Today’s poem is ‘Crossing the Bar’ by the Victorian Poet Laureate Alfred Lord Tennyson. No, not an ode to getting another drink, but an elegy in which death is compared to passing over a sandbar – a bank or shoal built-up over time by currents along the shore, and so separating a harbour from the ocean (see, and sea, below). Tennyson wrote the poem after suffering a serious illness whilst at sea, and would die just a few years later. In accordance with his wishes, it normally appears last in collections of his work.
Crossing the Bar
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 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.
Alfred Lord Tennyson, 1889
Tennyson uses the image of a sandbar to signify the barrier between Life and Death, between what we might call the Human Harbour and the vast uncharted waters beyond… The speaker heralds the setting of the sun and the rising of the evening star and suddenly hears ‘one clear call’. This seems more comforting than scary, however: like finally being called in from the waiting room, or like drifting, here quite literally, off to sleep. Indeed, he asks for no ‘moaning of the bar’, no mournful sound of the waves beating against the sandbar, but rather a tide that ‘seems asleep, / Too full for sound or foam’. Nor does he want any ‘sadness of farewell’, because, although this flood of death will take him far beyond our limits of space and time, he hopes it will also bring him face-to-face with his ‘Pilot’, his God.
I love the way the meaning of this poem works together with the language, the sound mirrors the sense you might say, to create a far stronger effect than either could manage on its own. If we count the length of each line, in syllables, we get: 6-6-10-6, 10-6-10-4, 6-6-10-4, 10-6-10-6. This irregular patterning of longer and shorter, longer and shorter, along with the alternating ABAB rhymes in each stanza, seems to echo the gentle ebb and flow of the tides, the rushing and retreating of waves. Or is that just me?!
If you can spare a minute, do leave a comment and tell me what you think of this week’s choice. Oh, and in case you haven’t seen it, last week I posted what I pathetically called the ‘Bitesize Read’ – an absolute gem of a short story by Saki. You can find it by clicking the ‘Bitesize Read’ tag in the Category bar above and to the right. I’ll post another next Tuesday.
A sandbar between St. Agnes and Gugh on the Isles of Scilly, off the coast of Cornwall