Non-African Poetry: Crossing the Bar by Alfred Tennyson Summary, Setting, Author’s
Background, Themes, Language and Style for JAMB, WAEC and NECO
Literature Students 2016 – 2020 Syllabus.
It is no longer news that the above selected poetry is among the
selected texts for literature students in the WAEC, NECO and JAMB
Syllabus for 2016 – 2020.
Well we have decided to help students by providing some insights such as
summary and poetic devices and analysis of the poem to aid them
understand and prepare ahead of their examination.
“Crossing the Bar” is an 1889 poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. It is considered that Tennyson wrote it in elegy; the poem has a tone of finality and the narrator uses an extended metaphor to compare death with crossing the “sandbar” between river of life, with its outgoing “flood”, and the ocean that lies beyond [death], the “boundless deep”, to which we return. Alfred, Lord Tennyson was the Poet Laureate of Britain and Ireland “for some decades and “Crossing the Bar” is one of the poems he treasured most.
He ensured that this poem was listed last in all his poetry volumes while alive. He also left instructions that in any collection of his poems after his death this particular poem should always be listed last. There must have been a reason for this but none was given by the Poet Laureate himself.
However, it is possible to guess that this placement is connected with the significance of this position, being the last one.
Accordingly, it speaks of the wish of the poet to have his readers see the poem as his last creative effort and, by implication, a symbol of his final action- a meditation and preparedness to embrace death whenever it comes – before his transition to eternity.
An account has it that Tennyson, while on a short voyage across the solent, a body of water that separated mainland England from the Isle of Wight, got very sick He later recovered, but had got jolted by the possibility of death. “Crossing the Bar” was written when Tennyson was eighty years old, three years before his death. John Donne’s metaphysical poem, “Death Be Not Proud” is one of the poems that demystify the power of death; Alfred Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar” is another.
In another of Tennyson’s poems titled “All Things will Die“, the poetic persona states thus: “The streams will cease to flow/The wind will cease to blow/ The clouds will cease to fleet/The heart will cease to beat/For all things must die/All things must die“.
Indeed, all things must live and die. Death is a phenomenon that is common to both the rich and the poor, and to the wise and the simple and Tennyson emphasized this point in “Crossing the Bar“.
Death is a universal fact of existence.
The poem relates the fact that death is inevitable and it must faced with some courage.
Sunset and evening star
And one clear call for me!
And nay there be no moaning of the bar,
When i put out to sea,
5 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,
10 And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;
For though from out bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
15 I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crossed the bar.
The physical setting of the poem is clearly a neighborhood that is not far from a harbor or the sea. The temporal setting of the poem is the evening hour or the dusk, when the sun is receding, an appropriate period of the day to talk about a sober and somber subject as death.
In addition, evening is the time when most people are expected to retire back home after a hard days job and probably reflect on the subject matter of the poem.
There are also speculations that Tennyson composed the poem while on a sea voyage. The different nature imagery in the poem lends credence to this speculation.
Moreover, sea travel was the most common form of transportation in Victorian England during which the poet composed the poem.
The temporal setting of the poem is Victorian England.
The poem is a meditation on death. It begins with a reflection on the poetic-persona on what he describes as “one clear call for me!” (I z) on a certain evening when he realizes that it is time for him to go to the sea.
He hopes that the sea will have become calm after the usual turbulent movements. He further expresses the hope that when twilight eventually turns into darkness and he consequently embarks on his journey, his people will not be sad over his departure.
Finally, he notes that though the journey may take him to a far and distant location, he believes it would be profitable because it will afford him the opportunity to meet his pilot. Metaphorically speaking, the journey is actually death.
Therefore, “Crossing the Bar” relates the poetic persona’s preoccupation with the coming of death, an inevitable phenomenon. Instead of the usual fright and anxiety that may display at the approach of death, the poetic persona faces death calmly.
The tone of the poem depicts neither fear nor distress.
