Practical Criticism: Tennyson’s ‘Crossing the Bar’

In this close reading, undergraduate Claire Wilkinson looks at a poem where Tennyson seems to be contemplating his own death. The poem contains moments of certainty and uncertainty, and the interplay between these things is vital to its effect.

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 though 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 crossed the bar.  (1889)

In 'Crossing the Bar', Tennyson is speaking about his own impending death.  Within the poem, the image of the sea is used to represent the 'barrier' between life and death.  The construction of this metaphor centres on the image of 'crossing the bar'; a 'bar' is physically a bar of sand in shallow water.  The 'bar' which Tennyson must cross, however, can only be crossed in one direction.  This is made explicit in a couple of ways by the poet.

Firstly, we should consider the wider imagery of the poem.  The poem opens with the phrase 'Sunset and evening star', immediately placing the reader in a setting at the end of the day.  The metaphor can be extended to represent a late stage in the poet's life.  This reading is supported by the opening of the third stanza: 'Twilight and evening bell, / And after that the dark!'  Time is progressing as the poem develops, and after each reference to physical time, Tennyson makes a personal reference to his future:

'And may there be no moaning of the bar, / When I put out to sea'

'And may there be no sadness of farewell, / When I embark'

The clear reference to Tennyson's 'moving on' enables us to interpret the image of evening as representing old age.  The notion of passing time, evident in the physical darkening of the sky from 'sunset' to 'twilight' to 'dark' is echoed in the rhythm of the poem.  Clearly, the poem speaks about the sea, about a tide which 'turns again home'.  The tide, we are reminded, has done this before; its rhythm will not be interrupted by the death of the poet.  The lengths of the lines alternate between 10, six and four syllables with no fixed rotation:

10        But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
6          Too full for sound and foam,
10        When that which drew from out the boundless deep
4          Turns again home.

The differing lengths of lines evoke the movement of a tide washing upon a beach, something which we all recognise to be cyclic.

Secondly, in considering how the poet has constructed the 'bar' between life and death, we must look at the specifics of his language.  The poet is certain of his destination:

'When I put out to sea'
'When I embark'
'When I have crossed the bar'

The repetition of when makes it clear to the reader that the event the poet is discussing is firmly placed in the future; it will happen, but hasn't happened yet.  We can contrast this to the use of indefinite phrases in the poem:

'And may there be no moaning of the bar'
'And may there be no sadness of farewell'
'I hope to see my Pilot face to face'

Tennyson makes a clear distinction between events which he knows will happen, and events which he hopes will happen. He cannot assure that there will be 'no sadness of farewell', so he cannot solidify the matter within the poem itself.

The final stanza of the poem is particularly interesting, and deserves some consideration within itself:

For though 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 crossed the bar.

There are three aspects of this final stanza that are immediately striking; the capitalisations of 'Time', 'Place' and ''.  We capitalise proper nouns, such as names and locations, suggesting that Tennyson sees 'Time and Place' as a specific location, such as 'London', and 'his Pilot' as a personal figure.  This adds to the element of certainty in the poem: Tennyson has in mind a location in which he will end, and though he can only 'hope' to see his 'Pilot', he has an image he aspires to meet with.

To leave this piece on an interesting note: who or what could possibly be Tennyson's 'Pilot'? (If you have an answer to this question, or another thought about the poem you'd like to share, please leave a comment below.)

Further Reading

Claire Wilkinson has written an article on Tennyson and Religion for the Cambridge Authors site; it touches on this poem as part of its broader analysis of Tennyson's ideas about God. Click here to read the article, or use the menu to the left.

Further Thinking

How (if at all) might the following facts affect the way you read the poem? First: it was written three years before Tennyson died, when the poet was 80. Second: the story goes that he wrote it in twenty minutes on the Isle of Wight ferry. Third: he asked future editors to place it last in collections of his work. Perhaps the poem stands on its own, connecting with readers' lives rather than with the past; but perhaps we need to recognise how it came out of Tennyson's life before we can really understand it.

What do the poems rhymes add to its effect?

