[Close Reading Rainbow Part 1] “Me – Who?”: National Identity in “Theme for English B” by Langston Hughes

To start off my return to the blogging world, I will be doing a series of short close readings of poetry, short stories, and novels. I’ll start off this series with one of the greatest American poets of the early twentieth century: Langston Hughes.

Langston Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri in 1902. He was one of the leading writers and artists in the Harlem Renaissance. His poetry is extremely lyrical and incredibly poignant in relation to understanding the racial tensions of the first half of the twentieth century; sadly many of these same tensions exist today. Hughes’ poem “Theme for English B” was published in 1951 in his collection Montage of a Dream Deferred. Before I go into my analysis here is the poem in its entirety for a reference and so that you can experience the message that Hughes spent his career trying to convey to American readers: both black and white, bond and free.

“Theme for English B”

The instructor said,
      Go home and write
      a page tonight.
      And let that page come out of you—
      Then, it will be true.
I wonder if it’s that simple?
I am twenty-two, colored, born in Winston-Salem.
I went to school there, then Durham, then here
to this college on the hill above Harlem.
I am the only colored student in my class.
The steps from the hill lead down into Harlem,
through a park, then I cross St. Nicholas,
Eighth Avenue, Seventh, and I come to the Y,
the Harlem Branch Y, where I take the elevator
up to my room, sit down, and write this page:
It’s not easy to know what is true for you or me
at twenty-two, my age. But I guess I’m what
I feel and see and hear, Harlem, I hear you.
hear you, hear me—we two—you, me, talk on this page.
(I hear New York, too.) Me—who?
Well, I like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love.
I like to work, read, learn, and understand life.
I like a pipe for a Christmas present,
or records—Bessie, bop, or Bach.
I guess being colored doesn’t make me not like
the same things other folks like who are other races.
So will my page be colored that I write?
Being me, it will not be white.
But it will be
a part of you, instructor.
You are white—
yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.
That’s American.
Sometimes perhaps you don’t want to be a part of me.
Nor do I often want to be a part of you.
But we are, that’s true!
As I learn from you,
I guess you learn from me—
although you’re older—and white—
and somewhat more free.
This is my page for English B.

The speaker of Langston Hughes’ poem “Theme for English B” wrestles with a crisis of racial identity as he strives to follow the directions given by his instructor: “Go home and write / a page tonight. / And let that page come out of you – / Then, it will be true” (ll. 2-5). While attempting to answer the quandary of the apparent simplicity letting the truth issue forth out of him and onto the page, the speaker effectively raises awareness to the fact that detecting truth about one’s identity is more complicated than simply going home and writing a page tonight. The speaker shows the complexity of racial identity through addressing both Harlem and New York as separate entities in the piece, through using double negatives, and through blending musical tastes of both whites and blacks. The simple fact about racial identity, according to the speaker is that race is complicated, but regardless of race, all who call themselves Americans should understand that the truest truth is that “we are” (ll. 36).

Hughes’ speaker feels, at least in some degree, at odds with his own identity at the beginning of the page that he writes by mentioning both Harlem and New York as influences in his life. “I’m what / I feel and see and hear,” the speaker explains (ll. 17-18). The reader might be asking, “What does he feel, see, and hear?” The speaker feels, sees, and hears “Harlem” (ll. 18). This can be seen earlier in the poem, with the speaker stating that he is “the only colored student in [his] class” (ll. 10). Hughes sets his speaker apart from the rest of his classmates by making it clear that he is one black student in a sea of white. Just as the speaker is physically different from his classmates, Hughes, through the speaker, consciously separates Harlem from New York in the way that he sets off New York parenthetically. “Hear you, hear me,” the speaker thinks, “we two – you me, talk on this page” (ll. 19). It seems as though he is only addressing Harlem as the main influence in his life. Yet, in the following line, the speaker expresses that “(I hear New York, too.)” (ll. 20). By parenthetically dividing the dark Harlem from the light New York, Hughes hints at the truth that identification is complicated, even when someone like the speaker is being integrated into a predominantly white class.

The difficulty of truly self-identifying is furthered as the speaker describes his interests and hobbies, many of which coincide with and conflict with interests of the whites. Hearkening to Zora Neal Hurston’s “What White Publishers Won’t Print,” the speaker becomes candid with his interests: “Well, I like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love. / I like to work, read, learn, and understand life” (ll. 21-22). Just as Hurston suggested when she says that “As it is now, this capacity, this evidence of high and complicated emotions [in blacks], is ruled out,” the speaker wants the reader to know that even though he is black, he still has the same emotions as every other human being on the planet and should be treated as such. The complication comes in when the speaker mentions that he wants records for Christmas, namely: “Bessie, bop, or Bach” (ll. 24). Bessie refers to “the Empress of Blues” Bessie Smith, and bop is a type of popular jazz music at the time. Both of these types of music were typical for the average black person of the time, yet with the inclusion of Bach at the end of this list, there is a tension created. Not only is Bach not a jazz or blues musician, he is a white, European Baroque composer. By including Bach with Bessie Smith and bop, the speaker exhibits the struggle of pinning down an identity, especially when it is culturally imposed upon him. He enjoys jazz and the blues, which tended to be more typically black music during the time, yet he loves listening to Bach which is music that was usually reserved for more privileged white individuals. This cultural conflict in the speaker’s own self-identification causes an interesting tension that is alleviated in the poem.