At the literal level, the “bar” in this context is a nautical term for a ridge of sand formed at the shore, by moving tides. At the metaphorical level, the “bar” refers to crossing the threshold from mortality into another realm of experience possibly immorality.
Lines 1 – 4 This stanza begins by drawing attention to the temporal setting and the poetic persona’s moment of awareness. He becomes aware of the inevitable journey ahead of him following “one clear call” (1 – 2).
The call comes on a certain evening while the persona beholds a star in the gathering darkness in the sky. The “Sunset and evening star” act as a reminder for the speaker that it is time for the journey, he wishes for a clement weather or peaceful passage.
Thus, this first stanza introduces the setting of the poem. It relates the fact that the end of a period is at hand. The word “sunset” and “evening star” denote a drawing to a close, the poetic persona realizes that his life is gradually drawing to a close, as he nears the end of his days on earth.
The second line asserts that the poetic persona has been summoned, he has received a call to which he must give head.
The poetic persona tells that the call is a clear one; it is an unmistakable call that must be promptly answered. The exclamation mark at the end of line 2 emphasizes the importance of the call.
Lines 3 – 4 present the wishes of the persona. He wishes that there would be no morning of the bar, when he goes on a sea voyage, as he proceeds to answer the call.
Lines 5 – 8 This stanza continues and re-emphasizes the poetic persona’s wish for a clement weather in the course of his impending voyage.
He looks forward to a tide that moves as if it is asleep. Usually, turbulence in the movement of the sea occurs when sea creatures are hyperactive or other elements like the wind force them out of their position in water. Realizing this, the persona wishes for a tide which comes after such creatures and returned to the “boundless deep”(1 . 3).
The first stanza already relates that the persona is ready to set forth, in order to heed the call. The second stanza presents the persona’s wish for a favorable condition for the voyage.
Seafarers usually long for a full tide that would make the climbing of the sandbar easy and uneventful. When such a full tide sweeps the ship across the sandbar, there would be “no moaning of the bar” (1.3).
The last line denotes the destination of the moving ship. the poetic persona affirms that the voyage is a homeward one, only that this home is extraterrestrial in nature.
Lines 9 – 12 These lines, beginning with “Twilight in the evening bell”(1.9), draw attention to the time of the poetic-persona’s meditation After twilight, naturally darkness falls.
Apparently, the darkness is equated with the persona’s departure since darkness will render him invisible. He hopes that his departure will not cause any kind of sadness or wailing from his loved ones.
This 9th line, “twilight and evening bell”, reiterates the imagery of a closing, an ending. Here, the poetic persona contemplates what happens after a voyage to the land of the unknown.
He relates that after the transition from life to death, there would be “the dark” (1.10), which symbolizes all that is unknown about the next life.
Lines 11 – 12 state the persona;s wish for an uneventful death. He wishes that there would be no sadness and sorrow when he finally departs this life.
The word “embark” (1.12) depicts that the persona is getting off from this present life and entering into another realm, another phase of experience.
These lines highlight the fact that death is transition from one realm of living to another. The persona notes that the end of this life is beginning of another one.
Lines 13 – 16 Here, it is noted that the poetic persona’s journey is such that time and space cannot limit. However, it is still worthwhile because it will afford him the chance to “see my Pilot face to face” (1.15).
The pilot in this context refers to God, whom Tennyson apparently acknowledges as his Guide. In this last stanza the poetic persona contemplates his destination and what he would do and see there.
He realizes that the transition might bear him into a place that is far and unknown and one that he is not familiar with but he hopes to see his Pilot in this unknown land.
In this stanza, death is figuratively captured as “the flood” (1.13) that translates a person from one phase of existence to another.
The last line, line 14, “when I have crossed the bar”, again relates the certainty of the poetic persona’s approaching death. He faces his phase of life with courage, hope and equanimity.
LANGUAGE AND STYLE
8. Diction (Time Register)