The precise implications of this word might be worth considering. A pilot is someone who navigates a ship, but it is most often used of someone with local knowledge who joins a ship to guide it into a port or through a difficult part of its journey. This kind of pilot is temporary and supplementary to the ship's usual officers, but very important: he or she brings the ship home

22 Responses to “Practical Criticism: Tennyson’s ‘Crossing the Bar’”

  1. James Says:

    I have read this page and the article Ms. Wilkinson has written about Tennyson’s ideas of God. Both are well-constructed. As a graduate of Cambridge myself, I can see why the English Department would display them.

    Yet, I am intrigued by your question of who the Pilot is. As you rightly point out, Tennyson is speaking of his own demise. After which, he hopes to meet his Pilot (capitalised, as is done with “He” and “Him” in literature when referring to God), a guiding figure … the one who was steering his life.

    While he questioned faith always (as all intellectual Christians do, and by so doing, sharpen their faith and understanding of God) this poem says that he hopes to have a personal interaction (face to face) with the Pilot. But as you note with his use of language, he is not certain it will come to pass. This is an expression of humility.

    Tennyson’s requesting that publishers put it at the end of his works suggests that it is his dying profession of faith. He wanted this to be his final impression on his readers. The face to face meeting is the point of the poem, coming as it does in the final stanza: the final destination expected when telling of any journey. By requesting that this poem come at the end of his published works, publicly he makes his longed-for encounter indeed the final stanza of his life and works.

    Your analysis intrigues me because while the purpose of your essay is to encourage questioning, I wonder that in questioning you have missed the obvious. Perhaps you know this and want to see how the public will respond. Perhaps it is because Cambridge encourages students away from acceptance of faith as simple faith. Indeed, the culture of Cambridge eschews faith as “anti-intellectual” often. But such discourse is disingenuous in case like this, where the author could only have allowed one interpretation of that final stanza.

    It’s not like it requires a nuanced translation from ancient Greek.

    For your consideration.


  2. Karen Says:

    I agree with James, only differing in one respect: Tennyson’s Pilot was Jesus. I can’t believe how many commentaries I’ve read about this poem which refer to the Pilot as God, never mentioning Jesus, and yet, Tennyson’s faith was Christianity, and Jesus as Christ is the root of that faith. Christ is the Pilot in our earthly life – the Pilot who guides us to the eternal God the Father.
    BTW, the purpose of a harbor pilot is to guide mariners through an area which is constantly shifting, such as the sandbar between the river and the open ocean. The local pilot knows the recent changes, and his job is to see that the captain is able to avoid the sand so that the ship doesn’t run aground and break up, thereby causing a shipwreck and the death of the crew. Christ’s job was also to guide believers so that they, if they listened to Him and believed in Him would not die but go on to eternal life.
    I’m going to go out on a limb, here, but it’s a sad commentary on our educational system that after 2000 years of Christianity, college-educated people don’t “get” who Tennyson’s Pilot is.

  3. Claire Says:

    Karen – In response to your comment, I think you might be ‘going out on a limb’. This piece is trying to think about the structure, form and content of Tennyson’s poetry. At no point do I make the assertion that the ‘Pilot’ in Tennyson’s poem is not God or Jesus. In fact, I think there’s a good chance that it is. The open ended question at the end of the piece was put there to provoke debate – I was hoping that people might consider the role of Hallam in Tennyson’s life alongside that of Christianity. I think it is for the individual to ultimately decide upon a ‘meaning’ of the poem that is acceptable to them; I don’t think it is within the power of any one critic to determine Tennyson’s intentions in writing the final stanza of ‘Crossing the Bar’. It seems problematic just to say that the ‘Pilot’ simply is Jesus: the two words are not direct synonyms. It also seems problematic to say that any one view of the world is simply the truth.

  4. vir mehta Says:

    The other important image in the poem is one of “crossing,” suggesting Christian connotations: “crossing” refers both to “crossing over” into the next world, and to the act of “crossing” oneself in the classic Catholic gesture of religious faith and devotion. The religious significance of crossing was clearly familiar to Tennyson, for in an earlier poem of his, the knights and lords of Camelot “crossed themselves for fear” when they saw the Lady of Shalott lying dead in her boat. The cross was also where Jesus died; now as Tennyson himself dies, he evokes the image again. So, too, does he hope to complement this metaphorical link with a spiritual one: he hopes that he will “see [his] Pilot face to face.”

