dying man’s journey from sunset to twilight, from shore to open sea, that warrants its becoming Tennyson’s poetical signature?

Lord_Tennyson
Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Crossing the Bar” goes as follows:

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.

Old English Elegies

Before diving into Tennyson’s work, it’s important to consider one of the oldest recorded English elegies and how it compares to “Crossing the Bar.” In the poem “The Seafarer“, which is found in a collection of poetry reportedly written in the late 10th century AD by Christian monks that was compiled in a book called The Exeter Book, expresses similar sentiments to that of Tennyson’s.

In “The Seafarer”, we see a man sailing upon the sea. He’s cold, alone, and very far from home. The speaker of the poem laments the bitterness of the sea and the coldness of being alone in a ship. His view on his current predicament is mournful. The imagery that he uses to describe the scene that lays before him is like looking at a monstrous wave before it crashes against a canoe. The religious tone of the poem is not in any degree hopeful. He explains that those who have lost faith in God and have turned to gold rather than God are fools and “Death leaps at the fools who forget their God” (106). Rather than providing reassurances, the speaker only speaks of the pitfalls of pride. After describing the destruction of the wrath of God on those who place material goods  above their Creator, the speaker gives suggestions. It’s not advice that helps one come closer to God. It’s more advice on how to avoid the wrath of God.He then praises God and asks permission to “rise to that eternal joy” in God’s presence.

Most of the elegies found in the Exeter Book are similar in their approach to discussing death, destruction, and mortal finality. They lament the evil that is inherent in the world and how evil, evil works, and sin are the reasons why the earth is such a cold and dark place. They describe a scene of total loneliness and isolation. The word bleak doesn’t seem to suit when describing the desolation of death in Old English elegies. There’s not a whole lot to look forward to on the horizon. Everything is just dead and there’s nothing that can really be done about it except kind of hope that a wrathful God won’t totally waste you. Kind of depressing. Although this poem is saturated in sadness, somehow floating in the frozen, frigid yet raging waters of a life where God lays waste to the wicked and seeks to do the same to the remnants of mankind, there is one blip of optimism that is the impetus of the hopefulness that is found in “Crossing the Bar.” In “The Seafarer,” before the speaker goes into listing all of the “Thou Shalts” of avoiding destruction, he presents an interesting thought: “Our thoughts should turn to where our home is.” The speaker could be talking about our physical home, like, where Mom and Dad live or where his family is waiting for him. He could be referring to a heavenly home. It could be both. As we consider the idea of home in Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar” as well as his poem “To Ulysses,” we can understand why he would place an elegy, a typically somber and reflective poem about death, in the back of every printed copy of his collected poetry.

Ulysses and Life After Death

Crossing the Bar” was written in 1889, three years before the poet’s death in 1892. He reportedly wrote it after recovering from an illness. By this time, Tennyson was in his eighties and, for anyone around that age, an illness was almost always synonymous with death. Death was on his mind, but not in the fireballs from heaven, struck dead just for trying to balance the Ark of the Covenant [put link] sense of the word. Death wasn’t the end of life for Tennyson. This propensity toward life beyond death can be seen in Tennyson’s 1843 poem, “To Ulysses.” In “To Ulysses,” he writes as if he were the famed Odysseus, one seafarer who sailed the Aegean Sea in order to return back to his home on the island of Ithaca. At the end of his life, he reflects on what will become of his life after he passes through the harbor of mortality and into the seas of the beyond. He speaks that even after passing on to “newer world[s]… Some work of noble note, may yet be done, / Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.” He wishes “To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths / Of all the western stars.” He wants to continue until there’s nothing left to continue to. For Tennyson, and the speaker, there is something beyond death. There is something to look forward to. Something beyond that begs him to return.

The speaker examines the boring nature of halting. “How dull it is,” he remarks, “to pause, to make an end.” Death as a halt or a hiccup in the journey is borderline blasphemous. It should be, according to the speaker, part of the journey beyond the sunset.

Crossing the Bar

In “Crossing the Bar,” Tennyson sees the passing from life to death as something that all humans will experience whether they are wicked or righteous, and rather than giving a litany of things to do to be prepared, he simply offers hope. Rather than focusing on the cold and the crags like the author of “the Seafarer,” Tennyson’s speaker emphasizes stars and sounds. In the poem we meet a man in a harbor looking out beyond a sandbar into the sea. The sun is setting and he contemplates what will happen once he proceeds past the precipice of the bar and into the ocean. In the opening stanza of the poem, the speaker describes the scene: “Sunset, and evening star” (1). The sun is setting indicating the inevitable arrival of night. Although the sun will soon set, the speaker presents the image of a star. A light that will still be there even when the light of mortality is extinguished. A constant light in the sky. As the sun descends behind the horizon, the speaker hears “one clear call for [him]” (2). A call that is accentuated by the dimming of the day and the movement of the tide. This call is timely. It comes first as the sun sets and later at the tolling of the evening bell, reminding the speaker that his time has come to cross the bar and there isn’t a whole lot he can do about it. He doesn’t want people to mourn for him or be sad for him as he sails across the bar. He just wants to sort of glide into the sea amid the sonorous sounds of the surf and make the transition between life and death as easily as possible. He doesn’t want fanfare. He would much rather drift off noiselessly without making a ruckus.

