Crossing The Bar: by Alfred Tennyson - Summary & Analysis

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INTRODUCTION

      Tennyson wrote Crossing the Bar in his eighty-first year, on crossing the Solent after his serious illness in 1888-89. "It came in a moment," he said to his son. It was Tennyson's wish that this poem should always be printed at the end of the editions of his poems, as his final testament to the world. The poet is thinking of death. But his mind is calm, and free from tears and regrets. He thinks of death as a journey from this finite world, subject to limitations of time and place, to an unknown world of infinitude, where Time and Place have no meaning. Doubts and fears do not assail his soul. He knows that as soon as he has pushed away from the shores of this finite world, he will "see his Pilot face to face".

Tennyson wrote Crossing the Bar in his eighty-first year, on crossing the Solent after his serious illness in 1888-89. "It came in a moment," he said to his son. It was Tennyson's wish that this poem should always be printed at the end of the editions of his poems, as his final testament to the world. The poet is thinking of death. But his mind is calm, and free from tears and regrets. He thinks of death as a journey from this finite world, subject to limitations of time and place, to an unknown world of infinitude, where Time and Place have no meaning. Doubts and fears do not assail his soul. He knows that as soon as he has pushed away from the shores of this finite world, he will "see his Pilot face to face".
Crossing The Bar

CRITICAL SUMMARY

      In Crossing The Bar, writer anticipates his death and gives expression to his feeling in metaphorical language. He compares dying to a ship's crossing the sand-bar. In other words, his passage from this world into the next is like a ship which clears the harbour (this life), and, after crossing the sand-bar, puts out to the open sea i.e. the unknown after death. A ship's sailing from the harbour is helped when the tide is full. Accordingly, the poet wishes a full tide, but not a noisy or violent sea, which should bear the ship of his life out to the open sea.

      The approach of death is compared to twilight. The twilight is followed by darkness which here symbolises death itself. The poet says that when he sets sail, he does not want any sad farewells. In other words, when the darkness of death descends upon him, he would not be unhappy and he would not like others to feel unhappy. He wants to make a cheerful exit from this world.

      When the ship of the poet's life has been carried far away from the harbour, when, in other words, the poet has crossed the boundary that divides this life from the next life, he hopes to see God face to face. He calls God his Pilot, meaning that the Divine and unseen spirit guides a man through life and guides him through death.

CRITICAL ANALYSIS AND APPRECIATION

      In his eighty-first year Tennyson wrote Crossing the Bar, where the noiseless indraw of the ebb-tide from the land back into the ocean is a magnificent image of the soul's quiet parting from life on earth and its absorption into the vastness of infinity. This short lyric was his testament. It may also be regarded as his epitaph written by himself. The poem shows Tennyson's belief in the immortality of the soul and in the existence of God.

Series of Metaphors

      The entire poem is cast in a series of metaphors through which the poet tries to suggest to us something of the awe-inspiring facts of life, death and life beyond. These ideas are the sum and substance of every religion, and they furnish some sort of reasonable consolation to us when we face the moment of our death. The chief ideas emphasised in the course of this short poem are that man's destiny on earth is to die, that when death comes, the wise man should be prepared; that he should not give way to his fear or sorrows or terror of the unknown, but that he must imagine himself as going on a journey at the end of which he would meet his God face to face and find rest in Him for his wearied soul or spirit.

      It is a common device in most religions to compare life on earth and death to a pilgrim going on a journey. God in heaven is the destination of all of us who are born into this world. We endure many hardships and troubles, miseries and sorrows because this world is full of imperfections. At the same time, none of us is - willing to go away from here because we do not know where we may go. But faith comes in where our reasoning faculties are unable to give us any message of consolation or proof of life after death. Religion appeals to our feelings directly and so it fills the gap created by pure reason. This position is conveyed through a familiar but striking metaphor. When the ship leaves the harbour and goes out to mid-sea, it, has to cross a natural or artificial barrier separating the harbour from the main sea. Sometimes at the mouths of rivers where they join the sea, we may find a raised bank of sand acting as a boom or as a barrier, or shortly 'bar'. When the sea tide is high then the bar is submerged and then a boat or ship is able to cross the bar easily. Going out to sea, the ship makes use of the ebbing tide. It is only at stated times in the day and night that the bar is thus flooded or submerged in the water, and only then can ships or boats pass out to the sea without any effort and with the help of the ebbing tide. Sometimes the ship or boat, if it be a small one, can also put out to a sea on a flowing tide. A storm or rough seas naturally make crossing the bar difficult. The poet desires - that at the time he puts out to sea, everything should be calm and peaceful. In other words, he hopes for a smooth journey from life into death.

