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Subject: Literature In English
Topic: Summary Analysis of the poem Crossing the Bar” by Alfred Tennyson.
Lesson Objectives: This lesson is aimed at helping learners understand the poem “Crosing the Bar”. So by the end of the lesson, the learners should be able to:
- In few sentences describe the author;
- Discuss the forms and meter of the poem;
- Identify poetic devices used in the poem;
- Explain the thematic structure of the poem;
- Recite the poem.
Lesson Summary Aids: see reference materials below content.
Lesson Summary / Discussion
For Literature students preparing for external exams, the summary analysis of the poem below will help guide you in your study of the poem “Crossing The Bar”.
Crossing the Bar by Alfred Tennyson
The Full Poem
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 is 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 thou’ from out our bourne of time and place
The flood may bear me far,
I hop to see my pilot face to face
When I have crossed the bar.
AUTHORIAL BACKGROUND OF ALFRED TENNYSON
Alfred Tennyson was born August 6th, 1809, at Somersby, Lincolnshire, fourth of twelve children of George and Elizabeth (Fytche) Tennyson. The poet’s grandfather had violated tradition by making his younger son, Charles, his heir, and arranging for the poet’s father to enter the ministry. The contrast of his own family’s relatively strained circumstances to the great wealth of his aunt Elizabeth Russell and uncle Charles Tennyson (who lived in castles!) made Tennyson feel particularly impoverished and led him to worry about money all his life.
He also had a lifelong fear of mental illness, for several men in his family had a mild form of epilepsy, which was then thought a shameful disease.
His father and brother Arthur made their cases worse by excessive drinking. His brother Edward had to be confined in a mental health institution after 1833, and he himself spent a few weeks in doctor’s care in 1843. In the late twenties his father’s physical and mental condition worsened, and he became paranoid, abusive and violent.
In 1827 Tennyson escaped the troubled atmosphere of his home when he followed his two older brothers to Trinity College, Cambridge, where his tutor was William Whewell. Because they had published poems by two brothers in 1827 and each won university prizes for poetry (Alfred winning the Chancellor’s Gold Medal in 1828 for O’timbuctooO) the Tennyson brothers became well known at Cambridge. In 1829, the Apostles, an undergraduate club, hose members remained Tennyson’s friends all his life, invited him to join the group, which met to discuss major philosophical and other issues, included Arthur Henry Hallam, James Speeding, Edward Lushington (who later married Cecilia Tennyson), and Richard Monckton Milnes – all eventually famous men who merited entries in the Dictionary of National Biography.
Arthur Hallam’s was the most important of these friendship. Hallam, another precociously brilliant Victorian young man like Robert Browning, John Stuart Mill, and Matthew Arnold, was uniformly recognized by his contemporaries (including William Gladstone, his best friend at Eton) as having unusual promise. He and Tennyson knew each other for only four years, but their intense friendship had major influence on the poet. On a visit to Somersby, Hallam met and later became engaged tl Emily Tennyson, and the two friends looked forward to a life-long companionship. Hallam’s death from illness in 1833 (he was only 22) shocked Tennyson profoundly, and his grief lead to most of his best poetry, including In Memoriam, “The passing of Arthur”, ‘Ulysses and “Tithonus .
Since Tennyson was always sensitive to criticism, the mixed reception of his 1832 poems hurt him greatly. Critics in those days delighted in the harshness of their views: the Quarterly Review was known as the “Hang, draw, and quarterly”. John Wilson Croker’s harsh criticisms of some of the poems in our anthology kept Tennyson from publishing again for another nine years.
Late in the 1830s Tennyson grew concerned about his mental health and visited a sanitarium run by Dr. Matthew Allen, with whom he later invested his inheritance (his grandfather had died in 1835) and some of his family’s money. When Dr. Allen’s scheme for mass-producing wood carvings using steam power went bankrupt, Tennyson, who did not have enough money to marry, ended his engagement to Emily Sellwood, whom he had met at his brother Charles’s wedding to his sister Louisa.
The success of his 1842 poems made Tennyson a popular poet, and in 1845 he received a Civil list (government) pension of £200 a year, which helped relieve his financial difficulties; the success of “The princess”, in Memoriam and his appointment in 1850 as Poet Laureate finally established him as the most popular poet of the Victorian era.