This tension begins to be calmed as the speaker uses a double negative to justify his own identity to the reader. “I guess being colored,” the speaker admits, “doesn’t make me not like / the same things other folks like who are other races” (ll. 25-26). The speaker exhibits uncertainty about his own identity in the use of the double negative “doesn’t not” which causes the reader to double-take to figure out what it means when someone “doesn’t not” like something. If the double negative is omitted, the reader could read this as “I guess being colored makes,” or even gives him the liberty to “like the same thing other folks like who are other races.”

The speaker is able to lift the tension by answering the question he poses at the beginning of the poem regarding the truth about racial identity: who is the me when he asks the question, “Me – Who?” (ll. 20). The speaker reaches the grey area of being black and liking both black and white things through referring to himself and the instructor as both “Americans.” He says to his instructor, “You are white – / yet a part of me, as I am a part of you. / That’s American” (ll. 31-33). He continues stating that “Sometimes perhaps you don’t want to be a part of me. / Nor do I often want to be a part of you” (ll. 34-35). The truth that Hughes, through the speaker, discovers is that racial identification is a difficult endeavor when cultural norms and expectations are heaped upon individuals’ backs. He exclaims that although blacks and whites have their similarities and differences, “we are,” and “that’s true!” (ll. 36). Although the question of “Me – Who?” is a difficult one to grapple with, Hughes urges his readers to retract the accusatory and discriminatory pointer digits with shouts of “You, you, you!” and instead recognize the “We-ness” and oneness that should prevail in the nation. “That’s” what Hughes suggests as being truly “American.”

Just like Hughes is suggesting here, an American voice is hard to pin down. Since America is home to so many people, no one group of people can claim the title of American. Hopefully we can all recognize the voices of Americans of all races, religious affiliation, national origin and so forth.

Also, if you want me to do a close reading of any poem, novel, short story, or play comment below! Thanks, and see you on Saturday.

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Long Time No Sea

Well, for those of you who take the time to read this blog *cough* my mother, family members, and close friends *cough*, or those of you who read what I write through following this blog, the last nine months have been crazy. So much has happened to this millennial. I will be posting more essays, little quips, and random thoughts more consistently from here on out.

So, to recap: I reconnected with a girl that I met at an academic competition my senior year of high school (ca. 2014). I added her on Facebook, she messaged me, we texted back and forth for two months, and we went on a few dates that involved snow cones and which were better between our respective hometowns before I left on a two-year mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We didn’t really keep in touch. We wrote back and forth a couple of times, and then there was radio silence for a solid two and a half years (ca. 2016). We bumped into each other at BYU at the Harold B. Lee Library. An awkward encounter ensued where she “forgot” my name. Come to find out, she told me later that she said that because she was nervous and thought that we weren’t friends anymore. We made contact again a year later where an uncomfortable Facebook message fiasco occurred. I was bowling with some old high school friends; she was in my hometown watching a basketball game; I invited her over to go bowling, she said no thanks; she offered to meet up that coming weekend, I didn’t respond.

Well, after five years of near reconnections, we finally came together at the end of last summer (2018). After spending the day with my family in Deer Creek Reservoir, we had our first post-awkward stage date in Provo. I took her to Costa Vida (unbeknownst to me it was one of her  favorite restaurants). I had been on a string of pretty lousy first dates up to that point and was pretty calloused. I didn’t break eye contact with her. My whole attitude the whole date was “I’m not going to look shy or nervous. I’m going to get to know you, you’re going to get to know me, and you are going to like it.” She later told me that this approach was a bit intense and intimidating. Anyway, the date was as she told her brother that night “perfectly adequate.” I drove her home, and we had a conversation about politics (she studied political science at BYU). I brought up corrupt government officials in the Philippines and how the new president was kind of a crook. I was expecting her response to be something to the effect of “That sounds horrible! I hope that someone does something about him. He’s committing tons of human rights violations.” But, nope. The response was: “I don’t know. I think everyone needs to just be cool with each other.” I had no clue what I should say in response. I nodded and gave a half smile. She didn’t look at me. I dropped her off, gave her a distanced hug, and drove off.

Eight months later, we’re best friends, married, and working to afford the expenses that come with being a married couple. Although there have been ups and downs throughout, I wouldn’t have had it any other way, and I’m beyond grateful to be married to the one woman who makes me laugh, makes me feel cool even though I’m about the nerdiest bookworm around, and loves me enough to help me work through my flaws and inadequacies. Meghan, much love for you. Also, kind of a major plug, my wife is a wedding/engagement/elopement photographer. She is amazing (I’m not just saying that because I’m married to her). Check her out at @meghanbeattyphotography on Instagram and check out her website at http://meghanbeattyphotography.com/. If you or anyone you know is interested in getting photos taken look no further. Not only are her photography skills on point, she is so fun to work with and will make your experience one for the books.

Along with this, I started a podcast with a friend of mine, Sam Jacob. It’s called “The Lit-Knitters.” We look at the connections between television, movies, music and classic literature. If you enjoy what you’re reading here, you can find us on Spotify, Stitcher, and most every podcasting platform including Apple Podcasts. Give us a listen and leave us a review and a rating where you can. We’ll be wrapping up our first season by the middle of the summer. A blog will be up shortly with weekly posts regarding the show and each individual episode.