      In the last stanza again we have two other nautical references. The course of a ship, as it gets into an unknown ocean, cannot be forecast before hand. This is also true of the journey of man after his death. Where he goes, how far, and to what strange country, are unknown to him. But of one thing he feels hopeful; it is that when the time for disembarkation arrives, he expects to meet his pilot face to face. The reference here is to the practice of the pilot of a harbour going out to meet every arriving ship and steering it safely to the harbour. The captain of the ship is not allowed to sail the ship into the harbour by himself. Every harbour has a pilot officer whose duty is to escort vessels going out and guide vessels coming in. The Pilot is here equated to God. After death the souls of the dead meet God who takes charge of them.

The Philosophy of Tennyson reflected in this Poem

      This small poem may be described as both an elegy and as a testament of faith of the poet himself. It is elegiac because it suggests mournful thoughts of death. Here the poet speaks of his own approaching death; however, because he does not complain bitterly or show pain, fear, or cowardice, gloom is absent. It also reveals the poet's serene faith in religion and God, for he says that he would soon meet his God face to face.

      When Tennyson flourished as a great poet, there was a great controversy in England as to the truth of Christianity and the existence of God Himself. People had been brought up to regard the Bible as a divinely inspired book; but when they found it to contain untenable theories and the statements, as proved by scientists such as Darwin, faith in whole of the scriptures began to weaken and to die out in many earnest people. Tennyson was one of the intellectuals of the time who were sorely troubled by this conflict between religion and science. But after a great deal of storm and stress within himself, Tennyson came to believe that notwithstanding the conclusions of science, there must be a divine providence and a divine plan in the shaping of the world and the lives of men here. So, he rediscovered his religious faith and gave expression to it in this simple and beautiful poem. Death is merely the end of the body. The soul is immortal.

Metre of the Poem

      The stanzaic structure of this poem is highly original. Tennyson was fond of intricate patterns of line and rhyme scheme. Each stanza is made up of four lines with an unusual rhythmic pattern. The lines flow smoothly and musically yet without monotony. When we read the poem aloud, we get the impression of a series of waves gathering momentum and then rising into a big wave which at last breaks suddenly towards the shore. In this manner, he has chosen a type of verse which suggests the symbolism of a ship starting on its voyage and overcoming waves that rise and fall in rhythmic regularity. The last lines of the second and third stanzas are not trimetres but only contain two stresses. These furnish a further variation inside the stanza which adds to the pleasant effect of the metrical ingenuity of the poem.

LINE BY LINE PARAPHRASE

      L. 5-8 But such a tide.....again home. When the poet puts out to sea let there be such a tide which, though moving with a strong current, seems to be perfectly still - a tide too deep to produce any roaring sound or breaking waves - so that his voyage to the unknown world will be easier. In other words, the poet wishes that he should be able to meet death in a calm, unruffled spirit. Released from the bondage of flesh and blood, his soul which came out of the vast deep of God's spirit will be voyaging forth to be merged, into the vast deep of God again. The poets mind should be full of the joy of anticipatory union with God to admit any doubts and fears.

      L. 13-16. For tho' from.....crost the bar. In these concluding lines of Crossing the Bar, Tennyson reveals to us the great hope which makes him face death with calm courage and anticipatory joy. Death will certainly carry him far away from this finite world - a world which is subject to limitations of time and place. It will take him to an unknown world where time and place have no meaning. But the poet is not afraid. He feels sure that, once he has passed beyond the barrier of death, he will see his Divine guide — "that divine and unseen which is always guiding us" — face to face. Death, therefore, can have no terror for him.

Conclusion

      For image, for marvellous sound-effects, and for depth of quiet feeling, Crossing the Bar is assuredly one of the most beautiful poems in the whole range of English poetry. In life the poet has known doubts and fears, troubles and anxieties, but now, at the close of this life, a deep peace has settled on his soul. He contemplates death with a calm, unruffled mind.

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