  5. Srabashi Says:

    The Crossing of the Bar reminds me of another imagery by the Poet Rabindranath Tagore. In one of his songs he wrote ‘Why is the fear to cross a simple door? Let the Unknown win’ (capitalization is mine). In Bengali, the native tongue the song was written, does not admit small and capital letters. The rest of the content of the song is different from Tennyson. But the imagery of crossing is not peculiar to Christianity only.

  6. M edwards Says:

    Tennyson explained the “Pilot” as “That Divine and Unseen Who is always guiding us”. (This is recorded by Hallam Tennyson in his memoir of his father.)

  7. M edwards Says:

    Tennyson also commented: “The Pilot has been on board all the while, but in the dark I have not seen him.”

  8. William R. Kenny Says:

    Reading the various commentaries, I find it rather astonishing that the simple truth of the matter that the Pilot ( capitalised ) can be anyone other than Christ Jesus is not patently obvious. The same theme prevades a thousand Christian hymns, I shouldn’t wonder. In the 14th. chapter of the Gospel of John, Jesus says very clearly that He and the Father are one.

  9. Claire007 Says:

    It seems to me that the reference to the well-known I Corinthians 13 in the final stanza (for some reason not acknowledged in this piece) makes the identity of the Pilot rather unequivocal. Unless, Claire, you are suggesting that he viewed Hallam as his God and creator? What would be the evidence for that?

  10. Eric Chaffey Says:

    I recently read this poem at my father’s memorial service. It had always been one of his favorite poems and also one of mine. In my mind and heart like others have suggested, the Pilot is Christ. A hymn that has similar imagery is “Jesus Savior Pilot Me.”

  11. Jim Green Says:

    ALT’s writing may NOW seem awkward…but some beautiful and scarcely celebrated adaptations have been written by more recent wordsmiths…most of whom gave wide berth to Tennyson’s pervasive religious theme. A composite might read…..

    “….beyond the bar, into a serene, mysterious and fog-shrouded sea…into which all must venture, but from which none have returned, and….despite the most resolute certaintude… about which NOTHING can be assured”.

  12. ISM Says:

    Going back to the rhyme scheme, the regularity and structured control of Tennyson’s rhyming here makes us feel strangely content for him as he is so honest with us about his feelings towards death; he imagines a calm death, regulated, orderly, and not a painful one.

    BTW our class immediately saw the religious reference in the Pilot!

  13. Chris Preece Says:

    Whilst this poem is a very clear exposition of faith and what it says about the end of this life, I doubt that Tennyson expected it to be disected and discusssed quite as it is. It is what it says all over the tin. My own view of this poem is that in its simplicity and elegance, also the clarity of its extended metaphor, it scores heavily, and that is why it has proved enduring in its popularity. To me it says more that Milton ever did in his epics.

  14. Lavinia Curletta Says:

    My goodness, how clear and obvious it is to anyone familiar with Jesus Christ and the Scriptures that Tennyson was speaking of his meeting with Him after death. We must not obfuscate with 21st century post-modern self-engrandised intellectualism what was a lovely and pure faith of a noble man, ready to meet his end with courage and hope. His heart was set on the meeting with His Pilot: I Corinthians 13:12 “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then FACE TO FACE…”
    Even the expression of his wish that those left behind would not experience great sorrow is in keeping with the scriptures: I Thessalonians 4:13, 14 “But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus.”
    Claire, you say, “It also seems problematic to say that any one view of the world is simply the truth” but we are not talking about “any one view” are we? We are discussing Tennyson’s view – his. Again, we cannot force the “tolerant” mindset of our society on the clear opinions of the writers of the past. This is an effort to mold the past to suit our wishes, and is, at best, self-deceit. True tolerance would be to listen to, look at, read about, and experience the writers and historians of the past as they honestly spoke from their hearts, and not smash all of them with the flatiron of modern opinion.