Sorry again for the pregnancy long hiatus. School and love happened. On second thought, I have nothing to be sorry about. I’ll post again on Thursday. Keep an eye out for posts from both me and The Lit-Knitters. I’ll be posting on here every Tuesday and Thursday and The Lit-Knitters is still TBD. Again, check Meghan’s photography out and book her for your wedding, receptions, engagement, elopement or anything in between. See you all on Thursday!

 

“It is the Same” – The Sameness of Change in Shelley’s “Mutability”

BY PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY
                                         I.
We are as clouds that veil the midnight moon;
    How restlessly they speed and gleam and quiver,
Streaking the darkness radiantly! yet soon
Night closes round, and they are lost for ever:—
                                         II.
Or like forgotten lyres whose dissonant strings
    Give various response to each varying blast,
To whose frail frame no second motion brings
    One mood or modulation like the last.
                                        III.
We rest—a dream  has power to poison sleep;
    We rise—one wandering thought pollutes the day;
We feel, conceive or reason, laugh or weep,
Embrace fond woe, or cast our cares away:—
                                       IV.
It is the same!—For, be it joy or sorrow,
    The path of its departure still is free;
Man’s yesterday may ne’er be like his morrow;
    Nought may endure but Mutability.

In Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Mutability”, the speaker explores the tension that is experienced as a result of change; this change is seen in nature in the first four lines, music in the next four lines, emotion in the following four lines, and finally the speaker resolves the conflict in the concluding quatrain by expressing that “It is the same” (ll. 13). Although this seems to be a strange conclusion to come to considering the contrasting and oftentimes combating conundrums within the quatrains, it is in fact the only fitting final thought that can ultimately untie the knot and alleviate the pressure that is contained within each line. Through creating tension with contrasting imagery within the same lines, Shelley adeptly accentuates the truth that change, whether it be drastic or subtle, is a part of our existence as humans that must be reconciled with.

As an introduction into the tension surrounding change, the speaker utilizes the image of a cloud covering the moon as a way to show the mutability inherent in nature. The opening line expresses the idea that we are “as clouds that veil the midnight moon” (ll. 1). This picture has within it subtle tension with the use of the verb veil. The clouds are in motion, but the speed of this motion is slow, and uncertain. It isn’t until the following line that the speed of the motion is revealed to the reader. The tension increases with the addition of descriptors like how the clouds speed “restlessly” (ll. 2). The clouds aren’t just slowly veiling the moon; they are rapidly shrouding it. This creates a feeling of encroaching darkness and gives the reader a sensation of claustrophobia. The light created by the moon is being cloaked by the incoming cloud cover.

Although there is definite dissonance in the movement of the clouds across the moon, the speaker deepens this dissonance through contrasting light and dark. Normally, when clouds cover the moon the light is squelched behind a veil. This is not so in this case. The light of the moon “gleam[s], and quiver[s]” (ll. 2). The light is still present, but it quivers with the coming of the clouds. Tension rises in the following line as the clouds “[streak] the darkness radiantly!” (ll. 3). The juxtaposition of the streaking of darkness radiantly propels the pressure created by the contradicting wording until the tension is finally released in the last line of the quatrain: “yet soon / Night closes round, and they are lost forever” (ll. 3-4). The contrast of light and dark and the way in which the light, oftentimes white, clouds act as an agent of streaking the darkness creates and exhibits the tension that comes with changes in nature visually.

The changes that occur in the physical world, as addressed in the first quatrain, are heightened as the speaker continues their exploration of mutability in the realm of music and sound. In the first quatrain, the reader receives a visual representation of dissonance; the second quatrain examines auditory mutability. The speaker tells of “forgotten lyres, whose dissonant strings / Give various response to each varying blast” (ll. 5-6). The tension in the first two lines of the quatrain is heard through the words “forgotten,” “dissonant,” “various,” and “varying.” These sounds were once audible yet forgotten. The audio-memory of the lyre and the music that was once played thereon is fading further into memory. This image elicits a tone of sad longing for a half-remembered tonal memory that, just like the clouds covering the moon, will soon be “lost forever” (ll. 4). Rather than using contradicting phrasing like that of the first quatrain, the speaker builds upon the tension through compounding the melancholic mood by describing the “various response[s]” of the lyre as possessing a “frail frame” that is constantly changing with no “mood or modulation [being] like the last” (ll. 6-8). The tension isn’t totally resolved with the final line of the quatrain, for it is made more manifest through the motion of the mood and modulation, which perpetuates the pressure presented in the first two quatrains of the poem.

The perpetuation of pressure is proclaimed in the opening two lines of the third quatrain, as it is in the first quatrain, through creating cacophony in each individual action in the line. The speaker suggests that “We rest,” connoting that rest is a natural human experience. The complication surfaces immediately following the dash: “– A dream has power to poison sleep” (ll. 9). Although sleep is something that we all do, there is a potentially dangerous element of slumber that has the power to poison. Likewise, in the following line, the image of sleep is juxtaposed with the initial “We rise.” This rising, which usually holds within it a denotation of rebirth and redemption, is contrasted later in the line following the dash with, “– One wandering thought pollutes the day” (ll. 10). As compared to the previous two quatrains, the speaker condenses the tension like the spikes seen in that of a shrill noise captured in a microphone. This tension, although very much present in this quatrain, is short and more representative of the “varying blast[s]” described in the second quatrain (ll. 6).

