Crossing the Bar

Published on December 10, 2021 at 6:27 am by LEW

Looking toward Chesapeak Bay form Solomons Island“Crossing the bar” is an expression I have not thought about in few months. It is something that periodically comes back to me these days, generally in association with a death of someone I know. Something that happens much more frequently as you get older. Someone I know passed recently, and it had been several months since that had happened.

The expression was prominent in sea going services back when I served. I am not sure if the same was true for the other services. I know I can also find the words in the retirement magazine I get periodically, along with a list of retirees who have passed away. Is it strange that when I get this magazine I scan the lists to see if there was anyone I knew back in the days when I was active duty?

Today I have been thinking about the expression itself and where it came from. I never knew much about it, other than it was from a poem written by Tennyson back in the late 1800’s.

The poem, Crossing the Bar, consists of four stanzas in a traditional ABAB rhyming scheme. There are several end of life metaphors that can be found in this poem.

Evening, sunset, and twilight are all metaphors for a the end of life, as well as the end of a day. They are used much throughout literature and poetry. What I have found to be somewhat less common is the metaphor of passing over the bar.

The poem is from the perspective of one on a ship moving downriver to the ocean. A feature that forms where some rivers meet the ocean is a sandbar. Passing over the bar is moving from the river to the ocean.

The river of life is another common metaphor. The river is born inland and when it reaches the sea it ceases to be a river, joining with the ocean. This represents a transition of state from one form to another, or leaving ones life for whatever lies beyond. The ocean does imply something existing beyond the end of our lives.

Crossing the Bar

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.

Alfred Lord Tennyson, 1889

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