Crossing the Bar
First published in The Death of Oenone, Akbar’s Dream, and Other Poems
(1892). In 1888 Tennyson, now aged seventy-nine, fell seriously ill and was
brought by boat across the Solent to Farringford, his home on the Isle of
Wight, perhaps to die. In fact he recovered, and was able to make the same
trip, from Lymington to Yarmouth, in the following year. Having once stared
death down, he was now far more at ease with his own mortality, and he
could accept, for the time being at least, that he might never again make that
trip. It is this serene acceptance that lies at the heart of the poem, composed
as he crossed by boat in October 1889. He insisted that it should be printed at
the end of all editions of his poems, a wish which has usually been honoured
to the present day.
The speaker heralds the setting of the sun and the rise of the evening star,
and hears that he is being called. He hopes that the ocean will not make the
mournful sound of waves beating against a sand bar when he sets out to sea.
Rather, he wishes for a tide that is so full that it cannot contain sound or foam
and therefore seems asleep when all that has been carried from the
boundless depths of the ocean returns back out to the depths.
The speaker announces the close of the day and the evening bell, which will
be followed by darkness. He hopes that no one will cry when he departs,
because although he may be carried beyond the limits of time and space as
we know them, he retains the hope that he will look upon the face of his ‘Pilot’
when he has crossed the sand bar.
In ‘Crossing the Bar’ Tennyson uses the journey across a stretch of water (a
‘bar’ is a sandbank) as a metaphor for passing from life to death, bringing to
a close Tennyson’s interest in liminal situations first evident in ‘Ulysses’ and
‘Tithonus’. It reflects the poet’s calm acceptance of his own approaching
death, which he knows will be a ‘clear call’ (2), the...