[Close Reading Rainbow pt. 4] Coming to Grips with Reality in Julio Cortázar’s “The Night Face Up.”

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Sometimes reality is scarier than any nightmare we might be having. This was definitely the case for many writers in South and Central America during the 1960s and 1970s. Citizens of countries like Chile, Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina suffered under military dictatorships that negatively impacted these nations economically, developmentally, and even academically; many of these affects are still being felt by Latin Americans today.

From 1966-1973, Argentina was rocked and shaken by the military dictatorship of Juan Carlos Onganía. Through a military coup, known as Revolución Argentina, Juan Domingo Perón, the then president of Argentina, was ousted and exiled to Spain. In the wake of this sudden shift in power, Onganía made his mark on the economic, industrial, and academic history of Argentina. Due to the Argentine University Reform of 1918, students and professors had autonomy over the university and could establish a governing body over the university that was separate from the federal government. This all changed on the night of July 29, 1966.  Hundreds of students and professors from the University of Buenos Aires were violently forced out of the university by police officers led by Onganía. Following the removal of autonomy from the university staff and students, many of Argentina’s best and brightest academics were either forced to emigrate or emigrated on their own free will to other Latin American countries, Europe, and the United States. This night would later be named “La Noche de los Bastones Largos” or “The Night of the Long Batons.” As a result of Onganía’s regime, Argentina was flipped on its head and continues to suffer the consequences of this dictatorship.

The following spring, on April 22, 1967, a story by Argentinian writer Julio Cortázar was published in The New Yorker titled “The Night Face Up.” The story chronicles the events of a night where a man crashes his motorcycle, is rushed to a hospital, receives treatment, and drifts in and out of consciousness between 1960s Argentina and “the war of blossom,” a time of ritualistic human sacrifices which occurred during the time of the Aztecs. At the time of the story’s publication, Cortázar was living in France, where he wrote and published many of his short stories and novels. Cortázar was a proponent and patron of the arts and education. His work primarily focuses on understanding the nature of reality and dreams/nightmares. According to Lois Parkinson Zamora, in his work “Cortázar is attracted to the visionary energy of the myth of apocalypse, to its revitalizing power: Its transformative vision becomes for Cortazar the central metaphor for the artistic imagination operating under extreme conditions of personal and/or political crisis” (92). Cortázar, just like many of his contemporaries, recognized the traditional and ritual-like nature of establishing military leaders, called juntas, in Latin America. Life under these regimes was nightmarish, apocalyptic, and extremely frightening, and Cortázar sought to understand the complexities of living a normal life under abnormal circumstances; living two realities at the same time. Many critics of Cortázar’s work have linked him to Bohemian writer Franz Kafka due to Cortázar’s ability to tell stories that, according to fellow Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, “Very subtly… [attract] us to his terrible world in which happiness is impossible” (21). Borges goes on to say that the world in which Cortázar writes is “a porous” one where “human beings are interwoven with each other…. Cortázar delights in playing with the stuff we are made on, time. In some tales, two temporal series flow along and intermingle” (21). These ideas of time and two temporal and very different realities flowing together permeate his fiction and simultaneously serve as a window into the nightmare that many Latin Americans struggled through during the regimes like that of the Revolución Argentina.

In examining the combination of these two realities, Cortázar pits heavy and light imagery against one another like water mixing with oil to underscore the difficulty in straddling two alternate realities. In “The Night Face Up,” the man who “does not have a name” (66) experiences a rupture of consciousness and reality due to a traumatic near-fatal motorcycle collision when a woman steps into an intersection during a green light. On impact, the man’s “vision went. It was like falling asleep all at once” (67). He is shot into what the narrator explains later as a “a void… an emptiness he could not manage to fill” (73). The nurses and doctors in the hospital, those whose job it is to operate on his broken arm and provide him with an X-Ray, are juxtaposed with the priests and warriors bent on capture him and sacrifice him in his dream. In the hospital, his nostrils are filled with “that hospital smell” (68); smells that usually connote cleanliness, safety, and healing. Whereas, his supposed dream is marked by “a confusion, as of one drawing all his sensations, for that moment blunted or muddled, into himself” (71) and “the smell of war” (69). The smells are antithetical. The man’s senses present a duality in his perception. On the one hand, he is slightly marred by a motorcycle accident, yet is covered in bandages and awaiting treatment. On the other, he is a Motecan warrior escaping the hands of murderous priests who want to sacrifice him to one of their many gods. The heaviness in the dream state stands in stark contrast to the relative lightness of the hospital room.