By now Tennyson, only 41, had written some of his greatest poetry, but he continued to write and to gain more popularity. In 1853, as the Tennysons were moving into their new house on the Isle of Wright, Prince Albert dropped in announced. His admiration for Tennyson’s poetry helped solidify his position as the national poet, and Tennyson returned the favour by dedicating “The Idylls of the king” to his memory. Queen Victoria later summoned him to court several times, and at her insistence he accepted his title, having declined it when offered by both Disraeli and Gladstone.
Tennyson suffered from extreme short-sightedness – without a monocle he could not even see to eat – which gave him considerable difficulty in writing and reading, and this disability in part accounts for his manner of creating poetry: Tennyson composed much of his poetry in his head, occasionally working on individual poems for many years. During his undergraduate days at Cambridge he often did not bother to write down his compositions, although the Apostles continually prodded him to do so. ( We owe the first version of “The Lotos-Eaters” to Arthur Hallam, who transcribed it while Tennyson declaimed it at a meeting of the Apostles).
Long-lived like most of his family ( no matter how unhealthy they seemed to be) Alfred, Lord Tennyson died on October 6, 1892, at the age of 83.
TEXTUAL BACKGROUND OF “CROSSING THE BAR” BY ALFRED TENNYSON
The speaker heralds the setting of the sun and the rise of the evening star, and heard that he is being called. He hopes that the ocean will not make the mournful sound 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 closes 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 had crossed the sand bar.
Tennyson wrote “crossing the bar” in 1889, three years before he died. The poem describes his placid and accepting attitude toward death. Although he followed this work with subsequent poems, he requested that “crossing the bar” appear as the final poem in all collections of his work.
Tennyson uses the metaphor of a sand bar to describe the barrier between life and death. A sandbar is a ridge of sand built up by currents along a shore. In order to reach the shore, the waves must crash against the sandbar, creating a sound that Tennyson describes as the “moaning of the bar”. The bar is one of the several images of liminality in Tennyson’s poetry: in Ulysses”, the hero desires “to sail beyond the sunset”; in “Tithonus”, the main character finds himself at the “quiet limit of the world”, and regrets that he has asked to “pass beyond the goal of ordinance”.
The other important image in the poem is one of “crossing,” suggesting Christian connotations: “crossing” refers both to “crossing over” into the next world, and to the act of “crossing” oneself in the classic Catholic gesture of religious faith anr devotion. The religious significance of crossing the bar was clearly familiar to Tennyson, for in an earlier poem of his, the Knights and Lord’s of Camelot “crossed themselves for fear ” when they saw the Lady of Shallot lying dead in her boat. The cross was also where Jesus died; now as Tennyson himself dies, he evokes the image again. So, too, does he hope to complement this metaphorical link with a spiritual one: he hopes that he will “see ( his) Pilot face to face”.
Lines 1 – 2
Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
(i.) The poem opens with the speaker talking about the “sunset” and the “evening star.” It is the end of the day (“sunset”), and the evening star, which is actually the planet Venus, is rising.
(ii.) The end of the day is, apparently, a “clear call” for the speaker. But a “clear call” for what? To go home? Is there some kind of horn blowing?
Does he have really stellar reception on his cell?
(iii.) At this point in the poem, it’s still too early to tell, but we’ll keep the image in mind. Maybe it’s a metaphor for something.
(iv.) But wait a minute. We know already that Tennyson wrote this puppy when he was nearing the end of his life. So maybe – just maybe – he’s speaking metaphorically here about his approaching death. That would explain the sunset, and the call could be all those trumpets, beckoning him to heaven. But then again, the speaker is also trying not to think about himself.
Lines 3 – 4
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,
(i.) The speaker hopes there will be no “moaning of the bar” when he puts out to sea. Sage words, those are, if there’s one thing Shmoop knows, it’s that moaning and moping in bars is always a bad idea.
(ii.) Except the bar here refers to a sandbar – not the boozy kind. Sandbars often form in the mouths of rivers and harbors, and they re something you need to get past if you re hoping to set sail on the wide-open ocean.
(iii.) Apparently the speaker doesn’t want the sandbar to be disturbed by his departure. But if we really are talking figuratively about death here ( as we guessed in the first two lines), then we’ll have to interpret what’s going on in those terms.
