‘Crossing the Bar’ uses the journey image to convey the poet’s idea of the human soul going on a voyage to heaven after death. The poet hopes that his ship will be able to cross the bar that divides this world from the next smoothly, and he will come face to face with his Pilot, that is, God. So he wants no mournings over his death.
About the Poet
Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892) was the most representative and popular poet of the Victorian Age. Even in modern age, with the change in the conception of poetry, his severest critics acknowledge the lyrical felicity of his poetry. He is, indeed one of the most musical of English poets. His poetry reflects the mood of the people of the era in which he lived. It gives vivid expression to the growing conflict between science and faith and the resultant notes of gloom, melancholy, doubts and uncertainties. It also deals with contemporary issues as a result of growing industrialisation and urbanisation, though it is rooted in the unaltered rural England with its charming scenes.
Tennyson was born in Linconshire, England. He was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge. In 1827 he co-published a book, Poems by Two Brothers, with his brother Charles. He won the Chancellor’s medal for his poem ‘Timbuctoo’ while he was a student at Cambridge. His poems began to bring him name and fame. His writing career continued till the last. He came to be known as the representative poet of the Victorian Age. In 1850, he became the poet laureate of England on the death of William Wordsworth. His poetry deals with various themes, and expresses the spiritual unrest of his age. A number of his phrases have become commonplace in English language.
Among his best known poems are : ‘Break, Break, Break’, ‘Crossing the Bar’, ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’, ‘Tears, Idle Tears’, ‘Ulysses’, ‘In Memoriam’, ‘Tithonus’.
About the Poem
Tennyson wrote ‘Crossing the Bar’ in 1889, three years before his death. He was then eighty one and had fallen seriously ill. So in this poem he anticipates his death and gives expression to his thoughts and feelings in metaphorical language.
The poet uses the journey motif in the poem , and compares his journey of the soul to the next world to the journey by a ship that has to cross a sand bar – symbolic of the barrier between this world and the next – to enter the main sea to reach its destination. The poet wants that when his journey to the next world starts, there should be no mournings. He wants to leave this world clamly.
So he wishes for a high tide to facilitate the crossing of the bar by his ship (the ship of the soul). When the bar is submerged the crossing is not difficult. In other words, the poet sys that when he will begin his journey to another world, he will be calm and poised. He will have no cares and anxieties. He hopes not want any sad farewells. When the darkness of death would descend on him he would be happy and would not like others to be unhappy. When the poet’s ship of life has crossed the bar, that is, the boundary between life and death, he hopes to see God face to face. God is his pilot as he has been guiding him in life and he is to guide him through death as well.
Thus, the poem reveals the poet’s faith in religion, God and the life beyond beyond death. It underlines the fact that death is not the end of life as human soul is immortal. It also tells us the best way to face death. As death only helps us enter the next life, it should be accepted calmly and cheerfully.
Journey to the Next World : The poet notices that the sun has set the evening star is visible in the sky. The sunset is a metaphor for the close of life. The evening star, Hesperus, is associated with calmness that comes at the close of the day. In other words, the poet anticipates the end of his life. That is why, he wishes that no one should cry or weep as a sign of mourning when he departs from the world, beautifully imaged by his leaving the world in a ship:
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea.
The poet is hopeful that his ship will cross the barrier (the sand bar) smoothly to enter the main sea. This sand ‘bar’ is symbolic of the barrier that divides this world from the next.
Wish for a Helpful , High Tide : When the tide is full and the bar is submerged the ship easily crosses the barrier or bar. The poet wishes for such a tide when his journey to the next world starts after death. He does not want stormy or rough sea. He wants everything to be calm and peaceful. Released from the bondage of flesh and blood his soul would be ready to go to heaven (God’s abode) from where once it came.
No Sad Farewells : The poet, then, associates the approach of death to twilight. The twilight is followed by darkness, a symbol of death. The poet says that when after the old age death finally comes, he does not want sad farewells. As he would himself be happy at the arrival of his death, he does not want anyone to feel sad at his death. He wants a cheerful exit from this world.
Meeting the Pilot : The poet, then, thinks of this world of ours. He feels that this world is subject to limitations of time and place. However, the world where we go after death is free from such limitations. After death everything is eternal. So the poet says that once he crosses the boundary between life and death and enters the infinite world, he is hopeful of coming face to face with God. He calls God his Pilot as it is He who guides man both through life and death.
Stanza by Stanza Explanation
‘Sunset………… to sea’
The sun has set and the evening star (Hesperus) is visible in the sky. There is a clear call (of death) for me. I hope when I start my journey the sea is not stormy or rough because then it becomes difficult for the ship to cross the bar.