This dual and entirely inverse relationship between the two realities is furthered in the way that the man interacts with people in the dream and in his perceived reality. After his accident at the beginning of the story, the men that help him “encouraged him cheerfully with jokes and assurances” (67). The atmosphere surrounding the event is not serious in the slightest. They laugh and talk about how the bike is more banged up than he is; despite having broken his arm. Though these jokes and encouragements seem to serve as a welcome reminder that this man has just escaped death, the narrator makes it clear the “Voices” from which the jokes and the encouragements were coming from “did not seem to belong to the faces hanging above him” (67). This can be seen as just a lag in perception as a result of trauma. However, people living under oppressive regimes and oppressive individuals experience similar dislodged realities. They hope that the life they were living before the coup can go on as it did without any repercussions. These dictators like Onganía, as aggressive and oppressive as they were, worked to improve the infrastructure of the country. Despite the upgraded infrastructure that comes with some oppressive military-run governments, the cons almost always outweigh the pros. The citizens under the regime also recognize, just like the students and professors from the University of Buenos Aires, that regardless of improvements in national infrastructure, the reality of these regimes is the suppression of ideas and the forceful removal of democratically granted autonomy.

Like these students and the professors, the man in “The Night Face Up” is confronted with a split reality: he is both a civilian with a broken arm in a hospital and a Motecan warrior avoiding the sacrificial altar. The pros of the hospital are that he is being taken care of through modern medicine; the con is that his arm is broken, and he has a fever. The solitary pro of being a Motecan warrior is that his right arm isn’t broken; the cons are that he is in the dark, he needs to follow a difficult path to escape, he can’t stay awake in the hospital, and the obvious prospect of being sacrificed. In the story, he doesn’t have a choice as to which reality he actually inhabits. In the end, the man finds himself drifting further into his dream, described him as being pinned at “his wrists and ankles…. staked to the ground on a floor of dank, icy stone slabs” (73). The whole night, both in the hospital and in the dream world, he is in the same position: face up. He is passive in both realities, and ultimately realizes at the end that he is not a man from 1960s Argentina as the narrator leads readers to believe at the beginning of the story. Rather, his reality is the one where he is being sacrificed, face up.

Because of the regimes that existed in Latin America during the 1960s and 1970s, many Latin Americans felt like they were face up on the sacrificial alter while at the same time trying with all their might to fight back against this reality. The terror and frustration felt by the people of Argentina during Revolución Argentina provides an important framework for Cortázar’s case study on dual realities in many of his stories. Just as Lois Parkinson Zamora states, “these episodes subtly transmute themselves into a descent to the cellars of behavior, to Its remote irrational sources, to an immutable essence – magic, barbarous, ceremonial – of the human experience that underlies rational civilization and, under certain circumstances, rises up to disturb it” (92). They allow readers to see what life could be like and ask themselves which reality is worth accepting and which is worth denying. Unfortunately, many people remained in Argentina during the seven years of Onganía’s dictatorship and suffered like the man in “The Night Face Up”; left to their fate at the hands of a nightmarish dictator who pushed citizens down as they tried to wake up and remain face up. Thankfully, people like the students and the professors from the University of Buenos Aires and people who fought for freedom against oppressive juntas were able to wake up, escape the nightmare, accept the correct reality, disrupt the tradition of military regimes, and help usher in a less terrifying era for Argentina and other Latin American nations.

Works Cited

Borges, Jorge Luis. “Preface to Julio Cortázar’s Cuentos.” Critical Essays on Julio Cortázar. Edited by Jaime Alazraki. G.K. Hall & Co., 1999, pp. 21-22.