  15. Dan Fairbrother Says:

    You all seem rather pleased with yourself for noticing that ‘Pilot’ pretty obviously refers to God, and think Ms. Wilkinson somewhat reprimanded by your pointing this out. None of you considers the actual question: ‘who or what could possibly be Tennyson’s ‘Pilot’?’ Okay, so it’s God. What the devil is God!? What is Tennyson’s God? If there’s no God is Tennyson’s sentiment nonsense or is it still powerful? And for those of you who think debates about poems are resolved by quoting the author: have you *ever* read *any* criticism or theory? When Ms. Wilkinson says “I don’t think it is within the power of any one critic to determine Tennyson’s intentions in writing the final stanza of ‘Crossing the Bar’”, this may include Tennyson himself – and her view wouldn’t be stupid. Perhaps it’s not his poem anymore, the bugger’s dead. “As a graduate of Cambridge myself” indeed! “After 2000 years of Christianity” one might have learned some respect! This isn’t necessarily to agree with everything Mz. Wilkinson writes: do you think the meaning of poems is just plain down to “the individual”? Surely there are constraints on what individuals can say – plausibly; but then perhaps you mean to include this possibility. You’ve had some pretty nasty commentators, and you don’t deserve any of them – or rather they don’t deserve you! (I would like to add that I am not Ms. Wilkinson’s DoS.)

  16. Marilyn Hardy Says:

    Hope is a Christian certainty based on faith, not wishful thinking. Tennyson may well have hoped to see his pilot face to face just as Christians with certainty hope the same and look forward to it.

  17. Jo Fisher Says:

    Thank you everyone for your comments on this poem, which I am reading at a funeral for an elderly friend who love poetry, mainly Coleridge, but asked for Tennyson and this poem to be read.
    I am totally new to it and absolutely fascinated by your analyses of it, also by the many composers who have set it to music, ranging from classical to mid-west folk.
    Certainly reading it I took the Pilot to be God. As a Quaker we talk about the “light of God within each one of us”, so Tennyson’s comment that The Pilot is on board all the while is correct – we just need to allow the light, like a torch, to work for us to highlight what is there.
    In Friendship
    Jo Fisher
    8th September 2011

  18. Tom Reilly Says:

    This truly wonderful poem was chosen as a hymn in our Methodist Hymnbook. Since my earliest days I have loved and admired the poetry. But one day the thought struck me that the imagery is reversed! The Christian in life is sailng on what is often a stormy sea heading for the safety of the harbour. In other words death is not being launched out to sea but coming in to harbour out of the storm. There are other hymns that echo that thought. In particular, Charles Wesley’s “Jesus lover of my soul”, finishes the first verse “Safe into the haven guide, O recieve my soul at last”.

    I still love the poem but with that caveat.

    Just thinking,


  19. paul bibeau Says:

    Its a wonderful poem for seamen and provides a vivid visualization for those who have crossed an angry bar! But alas Tennyson uses the term flood to describe what is actually the ebb. Perhaps those who are in the poetry business could explain this. Was it an error on his part as he was not a seaman or is there a meaning that I can not fathom?

  20. Stuart Says:

    It is possible that Arthur Hallam, Tennyson’s close friend to whom “in memoriam” is dedicated to, is the “pilot” he is describing. He mentions that he is hoping to see his pilot face to face, perhaps wondering if in death he will be reunited with his friend. Hallam was also his muse, and a pilot is a boat which guides the larger ships to sea, hence he is guided by the Hallam. The fact that the bar represents death and that he can only see the pilot once he has crossed this boundary, means that it is likely the pilot represents a person who is dead.

  21. stelvio Says:

    Tennyson does not appear to have been a Christian, certainly not in any conventional sense. Possibly “Pilot” may have been intended as symbolic of several figures, including deities; but Arthur Hallam was a major figure in Tennyson’s life – the subject of his greatest poem, and the name chosen for Tennyson’s son. Stuart seems more likely nearer the truth than those interpreting from the viewpoint of their own monotheistic faith.

  22. Linda Says:

    My father who read, memorized and loved poetry all his life is now in hospice care at home. He is ninety years old and has alzhmeimer’s and now his crossing is near. He discussed this poem with me when I was in college and believed the moaning of the bar to be that unfortunate occurance when a ship sets out to sea and runs upon a submerged sandbar causing it to slowly struggle to make forward progress. The bottom of the ship rubbing on the sandbar makes a creaking, moaning sound well known to seamen. It can take a long time and considerable effort to get free from this situation and continue out to sea. Sometimes a ship would be caught in a standstill until a full high tide would float it up off the bar and allow the crossing. Surely none of us wants a long lingering struggle when we are crossing over, and I think that is what Tennyson was referencing and hoped to avoid. I will read this at my father’s service when he is finally freed from his sandbar.

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