Lord Alfred Tennyson‘s Crossing the Bar: Spiritual Discourse on the Aftermath of Life

One has to die some day or other, and one cannot die a better death than Jesus. It is his death that brought a revolution into the consciousness of humanity.  Osho (The Dhammapada)

Lord Alfred Tennyson‘s Crossing the Bar is a highly charged spiritual discourse on the aftermath of life. It is a philosophic discourse on the subject of death. However, the central issue in this poem is the personal vision of death presented through the analogical metaphors of sea voyage. In fact, Lord Alfred Tennyson‘s Crossing the Bar is allegorical and steeped in deep symbolic meaning from the beginning to the end. The entire poem is deeply suggestive lesson of final journey of life towards death set forth in the metaphoric language of sea voyage.

Poet Tennyson feels that his life is fast coming to a close. He expresses this feeling allegorically when he says, “Sunset and evening star,/And one clear call for me!” what he wants to say is that the sun of life is setting and he hears the clear call of death in the approaching evening. To put it in other words, the poet’s soul whispers in him that the time has come when he must depart for the next world and it must be the voice of the god bidding him ready. Thus the poet feels that the hour is come when he will embark the ship, leave the harbour, cross the bar and pass on to the unknown sea. Tennyson uses this allegory to suggest his eternal departure from this world, the unknown sea standing for the world beyond the grave. In this poem life on earth is compared to harbour and life after death to the vast expanse of the unknown sea. The word “bar” allegorically means the barrier between life and death. The expression “crossing the bar” allegorically means going out of the “bourne of Time and Place” and meeting death. The movement of the individual soul to the infinity is presented through the image of a sea- journey.

Again, the expression “moaning of the bar” conveys an allegorical meaning. The moaning of the bar, i.e., the roughness of the sea, causes anxiety in the voyager’s mind and makes him hesitate to cross the bar. So the poet wishes that there should be no moaning of the bar so that his mind may be free from fears and troubled feeling when he “puts out to the sea”. Here the “twilight and evening bell” is suggestive of death. And the line “when I embark” means “the time when the poet embarks on a voyage to eternity. So the word “pilot” here stands for no other than god, the poet’s divine guide. The poet’s hope to see his pilot face to face renders him courage and confidence to cross the bar and sail into the dark and unknown reign of death:
“I hope to see my Pilot face to face
    When I have crost the bar.”

Thus Crossing the Bar is full of thought much in-depth in comprehending the mind of the old poet. Nevertheless, the philosophic verse with its images, its symbols, and its wealth of color interestingly presented the poet’s reflections on death, his hopes and wishes before us. Most interestingly, Tennyson's Crossing the Bar is philosophic in theme, but largely epical in manner.

(Lord Alfred Tennyson (1809-1892) fell seriously ill in 1888-89. He thought he was going to die, but slowly he came round. While crossing the Solent he puts down his reflections on death, and the result is Crossing the Bar.)


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