Zamora, Lois Parkinson. “Art and Revolution in the Fiction of Julio Cortázar.” Critical Essays on Julio Cortázar.“ Edited by Jaime Alazraki. G.K. Hall & Co. 1999, pp. 92-114,

Cortázar, Julio. “The Night Face Up.” Blow Up, and Other Stories, Random House, 1967, 57-66. (Print) (Online, I used the online version for citations)

 

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[Close Reading Rainbow Part 2]: Dead Letters, Dead Walls, and Dead Men: Artistic Uncertainty in “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street”

Herman Melville was born on August 1, 1819 in New York City. He wrote short stories, novels, and poetry between the 1840s and 1880s. His most famous work is that of Moby-Dick. Despite his recognition and acclaim now as the author of Moby-Dick, in its time the novel nearly ruined Melville’s career as a writer, as the length and complexity of the novel served to alienate his readers and pushed him out of the literary limelight that he experienced through writing adventure/travel novels.

Melville had written travel/adventure stories like Typee: A Peep at Polynesia (1846) and Mardi, and a Voyager Thither (1849), both based on Melville’s own travels in the South Pacific, which were highly regarded during the time and well-received. His two Moby Dick (1851), which he regarded as his masterpiece, and Pierre (1852) were financial and critical bombs. Regarding this dilemma, Melville once wrote to his close friend Nathaniel Hawthorne However, despite his earlier success with these stories, after the publication of Moby-Dick and Pierre, Melville waited in vain for letters assuring him of at least an ounce of critical attention and the possibility of making some sort of profit off of his hard work. Melville admired Hawthorne and wrote an incredibly helpful review of Hawthorne’s collection of tales and sketches Mosses from an Old Manse (1846). He considered Hawthorne as a friend and gave praise to his tales and success as a story teller and his masterful prose style. In one letter Melville laments the underwhelming public response to Moby-Dick: “Dollars damn me; and the malicious devil is forever grinning in upon me, holding the door ajar… I shall be worn out and perish, like an old nutmeg grater, grated to pieces by the constant attrition of the wood, that is, the nutmeg. What I feel most to write, that is banned” Melville continues, “—it will not pay. Yet altogether write the other way I cannot” (Frederick Busch vii-viii).

After the reception of Moby Dick, and Pierre, Melville wrote several short stories that explored the feelings of utter despair and rejection he had felt at the hands of publishes and critics. One of those stories was “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street.” This tale of frustration and annoyance can be seen as Melville’s own response to what he perceived as his literary downfall. In the story, the narrator relates his experience with a scrivener (law copyist) named Bartleby, who was “the strangest [he] ever saw, or heard of” (Melville 3). The narrator, a lawyer, is considered by many to be a “safe man” because he does a “snug business among rich men’s bonds” (4). He is “a man who, from his youth upwards, [had] been filled with a profound conviction that the easiest way of life is the best” (3-4). Though he sees himself as a successful and well-to-do lawman, he meets his match when Bartleby begins to work at this office. Bartleby is described as being “pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, [and] incurably forlorn!” (11). Hard-working as he seems to be at the beginning of the tale, Bartleby develops a disdain for doing anything that he prefers not to do. Throughout the story, the compromising and adaptable narrator is faced with unchanging and stubborn Bartleby as he prefers not to do anything at all. Bartleby prefers not to do anything to the point that the narrator moves his office because Bartleby won’t leave, and Bartleby is subsequently taken into custody and sent to prison where he dies because he “prefer[s] not to dine…[for i]t would disagree with him; [he being] unused to dinner” (44). Rather than preferring to do anything a sane person would do, Bartleby stares only at the “dead wall” outside his office window, and when he enters prison, he stares at a wall rather than doing anything he is told. Upon further examination after Bartleby’s death, the narrator discovers that he had been employed at the “Dead Letter Office in Washington” where letters that have incorrect return and forwarding addresses are sent, sorted through, and finally burned. Despite the narrator’s efforts to get Bartleby to move and do something, he is unsuccessful. Much like Melville’s own career, he felt that things were not moving, and that publishers and critics were preferring not to consider his work seriously. Through looking at the relationship between the narrator, Bartleby, the wall, and the Dead Letter Office, “Bartleby, the Scrivener” becomes an angry cry from a rejected artist and an accurate depiction of the total anxiety and dejection that struggling artists everywhere no too well. As Melville writes in his letter to Hawthorne, Bartleby exemplifies the emotions surrounding critical and financial failure that Melville felt as he bore the shame associated with what he felt was the “malicious devil… forever grinning in upon [him].”