‘But such a tide ………. again home.’
When I put out to sea, let there be such a tide which, though moving with a forceful current, seems to be completely still, so that my voyage to the next world is smooth. In other words, the sea should be so deep that there is hardly any sound and high waves, when my soul is on the way to its home from where it once came.
‘Twilight and ………. I embark’
There is fading light after the sunset and the evening bell is announcing the end of the day’s activity (suggesting the old age and the end of life). And soon there will be darkness (death). I wish that there is no mourning when I die.
‘For tho’ from…… crost the bar.’
Death will carry me far away from this finite world to the unknown world where time and place have no meaning. When my soul has crossed the bar (the barrier between this and the next world), I hope I shall my Pilot (God) face to face.
Immortality of Soul : ‘Crossing the Bar’ brings home the idea that death is not the end of life. It is our body that dies; our soul is deathless, being part of the Supreme Soul, that is, God. Death is a gate to another life. So death should not frighten us. We should rather welcome it and accept it calmly. That is why , the poet does not want anybody to mourn when he dies:
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark.
He regards death as a journey from this finite world to an infinite world. Human world is subject to limitations of time and place, whereas the world of infinitude is such where time and place have no meaning.
Faith in God : Another theme of the poet is that faith in God is very important in life. It is this faith which helps us live life meaningfully. It is this faith which strengthens us to face death which is inevitable and inescapable. In Tennyson’s time, people were facing a crisis of faith in the wake of Darwin’s theory of evolution and many other scientific discoveries. Tennyson has himself been troubled by the conflict between religion and science. Here in this poem, he seems to have overpowered all doubts in his mind. That is why, he feels that after death he is sure to see his Pilot (God) face to face :
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crost the bar.
Death will enable him to meet God whom he rightly calls his Pilot. God has been guiding him through all ups and downs in life. No one else is his better guide than God in life. It is again God who will help him through death.
Literary Devices used in the poem
Metaphor : Tennyson uses metaphorical language to express his thoughts in the poem. In fact, the whole structure of the poem is metaphorical. The central metaphor of the poem is crossing the bar. The ship’s crossing the sand ridge to reach the deeper, open sea is compared to the soul’s crossing the boundary between life and death to reach the next world. The journey of the ship is the metaphorical journey of the human soul after death.
Then there are many other metaphors in the poem:
- Sunset and evening star, a metaphor for the end of life
- clear call, a metaphor for the call of death
- Pilot, a metaphor for God
- Sunset and evening star (‘s’ sound)
- And one clear call for me (‘c’ sound)
- Sunset and evening star (visual image)
- moaning of the bar (auditory image)
- twilight and evening bell (visual as well as auditory image)
A Beautiful Lyric : ‘Crossing the Bar’ is a short lyric, though in a way it is an elegy as well. It has four stanzas, each rhyming abab. Tennyson has used rhythm that gives the impression of rising and falling waves. The length of lines is so planned as to evoke the movement of a tide washing upon a beach:
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.
Metaphorical Language : The whole poem is structured on a series of metaphors. ‘Crossing the Bar’, the title of the poem itself, is a metaphor for crossing the barrier between this world and the next world. The poet uses the journey motif to suggest the journey of the soul after death to the unknown world, its home, from where it came to this world. The reference to the sunset and the evening star is metaphorical , too. The sunset is suggestive of the calmness that accompanies the sunset. Twilight and the evening bell are also associated with the old age. The reference to dark is for death. The poet hopes to meet God at the end of his journey. He calls God his ‘Pilot’ – it is another apt metaphor.
A Poem of Faith : In the poem Tennyson gives expression to his rediscovered faith in God. Written at the age of eighty-one, the poem can be considered the poet’s testament as well as an epitaph. Using the journey motif, the poet makes it clear that when he dies he will like to be free from all doubts and fears. He wants to die peacefully. He wants no one to be unhappy. He hopes to face death cheerfully. At the end of the journey he is hopeful of meeting God whom he calls his Pilot.
A Spiritual Poem : The poem, thus, reinforces our faith in the immortality of soul and the existence of God. Most religions envision the journey of the soul after death to God’s abode as homecoming. This is what Tennyson hints at when he says :
When that which drew boundless deep
Turns again home.
The soul, on its journey, crosses all hurdles with faith. At the end of the journey each soul meets God face to face. Tennyson calls God his Pilot. Every religion believes that it is God who, like the pilot of a ship, guides us through life and death. If one keeps this fact in view, death ceases to be frightening and cruel. Significantly, seeing God face to face is a Biblical theme, and Jesus is regarded as the Pilot of the Church and guides the Christian’s life.