Crossing the Bar

‘Crossing the Bar’ is one of Tennyson’s most famous poems. It is often read at funerals and memorial services and I think it has provided comfort to many readers because of its solemn but reassuring tone. Though the speaker is describing his own death, he makes it clear that he does not fear it and he does not want those he leaves behind to mourn his passing:

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.

The sunset is the close of day and the end of his life, while crossing the bar as he puts out to sea is leaving this world for the next. These transitions are presented as natural; he, like the tide, is simply returning home. He continues:

Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness or 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.

Crossing the Bar - Adapted and sung by the Spooky Mens Choral .

"That Divine and Unseen Who is always guiding us"

The speaker makes clear he knows his time is coming and entreats those he leaves behind not to mourn his passing. The closing couplet has often irritated readers. If the poem were describing a literal sea voyage, the Pilot would guide the craft over the bar and then return to land, but Tennyson’s speaker hopes to see his Pilot after he crosses the bar. The subject of the poem necessitates this reversal. The Pilot is, as Tennyson explained to his son Hallam, ‘That Divine and Unseen Who is always guiding us’ (Oxford edition, p. 614).

According to the notes in the Oxford edition of his major works, Tennyson wrote the poem in October 1889 while sailing across the Solent to the Isle of Wight. He told Hallam it came to him in an instant.

I like to think the fact that he was returning to the home he loved, Farringford, contributed to his peaceful state of mind. Reportedly, shortly before he died Tennyson asked Hallam to ensure that editions of his poems always ended with this one. Most editors have continued to honour that request.

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