Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Crossing the Bar by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Yesterday's poem choice was "To the Virgins to Make Much of Time. Initially, I thought of following up with "To His Coy Mistress" by Andrew Marvell or "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love" by Christopher Marlowe, but they're from a similar time period, so I decided to select something else. And then, based on the carpe diem notion and its association with the movie Dead Poets Society, I nearly went with "O Captain! My Captain!" by Walt Whitman. But I've already used a selection from Whitman. Then, I noticed the second stanza in Herrick's poem:

The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
   The higher he's a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
  And nearer he's to setting.

And the idea of the setting sun led me to today's choice, from Tennyson:

Crossing the Bar
by 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 cross’d the bar.

*bourne: boundary or limit

Tennyson's done something interesting, form-wise here. These are cross-rhymed quatrains (4-line stanzas rhyming ABAB CDCD etc.), but there's no truly fixed metre here - more of a variety of long and short lines that echo the notion of waves or tides.

The entire poem is, pretty obviously, a metaphor for death, and for crossing over into an afterlife, and it reflects Tennyson's acceptance and welcoming of death. He also asks that nobody cry for him after his death. Some of the history of the poem might be of interest however. Tennyson wrote the poem in 1889, three years before his death. It is believed that "the bar" referenced in the poem was inspired by Salcombe Bar, a sandbar in just off the coast of South Devon, across which Tennyson once had a rough passage while aboard a boat owned by a historian named J.A. Froude. The moaning sound referenced in the poem is to the noise that the water made as it rolled over the sand bar. (The sand bar, as it turns out, can be quite dangerous, and has caused shipwrecks over history, including the loss of a lifeboat in the early 1900s, resulting in the deaths of 13 men.)

Shortly before Tennyson died in 1892, he told his son Hallam that he wanted "Crossing the Bar" to be the final poem in all collections of his works. And so it is.

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