The tide is described as being drawn “from out the boundless deep.” The ocean is unknown, maybe even foreboding or intimidating. It is nothing like the supposed safety of the harbor, yet, the speaker realizes that the call came from the ocean and not from the harbor. He must take the step into the unknown as a he crosses the bar. As the tide recedes, it “turns again home”. The use of the word home as opposed to the “boundless deep” earlier in the stanza brings with it feelings of connection with the ocean. Although it is something unknown to the speaker, there is something familiar about it. Something welcoming. The call, this charge, to cross the bar is more than a realization that the speaker’s mortal clock has ticked its last tock. It is filial. It’s not the wrath of a calloused God causing chaos and desiring to destroy man. It is a call from a Creator to His creation. It’s a call from home. It’s hopeful. Rather than agonizing over the lost and fallen state of man in the presence of a vengeful deity, the speaker desires to cross into the familiar unknown of the sea beyond the bar.

His experience of crossing is marked by the coming of twilight and the evening bell, “and after that the dark.” Though the sun has now set and he doesn’t know entirely what lies beyond the bar, the appearance of the evening star provides him with the assurance that this treacherous traversing from harbor to sea will all be okay in the end. The speaker concludes hopefully, though the scene is shrouded in darkness and uncertainty, that “For tho’ from out our borne of Time and Place, / The flood may bear me far, / I hope to see my Pilot face to face / When I have crossed the bar.” The hope that is present in the end of the poem penetrates the firmament and gives the speaker and the reader hope that there is something more beyond the threshold of time and place and that they might have the chance to look their Pilot, their Creator, face to face upon crossing the bar.

A contemporary of Tennyson’s, Lionel Johnson, in writing about death uses the exact same images as Tennyson. In Johnson’s 1887 poem “In Falmouth Harbour” the speaker is sailing just as the speaker in “Crossing the Bar” is. The only difference is that rather than crossing the bar to the ocean, the speaker is leaving the ocean of life into the harbor of the grave where no waves are made and where travelers can rest from the restlessness of the sea. Daniel Rutenberg of West Virginia University observed that in “Crossing the Bar,” Tennyson views and “[treats]… death as a welcome challenge” and Johnson on the other hand turns death into a sort of “redemption” (179).  Johnson sees death as more of a victory rather than another phase in the battle. Although both poems view death in a very valid and mostly positive way, Johnson’s perception of death as a harbor presents a lack the faith in Falmouth Harbour’s speaker that Tennyson’s speaker is able to exercise in his act of crossing the bar. Rutenberg compares two quatrains from each poem to show the similarities in form along with the differing ideologies surrounding death:

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,  

(“Crossing the Bar”, 1-4)

And

“I have passed over the rough sea

And over the white harbour bar;

And this is Death’s dreamland,

Led hither by a star.

(“In Falmouth Harbour”, 29-32)

Though the imagery is the same in both of these quatrains, the thoughts regarding death stand in stark contrast. Rutenberg states that the ages of each of these poets when they wrote these poems might explain the differing tones. Tennyson was in his eighties when he wrote “Crossing the Bar” and Johnson was barely in his twenties when he wrote “In Falmouth Harbour.” Tennyson had the experience of a full life. He knew sorrow, he knew happiness, and above all he knew that, as his American contemporary Henry Wadsworth Longfellow penned,

“Life is real! Life is earnest!

And the grave is not the goal;

Dust thou art, to dust returnest,

Was not spoken of the soul.”

Tennyson, when asked about the Pilot’s presence beyond the sight of the speaker, simply stated that “the Pilot has been on board all the while, but in the dark I have not yet seen him.” The Pilot is, “that Divine and Unseen Who is always guiding us” (Hill 578). By stamping “Crossing the Bar” at the end of every edition of his poetry, Tennyson wanted anyone that would read his poetry to understand this one fundamental truth. Though our bodily frames will eventually waste away, deep down each human being is divine. When we are about to be “called home” we can hope for something better after this life and not fear death. Although we, as Paul the Apostle stated, “see through a glass, darkly,” there will come a time when we will see things clearly. We will eventually see the Pilot face to face. With the knowledge of the Pilot who made it possible for us to, like the tide, “turn again home,” we can rest assured knowing or at least hoping that our crossing of the bar will be peaceful and placid.

Works Cited:

Hill Jr., Robert W., Tennyson’s Poetry: Authoritative Texts, Criticism. W.W. Norton Company, 1999.

Rutenberg, Daniel. CRISSCROSSING THE BAR: TENNYSON AND LIONEL JOHNSON ON DEATH. Victorian Poetry; Summer 1972; 10, 2; pg. 179-180

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