Crossing the Bar a Considered Elegy by Alfred Lord Tennyson

“Crossing the Bar” a Considered Elegy by Alfred Lord Tennyson

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Brief Introduction to Alfred Lord Tennyson

Alfred Lord Tennyson is widely regarded as one of the greatest poets of the 19th century. Born on August 06, 1809, in Somersby, Lincolnshire, England, where his father was the rector, Alfred was the fourth of twelve children. He was the first the 1st Baron Tennyson FRS, and was the successor to William Wordsworth as the Poet Laureate in 1850, during the Victorian era.

During his peak, Lord Tennyson was counted as one of the three most influential personalities, the other two being Queen Victoria and the then British Prime Minister William Gladstone. According to the Poetry Foundation,

“Alfred Lord Tennyson was born in the depths of Lincolnshire, the 4th son of the 12 children of the rector of Somersby, George Clayton Tennyson, a cultivated but embittered clergyman who took out his disappointment on his wife Elizabeth and his brood of children—on at least one occasion threatening to kill Alfred’s elder brother Frederick. The rector had been pushed into the church by his own father, also named George, a rich and ambitious country solicitor intent on founding a great family dynasty that would rise above their modest origins into a place among the English aristocracy.”

And as we know, George Tennyson Sr’s ambition of entering his lineage into the English aristocracy came true, with Lord Tennyson becoming the official poetic spokesman of Her Majesty herself. However, this came at a great cost since Alfred’s father suffered mental instability, which can be attributed to the pressure from his father, and this carried forward to his children as well. All of Alfred’s siblings who attained a mature age suffered from some kind of mental illness.

Lord Tennyson joined the Trinity College in 1827, University of Cambridge, where he was also a part of the Cambridge Apostles, an intellectual discussion society at the institute, that exists even today. A couple of years later, he won the prestigious annual award, Chancellor’s Gold Medal, at Cambridge, for one of his first poems. Subsequently, Lord Tennyson published his first collection of poems, titled Poems, Chiefly Lyrical, in 1830.

During his literary career, Lord Tennyson published numerous collections of poems, most famous of which are mentioned below:

Poems, Chiefly Lyrical (1930)
Poems (Two Volumes, (1833)
The Princess; A Medley (1847)
Maud: A Monodrama (1855-56)

Alfred Lord Tennyson was heavily influenced and inspired by the great poets of the Romantic Age, like Wordsworth, Keats, and Byron. Lord Alfred Lord Tennyson passed away on October 06, 1892, and is buried at the Westminster Abbey. His son, Hallam Tennyson became the 2nd Baron of Tennyson and also became the Governor-General of Australia. 

What is an Elegy?

According to the Oxford Dictionary, ‘an elegy is a sad poem, especially for someone who has died.’ In modern literature, an elegy is also referred to as a poem of serious reflection, or typically a lament for the dead.

In simple terms, an elegy is a poem that represents the human emotion of sadness, especially while remembering and mourning the deceased beloveds. No person in this world has passed without witnessing a loved one die, and therefore, sadness becomes, arguably, the common emotion among human beings. Poetry, which usually is a literary translation of human emotions, is has been a means of expressing grief and sorrow since times immemorial. Hence, classifying a poem as an elegy mustn’t be a difficult chore. 

Before we analyze Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Crossing the Bar in for being an elegy, I deem it fit to mention a few popular elegies by poets other than Tennyson:

O Captain! My Captain! – Walt Whitman
Fugue of Death – Paul Celan
Lycidas – John Milton
Blake’s Purest Daughter – Brian Pattern
Adonais – PB Shelley

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 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.

Explanation of Crossing the Bar

First Stanza:

“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,”

The poet says that he is seeing the sunset and an evening star in the sky, and is hearing a sound calling for him loud and clear. The setting of the evening is used as a metaphor for a life that’s about to end. This can be further approved by the next two lines. The poet wishes that the sandbar, the path of sand where the waves crash, shouldn’t be disturbed when he goes out to the sea. This means that he doesn’t want people to mourn his death.

Second Stanza:

“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.”

The poet further says that he wants the tides to carry him slowly so that there’s no sound made. This indicates that he wishes his death to be so quiet that no one is disturbed when he’s gone. He further says that this is what he wants when he returns to the unknown. Here, he is hinting that he wants to return to the great unknown, which he considers his true home, which is indicative of life after death.

Third Stanza:

“Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;”

The poet says that the evening bell indicates twilight, which will soon be followed by darkness. In these lines, he again uses metaphors to symbolize the end of his time, or, simply put, death. Like in the second stanza, the poet again emphasizes that there mustn’t be any sadness/disturbance when he goes. We may well assume that he doesn’t want to have any sad “goodbyes”.

Fourth Stanza:

“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.”

The poet corroborates what we discussed earlier by saying that he will be going too far away in time and place, floating the tide of death. However, he adds the wish to meet God Almighty who has been the pilot of the journey he is about to make across the sandbar. This means that the poet feels that it is God who is directing him to wither away and die.

Background & Structure of the Crossing the Bar

Lord Tennyson wrote Crossing the Bar in 1889, three years prior to his death, on his visit to the Isle of Wight. The poem was published in his collection, Demeter and Other Poems in the same year. Lord Tennyson was marred by severe illness at the time of writing, which is why he reflects on his own death. The poet was very fond of this poem and willed that despite a good number of poems written after it, his collection must be ended by this very poem. Crossing the Bar, therefore, can be treated as his chosen monologue before death.

