Crossing the Bar by Alfred Lord Tennyson
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.
Tennyson wrote this wonderful poem in 1889 as a result of a boat trip, crossing the Solent from the mainland to the Isle of Wight. He had been unwell, and was 80 years old, so death was on his mind. He later said that the words of the poem “came in a moment”, and he instructed his son that the poem was to be placed last in any anthology of his works published from that time on.
In the poem he compares death with a ship crossing over a sandbar, using the bar as a metaphor for a human’s passing into the next world. The first line mentions sunset – the closing of the day, but also indicative of the closing of a life. There is an evening star to point the way, and the “clear call” of death, a sense that ending is imminent. The poet is nearly ready, and shows a sense of resignation, yet also anticipation as to what will be over that bar. He will not be “moaning’ when the time comes. Time progresses during the poem – we begin with sunset, then get twilight and the evening bell, and then the dark. The movement of the day is beautifully woven into the movement of the poet towards death, and the movement of the boat on the water.
The poem of course has a Christian meaning. Tennyson expects to go to God when he dies, or “my Pilot” as he calls him. God will ensure that he is carried smoothly and peacefully out of life. It will not be an ending, but rather part of a long journey, the “flood” of life that will carry him inexorably into the afterlife. The word ‘crossing’ also has religious connotations – crossing into the next life, but also making the sign of the cross. The religious meanings give the poem its certainty and its sense of peace.
Its four stanzas are written in free verse with an ABAB rhyming pattern. The differing lengths of lines evoke the movement of the tides washing in and out.
Listen to this gorgeous poem being read by Canadian actor Raymond Massey
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