The sunset and evening star have come; it is time to go to sea. The fullness of the tide will peacefully draw home the speaker. Soon it is even later: twilight and the evening bell, and then darkness. It truly is time to go, without sadness. The stream may take him far beyond “Time and Place,” hopefully to his ultimate destination where he will see his “Pilot face to face” after crossing the bar.
This short but evocative poem is often placed at the end of volumes of Tennyson’s poems, as he requested. He wrote it in 1889 when he was 80 years old and recovering from a serious illness at sea, crossing the Solent from Aldworth to Farringford on the Isle of Wight, off the mainland of England. It is said that Tennyson composed it in twenty minutes. Tennyson’s illness and old age may have contributed to this very personal and memorable meditation on death.
The poem contains four stanzas of four lines each, with a traditional ABAB rhyme scheme. It is written as an elegy, utilizing an extended metaphor of a sailor crossing the sandbar between the tidal area and the sea to represent a human being passing from life to existence beyond death.
The poem opens by evoking the fall of night, a reference to the poet being in the twilight of his years. The evening star points his way, and he feels the “clear call” of death. He is almost ready; the poem is tinged with excitement and acceptance. He expects the tide will be full, carrying him smoothly and peacefully out of life, just as it carried him in. This process reflects his internal contentment with his absorption into the natural process of life and death. There should be “no moaning” when the time finally comes.
In the last two stanzas, the time has come; it is moments away from darkness. He expects no sadness, whether it is his or that of others, when he departs. The reason not to mourn is that he has hope to see his Pilot, that is, God, face to face once he has passed into the afterlife.
As many critics and readers have observed, this poem contains many of the same themes and images that the poet has used throughout his oeuvre. There is the sea voyage, the solitary mariner, the patterns of life and death, and the setting sun. Thus it combines themes from “Ulysses” and “Tithonus,” as well as other poems (including an allusion to Donne’s “Meditation 17,” from which “For Whom the Bell Tolls” is taken), to provide a final statement about death. In “Ulysses,” the hero yearns for life despite approaching death and fights vigorously against the quiet, complacent passing into the afterlife or even the nothingness that Tithonus would welcome. As critic David Sonstroem notes, “Tithonus” is about “rest and stasis rather than adventure and motion, where “adventure or aspiration is undesirable and unnatural.” Tithonus can no longer appreciate the journey or contemplate his existence with any hopefulness, whereas the poet of “Crossing the Bar” expresses optimism because he not only will reach the end but also may find what lies beyond.
Indeed, in “Crossing the Bar,” death is peaceful and natural, a welcome and fitting pause to a life lived well. In other poems that use a sea voyage as a metaphor for death, Tennyson presents it as more disturbing, more confusing; “The Lady of Shalott,” “Morte d’Arthur,” and “Lancelot and Elaine” are all examples of the poet not yet seeing such a voyage as peaceful. Sonstroem writes that “all these contradictions [among the earlier poems] vanish, yet all the allusions to the earlier poems retain their relevance: Tithonus’ longing for death is to be granted, yet the death is seen in terms of Ulysses’ desire—a sea-voyage of discovery.”
Some writers have chosen to see a bit of Hallam in the Pilot; after all, reflecting on his friend Hallam's death guided so many of Tennyson’s thoughts about death. But given Tennyson’s cultural context, it is very likely that the identity of the Pilot is the Christian God. Jesus is considered the pilot of the Church and guides the Christian’s life. Seeing God face to face is a Biblical theme. Furthermore, the wordplay of “crossing” a “bar” suggests the cross of Jesus, the transformational event that, in Christianity, enables people to be reconciled to God and reach Heaven, which is beyond the Earth’s “Time and Place.”