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Like just about every other poem in the English language, "Crossing the Bar" is about death. See, Tennyson spent nearly forty years on top of his game as Poet Laureate of Great Britain. After this stretch, he was feeling the heat in 1889. He was 80 years old (that's pretty old, even by our standards today), and he knew he didn't have a whole lot of time left.
Sounds like he was ripe for a near-death experience, right? Right. Legend has it that during a short voyage across the Solent—the body of water that separates mainland England from The Isle of Wight (where Tennyson had a home)—Tennyson got sick. Really really sick. He eventually recovered, but this illness was enough to remind the poet laureate that nobody lives forever. And what does a great poet do when he has a brush with death? He writes a great poem of course. Hence, "Crossing the Bar."
In this short, intense little ditty, Tennyson reflects on his own impending kicking of the bucket. At the ripe old age of 80, he knows that he'll "cross the bar" soon enough, but he doesn't seem freaked out or bummed. In fact, he sounds kind of confident—serene, even. The guy's as ready as he'll ever be. Maybe that confidence helps explain why Tennyson insisted that "Crossing the Bar" be the last poem in any volume of his poetry published during and after his lifetime. This, ladies and gentlemen, was his swan song.
They say that nothing in life is certain except death and taxes, but here's the thing. Sure, tax returns may seem incomprehensible, but at the end of the day, there's an order and a logic to the whole process. Taxes are knowable. Death? Not so much.
To channel Captain Obvious, death is scary. We don't know what's on the other side. Sure, we have our guesses, stories, beliefs, legends, and scriptures. But no one—and we mean no one—knows for sure. And, as Captain Obvious would say, the unknown is scary, too.
But as with most things, attitude is everything. Death might be one of the most terrifying facts of life, but if we accept it, and if we choose to look at it in a different light, we can conquer that fear. Tennyson's here to show us how.
"Crossing the Bar" is about not only the inevitability of death, but also about accepting it, about looking at death as not an end, but only a transition. There's no denying that the poem is a little sad, but the speaker seems pretty mellow, even peaceful, if you think about it. For him, death isn't just about heartbreak and tragedy. It's also about hope.
In the poem's final lines, he tells us that he might finally get to meet his "Pilot" (God) "face to face." So for him, death isn't the shutting down of the body, but rather a journey that might lead to a new beginning. It's an exploration, an adventure, and there's no ticket necessary.
Alfred Tennyson at Victorian Web
Tennyson was King Victoria with his perfect meter, proper manners, and penchant for rhyme.
For a brief rundown of Tennyson's life and times, check out this short bio and collection of poems.
The Victorian Period, an Overview
The Norton Anthology of English Literature's overview of the period during which Tennyson lived and wrote is a handy way to get a handle on the era that made the man.
Crossing the Choir
Tennyson's poem has become a Christian hymn in some circles.
Tennyson Reads "Crossing the Bar"
Okay, so obviously that's not true. But someone creepily animated his face in this video, so it looks like he's reading the poem.
Tennyson's Real Voice
One of the earliest audio recordings ever made was of Tennyson reading his famous poem "The Charge of the Light Brigade." You might have to strain to make out the words, but it's pretty cool nonetheless.
This Brit reads the poem with the sounds of the sea in the background.
This recording has the words so you can read along. Just in case you're zoning out.
He looks about ready to cross the bar, if you know what Shmoop means.
Here's a famous drawing of the young Alfred, Lord Tennyson, in his less surly years.
So it turns out that when some people cross the bar, they wind up with some primo real estate in Westminster Abbey.
And it's not the open ocean. It's on the Isle of Wight.
Tennyson and Fam
Instagrammed for your viewing pleasure.
Hungry for more? Have at this book.
The Complete Poetical Works
If Tennyson's suddenly your new favorite poet, you can read every poem he ever wrote, right here.