21 pages 42 minutes read

Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Crossing the Bar

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1889

A modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, SuperSummary offers high-quality Study Guides with detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, and more.

Summary and Study Guide


“Crossing the Bar” (1889) examines the notion of a Christian death; not so much how a Christian dies but rather how a Christian ought to die—calmly, quietly, looking forward to at last meeting the God that has directed their life and given it both purpose and meaning. Nearing the age of 80 and having just survived his own near-brush with death, Alfred, Lord Tennyson here offers a meditation—an extended metaphor—to explain how, even if he does not look forward to death (that would be morbid), he does not fear it.

The poem never actually mentions death by name. The metaphor Tennyson uses, a small, sturdy ship heading out of harbor at twilight and crossing over the sandbar that separates the harbor from the open sea, suggests the passage every person faces as we each in our own time cross over from life not necessarily to death—Tennyson is not quite so despairing—but rather from life as we know it to the tantalizing mystery of the afterlife. At the time of the poem’s publication, Tennyson was the most respected poet of his time; he was serving as the country’s Poet Laureate. Here he teaches his massive audience how to face death, insinuating that death itself is a hobgoblin for little minds and thin souls.

Poet Biography

The story of Alfred Tennyson’s improbable, if meteoric, rise to international prominence as the poetic giant of Victorian England is one of the most familiar in the canon of 19th century British literature. Tennyson was born in 1809 in the tiny village of Somersby near the North Sea some two hours west of London; his father was a cleric with a drinking problem as well as mental instability. Tennyson, by nature socially awkward, distinguished himself as a gifted student and a voracious reader, particularly the epic works of the great poets in Antiquity. Tennyson was awarded a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge, which he won through a poem he submitted to a competition. While at Cambridge, he met Arthur Hallam, the de facto leader of a tight coterie of aspiring poets and artists. The friendship would have a profound impact on Tennyson long after Hallam’s sudden death in 1833.

By then, Tennyson had begun publishing his own verse, two volumes in the early 1830s alone. But his verse was received indifferently. Critics, although admiring Tennyson’s skillful metrics, dismissed his poems as too philosophical, too abstract. Over the next decade, Tennyson, unhappy with such criticism and reeling from Hallam’s death and now facing poverty after his father’s death, withdrew from the public and began crafting as a kind of therapy what would become the cantos of In Memoriam. He struggled with eccentric homeopathic treatments designed to address his deepening melancholy but found peace only in his writing. His collection, Poems, published in 1842, secured Tennyson sufficient financial security at last. He married and grew more confident in his position as poet. In 1850 In Memoriam was published to lavish praise, most notably garnering the attention of Queen Victoria who found Tennyson’s affirmation of the Christian God in the face of devastating grief a great comfort as she struggled to adjust to the death of her Prince Consort Albert in 1861. When the much-revered Poet Laureate William Wordsworth, the iconic architect of British Romanticism, died at the age of 80 in 1850, Victoria herself pushed for Tennyson to be appointed Poet Laureate.

Now in his mid-forties, Tennyson was among the most popular and respected (and wealthiest) poets in England. By contemporary standards he was a celebrity, his distinctive beard, flowing cape, and heavy frame making him a fixture in British pop culture. Over the next four decades Tennyson completed many of his signature and most frequently recited works, most notably “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” as well as a series of formidable volumes retelling the Arthurian legends. Well into his 70s, Tennyson conducted public readings in both England and America in which he gave dramatic voice to his own works always to thunderous applause. In 1884, Victoria elevated her favorite poet to a peerage; Tennyson, the son of a dipsomaniac village minister, became Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

During a vacation trip to his favorite retreat on the Isle of Wight in the English Channel, Tennyson came down with a mysterious intestinal flu that nearly killed him. Upon recovery, he penned “Crossing the Bar,” and, although he would write more verse, he insisted to his editors that any future collection of his must end with “Crossing the Bar."

He died at the age of 84 on October 6, 1892, according to urban legend, while propped up in bed reading Shakespeare. A nation grieved over what felt like the passing of an era. Tennyson was interred in Poets’ Corner in London’s Westminster Abbey, considered the highest tribute any British poet can be given.

Poem Text

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.

Tennyson, Lord Alfred. “Crossing the Bar.” 1889. Poetry Foundation.


Strictly speaking, “Crossing the Bar” lacks a plot; there is no specific speaker or identifiable real-time, real-world setting. It is more like a hymn (indeed it has been transcribed into a magisterial Anglican hymn). The speaker, presumably Tennyson, shares not so much his anticipation of death but rather his anticipation of the afterlife which can only be secured through the passage of death. Although because of the extratextual biographical frame, the poem appears to be speaking to those who in old age have begun to make peace with the fast approach of death, nothing in the poem limits its consoling message of courage to any specific age group. Death comes for us all—death is always intrusive and premature. Tennyson, as his era’s most respected public poet, extends a message of hope, yes, but a message of caution as well. Be ready, the poem says; you can be summoned to the journey into death at any moment.

Drawing on his familiarity with the inner harbor of the Isle of Wight off the coast of southern England and specifically The Solent, the narrow strait that separates the island from the mainland, Tennyson constructs his metaphor of passing from life to the afterlife using that geographical configuration. We begin with the rapid approach of nighttime. “Sunset and evening star / And one clear call for me! (Lines 1-2). The exclamation point suggests that the speaker is not despairing or fearful. Death, after all, cannot be stopped or stayed. The exclamation point suggests perhaps reading those opening two lines with a kind of giddy expectation, like someone about to embark finally on a long-anticipated journey.

It is sunset, and the day is done. With the approach of night, the poet feels an urgent call from the sea, a beckoning. He is in fact ready to sail. He does not resist nor does he complain nor is he sad. It is time. He only hopes the sea itself will be quiet, calm, that the tide will be full and heavy (“too full for sound and foam” [Line 6]) so that the boat’s passage over the sandbar that separates the harbor from the sea will not be noisy or tempestuous. He hopes for a gentle crossing, that the sea itself while “moving seems asleep” (Line 5). Although the poet recognizes that the tide of the sea will perpetually move into the harbor and then back out, his voyage will be one direction. He is heading out to sea.

“Twilight and evening bell / And after that the dark!” (Line 10-11). As night inevitably descends and the voyage gets underway, the speaker is excited over the journey, indicated by the exclamation mark. He hopes no one will mourn his departure: “And may there be no sadness of farewell” (Line 11). He cautions those he leaves behind, “the flood may bear me far” (Line 13). He assures them he will not return. But far from despairing over that goodbye and the implications of the vastness of time and place into which he is setting off, the speaker celebrates the tantalizing premise that now, at last, he hopes to “see my Pilot face to face” (Line 14). The capital letter suggests that this Pilot, the entity directing the entire voyage, is no less than God.

In the closing lines, Tennyson affirms the reality of the soul, that some undefinable something that survives “the crossing of the bar,” a something real-if-mysterious that clears the sandbar and continues on into a broader and bigger voyage, an ocean that defies time and place and offers nothing less than a new beginning, a new journey.