The rest of the quatrain, which continues exploring dissonance in emotions, shortens the tension to an almost syllabic sensation, thus making for an even quicker and sharper conflict-resolution than the previous two lines. Instead of dividing the dissonance between one half of the line and the other, the tension is evident between neighboring words. “We feel,” the speaker states, “conceive or reason” (ll. 11). Each of these words are ways in which humans receive and perceive sensations. Although these words are used to describe sensations, each word is vastly different than the other. “Feel” connotes a response to physical sensations, “conceive” holds reference to a response to visual or audio sensations, and “reason” sides closer to the metaphysical response to sensations. Within the three verbs provided by the speaker, there is a lexical and connotational chasm that is concocted in the remainder of this line as well as the line following.

This dissonant divide in diction drives the tension further as the discord is directed and focused more fully in the final three words of the line: “laugh or weep” (ll. 11). These two basic human emotive actions are on completely opposite sides of the spectrum, yet they are pressed together tightly like the positive sides of two magnets. These magnetic forces of expression, when pushed together literally or metaphorically, cover the chasm constructed in the beginning of the line with a taut rope that eventually allows the reader to cross the deep without the fear of falling to one side of the other. Though not entirely concluded, the speaker admonishes the reader to “embrace fond woe, or cast our cares away,” suggesting that the reader has the ability to choose whether they will embrace the mutability of physical nature and human nature, or to cast it away (ll. 12).

Regardless of what the reader will do after being shown the sheer shakiness surrounding the unstable and mutable nature of all things, the speaker provides the reader with comfort knowing that “It is the same!” (ll. 13). The speaker exclaims that “be it joy or sorrow, / The path of its departure still is free,” suggesting that though pressure is presented in the poem, as well as in the lives of the individual readers, the capability to resolve the tension is ultimately left in the hands of the reader. They are free to view the tension however they would like to. They can see it as sorrow or joy, and they can react to it by laughing or weeping. Either way, it is the same! The way in which the conflict is resolved depends solely on how each individual reader chooses to alleviate it.

To further complicate the constant stream of cacophony, the speaker concludes by claiming that the only constant in life, whether that’s physical life (as is evident in the example of the moon and the lyre in the first and second quatrains) or metaphysical life (evidenced by the emotional and existential elements evoked in the third and fourth quatrains), is mutability itself. The speaker simply concedes that “Man’s yesterday may ne’er be like his morrow,” hearkening back to the notion of “no second motion bring[ing] / One mood or modulation like the last” in the second quatrain (ll. 15, 8). No day in the past, present, or future can ever be exactly the same ever. Clouds will always cover moons, the music of long-forgotten lyres will always fade into the fog of memory, and human emotions will fluctuate as frequently as syllables succumb to succeeding syllables in a poem.

The speaker releases the pressure that has thus far been congregating in the previous fifteen lines of the poem by reiterating that the only constant character in the conundrum of choices surrounding tension is mutability itself. As the speaker states, and as Shelley strives to suggest through his utilization of contrasting imagery within selfsame stanzas and lines throughout the poem, “Naught may endure but Mutability” (ll. 16). The capitalization of the word “Mutability” gives the idea and the action pertaining to the word an almost deity-like demeanor. By ending the poem with this God-like image, the necessity for accepting the changeable nature of things generally becomes more of a charge from on high than a challenge negatively charged with the impossibility of completion. Nothing can or will ever remain the same. Nature is in constant flux. The strings of a lyre will oftentimes be discordant and out of tune. Human emotions will forever, frequently find themselves frazzled in the fray of feelings. Yet, it is through understanding the need for tension in existence that the reader is able to truly come to terms with the constant creation and resolution of tension in the poem and in their own lives.

A Light in the Dark

As a kid, everything seems to have a hint of magic to it. Something mystical, even otherworldly. I’d be lying if I said that I never felt the magic of going somewhere like an amusement park, or a long-anticipated end of the summer vacation. Growing up, at least for me, my magical experience was my family’s annual week-long trip to Lake Powell on the Arizona-Utah border. My family has been going on this trip for the better part of forty years. My grandparents bought a time share on a houseboat in the late ‘80s and we’ve been using the same houseboat ever since: Moki Sunrise. I’ve been going on this trip since I can remember. In my twenty-two years, we have only missed the trip maybe three times. Every time we go down, I have been filled with excitement that can only be compared to opening gifts on Christmas morning mixed with going to Disneyland. It was magical. It was a week full of swimming, playing in the sand, tubing, wakeboarding, hiking, jumping off of the houseboat, and – one of my personal favorites – playing Phase Ten and Yahtzee with Grandma. The trip always takes place between the last week of July and the first week of August. It has always been the last hurrah before school starts. This added to the mystical and surreal nature of the trip. Time seemed to slow down. Summer was put on pause for one week while we enjoyed the activities and above all the company.

