Kevin Saving on
‘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 or farewell,
When I embark;
For tho' from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to meet my Pilot face to face
When I have crost the bar.
In the October of 1889 while the eighty year old Tennyson was making his annual migration from Aldworth (the slightly ostentatious country house he'd had specially built in Surrey) to Farringford on the isle of Wight, an idea for a poem came to him. The resultant 'Crossing the Bar' was completed (he said) in about twenty minutes of the roughly half-hour passage by ferry between Lymington (Dorset) and Yarmouth, just across the Solent. His personal nurse, a miss Audrey Durham, was accompanying him on the voyage, and it was she to whom the four verses were first shown. Her reaction has not been recorded – though it is known that she was not afraid either to stand up to the old man or 'jolly him along'. The Poet Laureate could be rather hypochondriac – over the years he'd expressed concerns over his (own) mental health, eyesight, skin, digestion – and had worried that he had inherited a predisposition to epilepsy. He also, at various times, complained of palpitations, hay fever, neuralgia and lumbago. That autumn he had been suffering from what he described as 'rheumatic gout' (which, he averred, 'would have made an end of nine men out of ten'). The second person to see the poem was his surviving son – and amanuensis – the long-suffering Hallam, who would record his own response as being that was it was 'the crown [...of his father's...] life's work'. What he'd actually voiced was the slightly more gushing – though still heart-felt- sentiment, 'That is one of the most beautiful poems ever written'. Tennyson modestly replied 'it came in a moment'. He also instructed Hallam (with one myopic eye on posterity) that 'Crossing the Bar' was to be placed last in all subsequent editions of his work. When his collection Demeter and Other Poems was duly published that December, the poem was accordingly placed last. The Ferry by which the poet was conveyed would have been one of the two paddle-steamers plying this passage at the time: Solent (launched 1863) or Mayflower (1866). Both were owned and operated by the L.S.W.R. (London and South Western Railway company). The accommodation would have been far more rudimentary than that to which more modern passengers are accustomed.
By 1889, Tennyson had been Poet Laureate for thirty nine years: the longest tenure of that post on record. He had been married for the same length of time to Emily (nee Sellwood) who increasingly 'managed' his life as a sort of unpaid social secretary and factotum. As an extended metaphor, 'Crossing the Bar' appears to espouse a straight-forward Christianity more in keeping with his wife's orthodox piety than with his own earlier flirtations with 'honest doubt' – or even with a nature 'red in tooth and claw'. Certainly, as he grew older 'death' figured prominently within his work – though a fascination with morbidity was perhaps always evident from the outset. The poem's last stanza was to be embroidered (by the 'workwomen of the North at Keswick') into a white pall which covered the first baron Tennyson's coffin, prior to its internment in westminster Abbey, some three years after the verse's conception.
'Moaning of the bar' is said to be a seafaring term denoting the noise that occurs when a vessel approaches a bar (or sandbank) with an insufficient clearance below its hull to be sure of avoiding 'grounding'. Tennyson would attempt an exegesis of the poem: 'The Pilot has been on board all the while, but in the dark I have not seen him' [...the 'Pilot' is...] 'that Divine and Unseen Who is always guiding us'. More prosaically, a 'Pilot' would usually, in this context, be understood to mean 'a qualified coastal navigator taken on board at a particular place to steer a ship into or out of port, or through a channel etc' (O.E.D.). As the paddle steamer's skipper can be presumed to have had both intimate knowledge of his route and access to a tide table, it has to be doubtful whether Tennyson – not particularly known for his practical nautical knowledge- would have had the occasion meet any such personage at the conclusion of his voyage.
Batchelor,J. (2012) Tennyson: To Strive, To Seek, To Find, Chatto and Windus.
Hill, R. [Ed.] (1971) Tennyson's Poetry; Authoritative Texts; Juvenilia And Early Responses,Criticism, Norton.
Martin, R. (1980) Tennyson: The Unquiet Heart, OUP.
Ricks, C. [Ed.] (2007) Alfred, Lord Tennyson Selected Poems, Penguin.
Thorn, M. (1992) Tennyson, Abacus.
Kevin Saving © 2012