The narrator feels as though he were secure in his identity as a semi-successful lawyer who is in the know about those under his control, but his interaction with Bartleby proves to expose his true character. He knows the routines, eccentricities, schedules, and personalities of every scrivener in his office. He gives definite and methodical descriptions of his employees three employees: Turkey, Nippers, and Ginger Nut

“Turkey was a short, pursy Englishman, of about my own age – that is, somewhere not far from sixty. In the morning, one might say, his face was of a fine florid hue, but after twelve o’clock, meridian – his dinner hour – it blazed like a grate full of Christmas coals; and continued blazing – but, as it were, with a gradual wane – till six o’clock, P.M., or thereabouts; after which, I saw no more of the proprietor of the face, which gaining its meridian with the sun, seemed to set with it, to rise, culminate, and decline the following day, with the like regularity” (5).

Nippers is described as being “a whiskered, sallow, and, upon the whole, rather piratical-looking young man, of about five and twenty. I always deemed him the victim of two evil powers – ambition and indigestion. The ambition was evinced by a certain impatience of the duties of a mere copyist, an unwarrantable usurpation of strictly personal affairs, such as the original drawing up of legal documents. The indigestion seemed betokened in an occasional nervous testiness and grinning irritability, causing the teeth to audibly grind together over mistakes committed in copying; unnecessary maledictions, hissed, rather than spoken, in the heat of business; and especially by a continual discontent with the height of the table where he worked” (7-8).

Ginger Nut, “was a lad, some twelve years old. His father was a car-man, ambitious of seeing his son on the bench instead of a cart, before he died. So he sent him to my office, as a student of law, errand-boy, cleaner and sweeper, at the rate of one dollar a week. He had a little desk to himself, but he did not use it much. Upon inspection, the drawer exhibited a great array of shells of various nuts. Indeed, to this quick-witted youth, the whole noble science of the law was contained in a nutshell” (10).

The narrator is able to easily profile each of his employees and is even able to work within each of their strange personal schedules. They, unknowingly, all work together to make the office work as efficiently, without too much effort needed, as the narrator wants. In each description given, the detail is methodical; it is a brief, but detailed character sketch of each scrivener. From eating habits to grinding teeth, the narrator has each of his employees figured out. They are round characters who have quirks that are relatable and understandable. Turkey can’t work efficiently in the afternoon in evening, so the narrator frontloads his work day and doesn’t give hardly any work to him in the afternoon and evening. Nippers is the opposite; he doesn’t work as hard in the morning, but come the afternoon and evening, his work is admirable. According to what the narrative deems fit, each employee is given specific workloads and tasks to enable the office to function like clockwork.

With Bartleby’s arrival, the narrator knows nothing about him. He has no next of kin or close family relationships that are on record. Bartleby is an enigma. After one of the first instances in which Bartleby “prefers not to” accomplish a task that the narrator expects of him, the narrator “look[s] at [Bartleby] steadfastly. His face [is] leanly composed; his eyes dimly calm. Not a wrinkle of agitation rippled him. Had there been the least uneasiness, anger, impatience or impertinence about him, doubtless I should have violently dismissed him from the premises” (13). Although the narrator feels strongly about Bartleby’s insistence that he “prefer not to” do anything, the narrator feels pity rather than anger. At one point the narrator even claims that he became “considerably reconciled to Bartleby. His steadiness, his freedom from all dissipation, his incessant industry (except when he chose to throw himself into a standing revery behind his screen), his great stillness, his unalterableness of demeanor under all circumstances, made him a valuable acquisition.” The narrator even applauds Bartleby’s integrity stating that he “had a singular confidence in his honesty. [He] felt [his] most precious papers perfectly safe in his hands” (20). Though these admissions seem to be heartfelt, the narrator is only trying to reconcile with the fact that Bartleby is no doing what he, the narrator, would prefer that he would do.

