Crossing the Bar – Alfred Lord Tennyson

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 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.

This is one of those rare poems which do not require great depth of thought or analysis to enjoy. No looking up of dull professors and their equally boring commentary. It is a piece of gentle beauty even you and I can understand.

It is of course about the poet’s death. He wants calm at his death. He wants to cross the Styx, the Bar not in a storm, not with waves pounding on the metaphorical sandbar which separates life and death, but with quiet and peace.

A deep, slow moving river is quiet and so with a deep, calm sea. “The boundless deep” should be a quiet place when we cross it, not full of “sound and foam”.

Sunset, twilight and after that the dark. And yet Tennyson clearly expects to meet his Pilot, his god – he does not seem to be expecting darkness at all but some sort of afterlife. Hence there should be no sadness of farewell at his end.

He was, it is said, a deeply depressed man, our Alfred. Full of melancholy and anxiety. Perhaps he hoped for better in death. It is a cause for wonder that a man possessed of such melancholy managed to create such beauty, such music in words.

He was also it is said, deeply unconvinced by conventional religion. “There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds.”

A modern man, a man of science who does not seem to have been taken in by an anthropomorphic god. He wanted explanations of his world, he wanted the physicists and the chemists to tell him what it was all about. He didn’t want to take it on “faith”.

His idea of the divine was pantheistic, modern. A follower not of Moses but Spinoza. His god most certainly existed but was abstract and impersonal. Not the sort of fellow who chucked a few stone tablets at you down Mount Sinai.

God and Nature as two names for the same reality : that is certainly a god I can happily live with. Indeed if that is my Pilot, I would happily meet him.

I first came across this poem when singing a setting by Parry, our home grown Edwardian genius. I can’t remember where we sang it – it may have been at a charity concert in Corpus Christe college Oxford.

Whatever. I was, and remain, deeply affected both by the poem and the music.


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