(iv.) If he is talking about his departure from life ( and not a literal departure from an actual harbor), then he doesn’t want the sandbar, or anybody else for that matter, to make a huge fuss out of it.
(v.) In that sense, it sounds like the sandbar is a metaphor for the boundary between life and death, or life and the afterlife. And to reach the afterlife, he had to cross that bar.
(vi.) Shmoopers and Shmoopettes, now that we have one stanza behind us, it’s time to talk form. We know we’re working with something traditional because we’ve got some rhyming action going down. Star rhymes with bar, and me rhymes with sea. Looks like we’ve got ourselves a good old fashioned scheme.
(vii.) But hat about meter? Well, that’s a little less clear. Lines 1, 2 and 4 all have six syllables and a sort of daDUM daDUM feeling about them. And line 3 has ten syllables, hinting at iambic palentameter. It seems like we’ll be dealing with a mix of iambic meters in this poem.
Lines 5 – 6
But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam
(i.) Looks like, instead of a moaning bar, our speaker would rather sail on “such a tide as moving seems asleep.” Get it? Got it? No?
(ii.) Shmoop’s got your back. Basically, he’s just saying that he’d rather be sailing at high tide, when that sandbar is buried way beneath the water.
(iii.) In order for that to happen, the tide has to be ‘too full for sound and foam.” In other words, the tide has to be high enough that waves won’t break on the sandbar. He can just sail right over it, and be on his merry (deadly) way.
(iv.) Tennyson is really flexing his poetry muscles here. Not only is he using the metaphor of sailing to talk about kicking the bucket (and seriously, which one would you rather talk about?), he’s also using some figurative language to describe the sea on which he sails. He wants it to seem asleep as it moves, as if the sea were alive.
Lines 7 – 8
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.
(i.) More tide metaphors here. In fact, we’re verging into extended metaphor territory here, when you consider the fact that he’s been going on about the tide for a good two stanzas.
(ii.) Here, he’s continuing the hope he laid out at the beginning of the stanza – that when he sets sail for, you know, the grand adventure that is death, he wants the tide to be high.
(iii.) Only in this case, he’s using more fancy figurative language to say it.
(iv.) “That which drew from out the boundless deep”? That’s the tide, being drawn out into the sea ( or “boundless deep”) by the moon when the tide is low.
(v.) “When it turns again home” refers to when the tide come back in, filling the harbor and covering the sandbar.
(vi.) If the tide is in, that makes for smooth sailing for our speaker. He can cruise right out over that sandbar with nothing standing between him and the boundless deep. Lucky him?
(vii.) There’s a flip side to this reading though. You might also think that “that which” actually refers to the speaker. As in, he hopes the tide will be cooperative when his soul returns to its home in the boundless deep, or death.
The bar referred to is a sand spit or similar promontory at the mouth of a river or harbor where tides have deposited sand over time. To hear the wind and waves moaning off at bar usually means that there is insufficient water to sail over the bar without grounding. Hence the second verse and it’s reference to a “full tide” or “high water”,
FORM IN “CROSSING THE BAR” BY ALFRED TENNYSON
This poem consist of four quatrain stanzas rhyming ABAB. The first and third lines of each stanza are always a couple of beats longer than the second and fourth lines, although the line lengths vary among the stanzas.
The ABAB rhyme scheme of the poem echoes the stanzas ‘thematic patterning: the first and third stanzas are linked to one another as the second and fourth. Both the first and third stanzas begin with two symbols of the onset of night: “sunset and evening star” and “twilight” and evening bell. The second line of each of these stanzas begins with “and”, conjoining another item that does not fit together as straightforwardly as the first two: “one clear call for me” and “after that the dark!”. Each of these lines is followed by an exclamation point, as the poet expresses alarm at realizing what death will entail. These stanzas then conclude with a wish that is stated metaphorically in the first stanza: “may there be no moaning of the bar/ when I put out to sea”; and more literally in the third stanza: “And may there be no sadness of farewell / when I embark. “Yet the wish is the same in both stanzas: the poet does not want his relatives and friends to cry for him after he dies. Neither of these stanzas concludes with a period, suggesting that each is intimately linked to the one that follows.
The second and fourth stanzas are linked because they both begin with a qualifier. “But” in the second stanza, and “for though” in the fourth. In addition, the second lines of both stanzas connote excess, whether it be a tide “too full for sound and foam” or the “far” distance that the poet will be transported in death.