These feelings quickly turn to agitation and frustration and finally to apathy, but for a moment the narrator feels as though he has figured Bartleby out. While the narrator believes that he can understand Bartleby’s character, he speculates many of the details that are more readily apparent of his more long-time employees. With the passage of time, Bartleby’s obstinance proves too much for the narrator. After giving up copying completely, Bartleby, according to the narrator, becomes “a millstone to [him], not only useless as a neckless, but afflictive to bear” (29). Bartleby prefers to do nothing but stare at the wall outside of the office, in what he narrator defines as “dead-wall reveries” (24). Though the narrator shows compassion on Bartleby during this, and other occasions, his patience quickly runs dry leaving him with no other choice than to ditch Bartleby and part ways with him. This task becomes difficult for the narrator because, unlike his other employees, he has not yet been able to conquer the wall that is Bartleby.

The wall outside the office serves as an important symbol in both the obstructions faced by the narrator and those faced by Melville. Outside the narrator’s office stands a “lofty brick wall” that is white on one side and “black by age and everlasting shade” (5) on the other side. This wall creates a deficiency “in what painters call ‘life’” (5). Like the wall that stands outside of the office, Bartleby becomes a wall to the narrator; a barrier that prevents him from figuring this employee out and fitting him within the system of the office. Likewise, to Melville, he published his work according to what his readers wanted to read. He knew the publishers like the narrator knows his employees. Much like Melville’s experience with Moby-Dick, he had been publishing in journals, magazines, and periodicals for years before publishing Moby-Dick. He was an experienced and talented writer, but unlike his earlier novels, Moby-Dick was long, complicated, and difficult for readers to grasp. In a sense, Moby-Dick was dense, deep, and in many cases enigmatic. Readers approached it the same way one would approach a towering white and black wall. How can I climb this? Should I even bother? What can I use to destroy this so that I can just get to the other side? For Melville, the same questions were posited when trying to overcome the obstacle of the negative reviews and poor reception of Moby-Dick.

Questions like these are exactly the questions that the narrator asked regarding Bartleby. Before the narrator can truly understand Bartleby’s character, Bartleby is imprisoned and shortly thereafter starves to death. Following his death, the narrator recalls a rumor that was floating around concerning Bartleby’s history:

“Bartleby had been a subordinate clerk in the Dead Letter Office in Washington, from which he had suddenly been removed by a change in the administration. When I think over this rumor, hardly can I express the emotions which seize me. Dead letters! does it not sound like dead men?… a bank-note sent in swiftest charity – he whom it would relieve, nor eats nor hungers any more; pardon for those who died despairing; hope for those who died unhoping; good tidings for those who died stifled by unrelieved calamities. On errands of life, these letters speed to death.

Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!”

In Melville’s attempts to write, publish, and see the success of Moby-Dick, he like the narrator and even in some ways like Bartleby, was met with insurmountably dead-walls, dead letters and submissions, and dead hopes and dreams. Melville’s hopes were not fully actualized until decades after his death. Between his death and the recognition he would later receive at the hands of modernists poets like D.H. Lawrence, his most famous work, his life’s work, sat on the shelf while readers and critics preferred not to recognize him for his masterful prose style and devotion to his craft. Oftentimes writers like Melville who go against conventional writing forms and styles are not widely accepted and recognized in their own time. Melville’s interjection of “Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!” at the end of the story serves as a sometimes unwelcome reminder to readers and society generally of the importance of supporting and being involved the arts. In a time when civil discourse is on the decline in the media (social or otherwise), we would do well to step back and learn from authors and writers like Melville who hoped to illuminate moral and social issues and help us discover truths that need to be discussed so that we can learn what it really means to be human.

What do you think? What are your thoughts about Herman Melville? What can we learn from “Bartleby” in 2019? What piece of literature would you like to see next on the blog?

Also, a special thanks to Terence Wride for suggesting “Bartleby” for this series! Check him out on WordPress at Wride Rants.

 

“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