I’m not going to say that the magic has totally disappeared now that I’m older. What I will say is that there is a definitely different feeling being on the trip as an adult. This year, I was the only unmarried adult on the trip and there were fifteen kids under the age of eighteen on the boat. I did feel a bit out of place. One of my cousins that I am close with got married earlier this year and she came with her husband, my younger brother came with his wife, and one of my other cousins came with his girlfriend. I was just there. I guess, in a way, I didn’t have to worry about anyone other than myself but seeing two of my closest cousins and my younger brother enjoying the company of their significant others really put me in a weird position. Anyway, I was an adult on the trip but not quite an adult. I definitely wasn’t a child. That time is long gone. With being an adult, and especially a male adult, it was my turn to take on more responsibility. I was reluctant to do so because, you know, this is a vacation! I’m here to relax and have fun! But, I realized that this trip was no longer a trip for me. It wasn’t a trip for adults. Just like a trip to Disneyland isn’t generally a trip for the parents, I was beginning to realize that this trip wasn’t my trip. It was a trip to make the kids happy. So, I rolled up my big boy sleeves and set out to help the younger kids have a fun time.

Some of the responsibilities I claimed as an adult on the boat were bringing some snacks for after meals, watching younger kids, finding a spot for our houseboat, helping with putting the anchors down and making sure that they’re secure, and the occasional gas and water run back to the marina. We were prepared for the trip. We had more than enough food; we had sunscreen, gasoline for the boats, and water. Although we had made the necessary preparations, we ran out of fresh water on Wednesday. Conveniently enough, my younger brother and his wife had to leave the same day. So, we loaded him and his wife up on our speedboat with their luggage, the trash we had accumulated over the last few days, two coolers, a couple of those orange Gatorade water containers that get dumped on football coaches after victories, and five 5-gallon gas cans. Aside from my brother and his wife, my parents and one of my uncles were on the boat with us. Our plan was to drop my brother and his wife off, help them unload their stuff, get water, ice, and gas for the next three days. After getting the married couple on their way, my uncle and I were assigned to gas and ice duty while my parents disposed of the garbage and got fresh water.

front of boat

We got to the marina a little after six in the evening. There was still light out, but it was getting darker. It wasn’t a problem. At least not yet. We were able to get through the Castle Rock Cut before the sun started to set. The sky was a gold-purple hybrid; the color of the Los Angeles Lakers. It was an awesome gradient that faded from gold to dark orange and then to violet and finally to the color of the purpling night sky. We anchored the houseboat on a beach about an hour away from the marina, so we still had a good forty-five minutes before we would be back at the houseboat. While we were futilely racing the sunset, we took a wrong turn. I had used the GPS feature on my phone to help my dad find the spot where we ended up anchoring the houseboat, but I had left my phone to charge on the houseboat. Plus, I knew that I would be in the water a lot because I needed to help push our speedboat off the beach. When I got into the boat after pushing the boat off, my Dad asked, “Did you bring your phone?” I told him that I left it on the houseboat to charge. My uncle said in a surprised voice, “Are you serious?” I was serious, and when the sun finally started to set, I wished I hadn’t been serious.

We took a wrong turn and went about halfway down a channel until I realized that we weren’t going the way we came. I asked my Mom if she had brought her phone with her. Thankfully, she had. I asked her if I could use the GPS app on it. She gave me her phone and I waited as the GPS picked up a signal. The map came up slowly, frame by frame. It was blurry at first, but after about a minute, a clear aerial view of the lake was in my palm. We saw that we had to turn around and head down the right canyon instead of the left that we had accidentally gone down. The darkness was creeping in. It was dark enough that it made everyone in the boat a little uneasy, but it wasn’t so dark that we couldn’t see. What made things a little more difficult was that my Dad had only brought his prescription sunglasses. The dark was that much darker to him as he piloted the boat.

Lake Powell Stormy

As we rounded the corner and entered the main channel, my Dad said that it was getting harder and harder for him to see. I told him that I could drive if he needed me to. In the meantime, I used my Mom’s phone to both navigate and shine a few feet ahead as we made our way cautiously through the channel.

Before we knew it, the gradient that painted the sunset sky was now wholly devoid of color. The moon wasn’t out yet, and clouds closed in to create a cold canopy over the channel. Absence. Complete absence of light. Shapes of rocks, cliffs, and the water blended together to further the blackness that was contained under the clouds. The only lights we could see were blinking buoys that marked miles through the meandering muscle ridden lake. They blinked every two or three seconds. Dad couldn’t see anything in front of the boat and passed the steering wheel to me. I hadn’t really ever driven a boat before. I had taken a few of my cousins tubing the day before, but it was only for a few minutes. Now I was given total control over the craft. My mouth dried up and I started to panic. I couldn’t do this. I’m an adult, yes, but this was not one of the responsibilities of an adult as far as I was concerned. No where in the job description did it say, “Once you’re an adult male on the Lake Powell trip, you need to drive a boat through a channel in the middle of the night.”

dark lake powell

Although we could see exactly where we were on the GPS, we were lost. We knew where to go, but the way ahead of us was so dark that we couldn’t differentiate between the night sky and the water. The only thing keeping us afloat and drifting in the right direction was the blinking buoys. We stopped for a second and talked about what we should do. Dad was saying that we needed to just find a beach and stay the night in the boat. Everyone agreed. The only problem was that according to the images on the GPS, we were surrounded by fifty to seventy-foot cliffs and boulders. As far as we knew, we were nowhere near a beach. We decided to proceed slowly toward the buoys and use those as our destinations. We passed the first one, a green one. Then the second. But, when we got to the third one, we noticed that there were two other lights, one red and the other green. We didn’t know if they were in the water or above the water. As we got closer, the two extra beacons were indeed above the water. They marked the cliffs that were on either side of us.