Monument to Alfred Lord Tennyson on Tennyson Down, Isle of Wight
Monument to Alfred Lord Tennyson on Tennyson Down, Isle of Wight, (Source – Wikipedia)

Each of the poem’s four stanzas is a quatrain, with the classic ‘ABAB’ rhyming scheme. However, there’s no apparent meter to the poem. It also varies in length, its lines moving between four, six, and ten syllables. Each line of the poem is connected to the succeeding one, adding meaning to the ultimate message – his own death.

Crossing the Bar as an Elegy

To analyze Crossing the Bar as an elegy, I would like to present the features of an elegy, and then relate Lord Tennyson’s poem to it.

Focus on Expressing Emotions

Elegy, as discussed earlier, is a depiction of human emotions like sadness, grief, and sorrow. All of these are amply portrayed in Cross the Bar. For instance, in the 3rd & 4th lines of the first stanza, Tennyson speaks about the mourning of the sandbar, which is symbolic of the mourning of people over the death of their loved ones. Likewise, in the third stanza, the poet talks about bidding goodbye to beloveds and indicating how painful they can be. And as he is discussing his own death, he doesn’t want his near and dear ones to mourn and cry when he leaves for his ultimate journey.

Formal Language & Structure

An elegy, almost at all times, will obey formal linguistics. It may be an established rhyming scheme, interconnectedness of lines and stanzas, meters, etc. As we have seen in the previous section, Crossing the Lines follow most of these rules. It has a classic ‘ABAB’ rhyming scheme, and all of its lines are sequentially connected. And though there’s no apparent meter to the poem, it is quite akin to a ballad verse. Stanzas have varying lengths, with four, six, and ten syllables in different lines, though this doesn’t break the formal rules of an elegy.

Mourning the Passing Away of Life

Elegy is mostly written in connection with the death of someone loved, a family member, or a friend. While Tennyson, too, expresses the grief and sorrow around death, he does it a little differently. Instead of mourning others, he sketches his own death, anticipating how others would mourn when he passes away. Throughout the poem, he expresses his wish to pass away by making others cry or even disturbing them a bit. And though this is a unique setting, it stays true to this particular feature of an elegy.

Questions Life, Death, & Immortality

Besides depicting emotions, an elegy also discusses life, death, and immortality from a metaphysical perspective, adding a philosophical cloak to the poem. The poem Crossing the Bar excels in this regard. Tennyson discusses the course of his death, how he wants his death to be, indicating that he is ready to embrace the ultimate truth. However, what makes the poem even more special is the discussion on immortality. Tennyson considers death as a means of returning back to his true home, which is boundless/limitless. Likewise, He talks about God Almighty being the pilot of his life and death, and that he will meet the Pilot ultimately.

The above discussion, in my view, is sufficient to establish that Crossing the Bar by Alfred Lord Tennyson is a perfect elegy. However, to further my argument, I would like to present the views of literary critics regarding the poem. Jace Einfeldt, a literary expert working with the various literary magazines, including the CutBank Journal, the official magazine of the University of Montana, says in his Medium article,

“In ‘Crossing the Bar’, Tennyson sees the passing from life to death as something that all humans will experience whether they are wicked or righteous, and rather than giving a litany of things to do to be prepared, he simply offers hope.”

Likewise, in a discussion about the portrayal of death, life, and afterlife in their review of Crossing the Bar, popular digital literary magazine LitBug said,

“So, does the poem end on an assertion of faith? Or is there more to this than meets the eye?  The sense of certainty we have seen so far seems to be the certainty of the inevitable, not of the afterlife. In all instances, the definitive ‘When I’ is followed by ‘put out to sea’, ‘embark’ and ‘have crost the bar’ all of which effectively translate to death. It is the certainty of death, not the assurance of an afterlife.”

These two examples show that there’s a deep discussion about life & death, two key elements of an elegy, beneath multiple layers in Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Crossing the Bar.


Lord Tennyson’s favourite poem, Crossing the Bar is a perfect elegy, possessing all the essential elements to qualify as one. Secondly, the emotions portrayed in the poem are deep and multi-layered, which is a good reason why it continues to be a subject of study even after 120 years since it was written.

However, the most riveting conclusion that I have had after studying the poem through various sources and perspectives is Tennyson’s art of discussing and debating subjects as complex, metaphysical, and philosophical as life, death, afterlife, and immortality hidden beneath the multiple layers. While a macroscopic overview will help us understand the formal structure applied, the emotions expressed, and the topics discussed, a microscopic study reveals that there a lot going on within the poetry, and literary researchers will continue to strive and study Crossing the Bars and other great poetry of the great British poet.


Alfred, Lord Tennyson – Britannica
“Crossing the Bar” as Tennyson’s Poetic Signature – Jace Einfeldt on Medium
Alfred, Lord Tennyson – Poets.Org
Biography of Alfred Tennyson – Biography.Com
Crossing the Bar – Poetry Foundation
Elegy Poem Examples – Your Dictionary
Crossing the Bar Summary & Analysis – LitCharts
Alfred, Lord Tennyson – Poetry Foundation
Crossing the Bar by Alfred Tennyson: Summary – Englicist
Crossing the Bar by Alfred Tennyson: Summary & Analysis – LitBug

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