THEMATIC STRUCTURES OF “CROSSING THE BAR” BY ALFRED TENNYSON
Crossing the Bar means navigating a difficult spot. However, as soon as we start to become familiar with the word choice, we find the title of the poem a metaphor for life’s journey.
Tennyson uses many nautical terms such as bar, sea, foam, pilot, bell and flood. Nevertheless, the same terms can also refer to death. An example of this is the “boundless deep” whose meaning is ambiguous because it can refer to death, sleep or the sea.
Tennyson uses imagery as shown in:
“But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
To full for sound and foam”
As the speaker placidly intends to cross the bar of life, we may say that the tone of the poem is anticipation.
Conclusively, the poem brings about the life voyage we all must take and hoping that we all will find acceptance on crossing the bar of life.
Finally, we can see the structure of the poem as being a sixteen line poem divided into four – line stanzas in reguplar iambic trimeter with one line of iambic pentameter. The stanzas follow the rhyme scheme abab.
LANGUAGE DEVICES/POETIC DEVICES IN “CROSSING THE BAR” BY ALFRED TENNYSON
In “Crossing the Bar”, Tennyson is speaking about his own impending death. Within the poem, the image of the sea is used to represent the “barrier” between life and death. The construction of this metaphor centres on the image of “crossing the bar”; a ‘bar’ is physically a bar of sand on shallow water. The ‘bar’ which Tennyson must cross, however, can only be crossed in one direction. This is made explicit in a couple of ways by the poet.
First, there is the use of the wider imagery in the poem. The poem opens with the phrase “Sunset and evening star”, immediately placing the reader in a setting at the end of the day. The metaphor can be extended to represent a late stage in the poet’s life. This reading is supported by the opening of the third stanza. “Twilight and evening bell, / And after that the dark!”. Time is progressing as the poem develops, and after each reference to physical time, Tennyson makes a personal reference to his future:
“And may there be no moaning of the bar, / When I put out to sea”
“Any may there be no sadness of farewell, / When I embark”.
The clear reference to Tennyson’s ‘moving on’ enables us to interpret the image of evening as representing old age. The notion of passing time, evident in the physical darkening of the sky from ‘sunset’ to ‘twilight’, to ‘dark’, is echoed in the rhythm of the poem. Clearly, the poem speaks about the sea, about a tide which “turns again home”. The tide, we are reminded, has done this before; its rhythm will not be interrupted by the death of the poet. The lengths of the lines alternate between 10, six and four syllables with no fixed rotation:
10 But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
6 Too full of sound and foam,
10 When that which drew from out the boundless deep
4 Turns again home
The differing lengths of lines evoke the movement of a tide washing upon a beach, something which we all recognize to be cyclic.
Secondly, in considering how the poet has constructed the “bar’ between life and death, we must look at the specifics of his language. The poet is certain of his distinction:
‘When I put out to sea’
When I embark’
When I have crossed the bar’
The repetition of “when” makes it clear to the reader that the event that poet is discussing is firmly placed in the future; it will happen, but hasn’t happened yet.
We can contrast this to the use of indefinite phrases in the poem:
‘And may there be no moaning of the bar’
‘And may there be no sadness of farewell’
‘I hope to see my Pilot face to face’
Tennyson makes a clear distinction between events which he knows will happen, and events which he hopes will happen. He cannot assure that there will be ‘no sadness of farewell, so he cannot solidify the matter within the poem itself.
The final stanza of the poem is particularly interesting, and deserves some consideration within itself:
For though 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 crossed the bar.
There are three aspects of this final stanza that are immediately striking; the capitalizations of ‘Time’, ‘Place’ and ‘Pilot’. We capitalize proper nouns, such as names and locations, suggesting that Tennyson sees ‘Time and Place’ as a specific location, such as ‘London’, and ‘his Pilot’ as a personal figure. This adds to the element of certainty in the poem: Tennyson has in mind a location in which he will end, and though he can only ‘hope’ to see his ‘Pilot’, he has an image he aspires to meet with.
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References / Lesson summary Aids
Ibitola, A.O (Ed.). (2018). Essential Literature In English for senior secondary schools. Tonad Publishers limited.
Victor J. O. (Ed.). (2019). Study Guide to Selected Poems, Prose, & Drama Texts for SSCE . Harmony-Pen Publications.