After passing this point, we could only faintly make out the next buoy. My heart had been beating like the drums in a Hans Zimmer score and my mouth was getting dryer. I had been praying the entire time, pleading with God to show us, and now me as the driver, where to go. I felt impressed to ask my parents and my uncle to turn on the flashlights on their phones to shine at least a few feet ahead of us. I felt more comfortable knowing that I had some sort of light in front of me, even though it was accentuating how dark the water and the sky now were. At least I could see the darkness better. I could only see as far as the light penetrated the darkness, and that wasn’t that far. The next buoy seemed so distant almost beyond physical reach, and I didn’t think that we would be able to make it. I gave one last prayer: “Heavenly Father, I need to know where to go. Please show me where we need to go.” As soon as I closed my prayer, a pair of headlights turned on. They were brighter and considerably closer than the far-off buoy. They were shining right at us. Mom exclaimed, “The lights, head toward those lights!” I positioned the boat in the direction of the lights. Not only was the boat shining its lights at us, it was shining its lights at a beach as well as potential hazards near the beach, showing us a clear path to the beach between two houseboats. As we approached the boat, we were surprised to learn the driver wasn’t all that interested in us. He drove off into the dark. I later found out that they were just fishing late at night and happened to be facing our direction with their lights on.

We approached the shore and about thirty feet from the beach, we ran out of gas, so my Dad and my uncle had to hop out of the boat and swim the boat to shore. I got out when we got to the beach and helped guide and anchor the boat to a sizable rock near the shore. We were shaking, cold, wet, and most of all safe. Mom was able to send a text message to my older sister, who was on the houseboat with her family, letting her know that we were safe and that we would be back in the morning. My parents and I divided the boat into thirds and claimed them as our sleeping quarters for the night and my uncle slept on the beach with a beach towel. It definitely wasn’t the most comfortable sleep I had or any of us had, but I slept soundly knowing that we were safe and that we would be able to make it back in the morning. The clouds cleared as we started to get ready for bed. As I awkwardly contorted my body to fit the shape of the nose of the boat, I gazed up at the stars. God knew me. He was aware of my predicament. He helped me in a time when I needed it. God, the Creator of the Universe, knew that I, a scared twenty-two-year-old in the middle of a lake in northern Arizona, needed His help. The coolest thing was that He gave me an answer. It wasn’t a word. It wasn’t a fireball from heaven, an earthquake or a tempest. It was the lights of a fishing boat.

Morning

The next morning right before dawn, we took the anchor out and headed back to the houseboat, which was only about three miles away. As we cruised through the channels, we witnessed the sunrise with a newfound appreciation for light. We had experienced complete darkness in a boat and were it not for a pair of bright fishing lights, we would have drifted, not knowing where to go.

God answered my prayer. I know it. That was not a coincidence. He helped us when we needed it most. Some say that you grow out of magic and see reality for what it is. Some decide that they’re too old or too mature to believe in things they can’t see. I wouldn’t say that what happened on the boat in that pitch-black channel was magic in the Harry Potter/childhood sense. But, I will say that God was watching over us and protected us as we found our way back to shore and ultimately back to the houseboat, where our families were waiting for us. And that, in and of itself, reminds me that there is a Being, more powerful than magic, that cares about me. He cares about you, and if you ask for help, He will be there to help.

Why is this Millennial a Mariner?

Millennial Mariner edited
The Millennial Mariner

I feel like an explanation of why I chose the name I chose for this blog is way overdue. A lot of people have asked me why my blog is called The Millennial Mariner. The short answer is that it came from a goofy conversation that I had with my older brother. The long, and more meaningful answer is a little more complicated than that.

First, the short one. About a year ago, I had returned home from a date. I honestly felt like it went really well. But, to my dismay, I got the dreaded “let’s just be friends” text. This was probably the third time in a row that this had happened to me. Knowing that one of my older brothers had experienced dating at the same university I am currently attending, I decided to call him and see if I could receive some much needed wisdom from one that had survived the dating scene. So, I called my older brother, Joel, and told him what had happened. After a good five minutes of one-sided discourse on my end, I asked Joel, “What should I do?” He answered: “Man, I wish I could tell you something helpful. I really don’t know what to say. Your experience is different than mine. You’re crossing seas that I never did. You’re a mariner.” I thought about that for a second and replied, “Yeah, I guess you could say I’m a millennial mariner.” With the help of one of my younger brothers, Court, I drew up this suave, mustachioed sailor. And thus, the Millennial Mariner was born. He’s a pretty handsome dude, if I don’t say so myself.

Anyway, it was really just a casual, mildly-complainy conversation about the woes of rejection in dating. But, as I’ve thought about it more, my purpose in writing in this blog, as I’ve stated before, is to be able to share my story and my ideas so that others can feel like they’re not alone. I also really, really, really love to write.

So, the more meaningful meaning behind The Millennial Mariner is as follows. I’ve realized over the last few years that the pace of modern life is accelerating more so now than it ever has been. We live in a generation of post-truth and fake news and what have you. It’s becoming a lot harder to distinguish truth from non-truth and frankly a lot people are losing hope and faith in humanity. I’ve found myself on the more cynical side of the spectrum more than I’d like to admit. Sometimes it’s hard to remain positive when it seems like everything around us seems to be careening into oblivion and there’s nothing we can really do to stop it. So, this is where The Millennial Mariner comes in. I don’t have all the answers. I don’t know everything. I’m a 22-year old college student. The more I’ve gone to school the more I’ve been aware of the fact that I know absolutely nothing. What I do know is that in order to understand the complex problems that persistently pound down upon us, we need some help navigating through the issues, questions, and ideas that arise as a result of our being on the earth in 2018 and beyond. A mariner is defined as “a person who directs or assists in the navigation of a ship.” Like mariners of old, I hope to share what I know and what I’ve come to understand in hopes that my blog can provide some iota of assistance and guidance as we each traverse the seas that we all need to cross.

Why Post-Rock is the Music You Never Knew You Needed

In an earlier post, I wrote about the crucial role that writing has on allowing us to express what we feel. I am still a strong believer in that regard, but sometimes words aren’t quite enough to express how we feel. When words wane, I resort to music. Sometimes it’s music with words, but more often than not, I find myself listening to classical music. Romantic musicians like Chopin, Mahler, Wagner, Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, and Rachmaninoff. Baroque composers like Bach, Vivaldi, Handel, and (if I’m in the right mood) Pachelbel. I don’t hate Pachelbel, but as a cellist sometimes Canon in D just rubs me the wrong way. I also enjoy more contemporary composers like film score composers Thomas Newman, James Newton Howard, and Hanz Zimmer, as well as  Ramin Djawadi, Max Richter, and Johann Johannsson. I love orchestral music. Books and words have their place in expressing emotions, and so does music. I was raised listening to movie soundtracks and classical music because two of my older sisters played the violin and through exposure and association, I came to love this type of music.

As a high schooler, my taste in music was pretty much the same. Indie music got mixed in there, but I had and will always have a soft spot for music sans words. It wasn’t until my sophomore year of high school that I was introduced to post-rock music.

My Dad is an Oakland A’s fan through and through, and so when the movie Moneyball came out, we had to watch it. As I was watching it with my Dad and my brothers, there was a scene toward the end of the movie that showed Brad Pitt, who played the A’s General Manager Billy Beane, driving on the freeway while listening to the A’s play on the radio. While he is driving, there is a song playing. It starts off slow with a single guitar playing with a droning note in the background. The notes echo as if being played in a tunnel. The drums come in as a steady heart-beat like metronome as the song crescendos, indicating that the team is winning and that all the hard work that Billy Beane and his assistant Paul DePodesta had put into the franchise was coming to fruition. No one spoke or sang over the music. It was music without words. It was like the classical music I had been raised on, except it wasn’t. It was rock music, just without lyrics. I was extremely moved by this song.

After the movie ended, I hurried to the nearest computer and looked up the soundtrack and found the song I was looking for. The song was “The Mighty Rio Grande.” by the Austin Texas-based band This Will Destroy You. Never had I ever thought that rock music like this, rock music without words, could move me in the same way that songs like those of Chopin, Schubert, and Handel had. It was probably one of the coolest musical moments of my life. Since then, I have had many moments when I’ve been listening to a post-rock song and be moved to tears. Let me clarify that, manly tears.

Although I enjoy a variety of different types of music, I would have to say that post-rock is my number one favorite genre. It has never failed to disappoint me. As I’ve listened to more classical music and even more post-rock music, I feel confident saying that there are many similarities between post-rock and classical music. Post-rock could easily be considered the millennial classical music. The connection between the two can be found in one composer: Felix Mendelssohn. As we consider this connection, I encourage you to check out some of my favorite post-rock albums as you read.

Although post-rock, like classical music, is definitely an acquired taste, I encourage you to listen to some post-rock music as we consider what makes post-rock comparable to classical music. This plea comes from an unapologetic music nerd; in short I want to show you that post-rock music is the music that you didn’t know you needed in your life. So, please indulge me and I promise that you will not be disappointed.

German Romantic composer Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847), is known for composing some of the most well-known romantic music of the movement. Of all of his compositions, his collection of piano pieces entitled Songs Without Words is considered his most famous. One of his contemporaries, Marc-André Souchay, once asked Mendelssohn to explain to him the meanings of his “Songs Without Words.” In a letter to Souchay, Mendelssohn expressed that “There is so much talk about music, and yet so little really said.” He goes on to say that he believes that “words do not suffice for such a purpose, and if I found they did suffice, then I certainly would have nothing more to do with music.” Mendelssohn claims that words are “unintelligible when compared with genuine music, which fills the soul with a thousand things better than words.” Continuing, he says that “What the music I love expresses to me, is not thought too indefinite to be put into words, but, on the contrary, too definite” (269) Mendelssohn argued that genuine music should be universal in sound. Music should reach across cultural, linguistic, and geographical borders and make sense to all who listen to it.

There are definite barriers that are placed on emotion when lyrics are put to music. In these cases, the interpretation of the music relies more heavily on what the lyricist implies rather than what the music is trying to convey. During my music browsing on Youtube, I often find myself reading the comments made by others on videos. The most contentious comments are those that are made about interpreting the lyrics. There’s always someone who says that the lyrics reflect the musician’s inner turmoil with such and such and his or her relationship with so-and-so. These comments tend to be quite fiery because everyone has their own interpretation of what the lyrics mean. In this regard, words can complicate and express what Mendelssohn defines as “thought too indefinite.” Songs without words, according to Mendelssohn expresses the most with saying the least and connects individuals through a collective conception of music without the indefinite nature of words.

This idea of connectedness is what brings me to post-rock music. Music critic and theorist Simon Reynolds coined the term “post-rock” essay published in the Village Voice. He defined it as “bands that use guitars but in non-rock ways.” He continues stating that “With it’s droneswarm guitars and tendency to melt into ambience, post-rock erodes, then obliterates the song and the voice. By extension, it also parts with such notions as the singer as storyteller and the song as narrative, source of life-wisdom, or site of social resonance.” He explains further that “The more ‘post’ a post-rock band gets, the more it abandons the verse-chorus-verse structure in favor of the soundscape” (Cox, 358). Rather than telling a story that the listeners follow, post-rockers create an atmosphere of sensations. They envelop their listeners in a world of sound. Their aim isn’t to write catchy songs that people can jam to on their way to work. They construct sound so as to allow listeners to become part of the music. They feel it. The range of sensations and emotions that are created in post-rock music is exactly what Mendelssohn describes as “definite thought” because it provides the hearers with the chance to interpret the music without being wrong and being roasted by some dude on a Youtube comment thread who thinks he knows everything there is to know about the lyrics, the meaning, and the implications of yada, yada, yada. Mendelssohn believes that words have many meanings, and yet music we could both understand correctly” (270).

Just like how music in Mendelssohn’s time could be understood correctly by two completely different individuals, the universal nature of post-rock music was discussed in an interview with members of the bands This Will Destroy You, Russian Circles, and Maybeshewill in 2014. When asked about the evolution of post-rock music, John Helps of Maybeshewill said that “[post-rock] seems to be a very international thing. It doesn’t seem to be restricted to any particular country.” His bandmate, Robin Southby, expressed similar thoughts to that of Mendelssohn. He says that the interesting thing about post-rock and “instrumental stuff is that it does kind of break down the language barrier thing, so anyone can do it, and so it connects with people immediately.” As is true with Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words, post-rockers believe that music, just plain, unadulterated songs without words, has the power to bring people together across languages, cultures, and continents.

Not only does post-rock connect listeners together, but it is also brings musicians together under an umbrella of commonality. It tends to be conglomerate of many different styles of music. In an interview with Runaf Rayani and Michael James of Explosions in the Sky, they explain how differences in music was what ultimately brought them closer together as a band. Rayani says that for them as a band, “the notion that you’re taking heavy metal, you know of just being heavy metal over here and hip-hop over here, it wasn’t like that because we all listened to that style of music; even more so before we got together, but by the time we got together, the common ground was punk-rock and experimental music, and indie-experimental.” They explain that it was the diversity they had in music styles that helped them come together and create their unique sound and place them as one of the most commercially successful post-rock bands in recent years. Their music, among others of the genre, creates such an encapsulating environment of sound that it makes you feel at home. It evokes feelings of togetherness, understanding, and for lack of a better word overall zen.

If this doesn’t convince you to be converted to post-rock, maybe a recent experience of mine might do the trick. As I was driving from my sister’s house back to my apartment, I was thinking a lot about life and how sometimes you just get a crap hand every once in a while. I’ve been trying to be the kind of person I know that I should be, but recently I’ve felt like all of my efforts have been for naught. I felt pretty down on myself and my seemingly lack of progress in the direction I want go. As I was thinking, I was listening to the song “Postcard From 1952”   by Explosions in the Sky. I had listened to that song before, but this time, I guess something clicked. As the wordless song played, the words “You’re one step closer” came into my head as I sat in my 2003 Acura going 75 down I-15 toward Provo, Utah. It was the atmosphere of hope that was created by the song that allowed me to be able to hear those words. I will forever be grateful for whatever was written on that postcard from 1952 that inspired these musicians to write this 7:06 long escape from anxiety and self-doubt.

Each of us is different and has different experiences and interests, but we all yearn for the same things. We want to be happy, we want to feel safe, we want to feel loved. In a time when division has become the norm and words continue to be the cause of confusion, war, heartbreak, and calamity, I believe that post-rock music is the music that all of us need. Mendelssohn claims that “the music of the song alone can awaken the same ideas and the same feelings in one mind as in another, – a feeling which is not, however, expressed by the same words. Resignation, melancholy, the praise of God, a hunting-song, – one person does not form the same conception from these that another does” (269). With the diversity inherent in a world full of 7-something billion people, we need music that can connect us. We need music that doesn’t create division or destroy. We need music that is able to express those “definite thoughts” that fill our minds. We need music that provides us with the environment and atmosphere we need to feel love, joy, and hope for a better world and a better future, even when that future seems very indefinite.

Books Cited:

Letters of Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, from 1833 to 1847. Edited by Paul Mendelssohn Bartholdy, of Berlin; and Dr. Carl Mendelssohn Bartholdy, of Heidelberg: With Catalogue of his musical compositions compiled by Dr. Julius Rietz. Translated by Lady Wallace. Published 1864, Reprinted 1970, Books for Library Press, New York, pp. 269-271

Cox, Christoph and Daniel Warner. Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music. “Post Rock” Simon Reynolds, pp. 358-361. Bloomsbury, 2004.

“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