30 December 2013

Poem of the Week 2014/1

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 though 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

It isn't quite 2014 yet, but this is a poem about transition, so it will serve to carry us forward past the last few days of 2013.

As with Rich's Diving Into the Wreck, this is on its surface a poem about maritime activity, but even more clearly, barely a fraction of an inch below the surface, it is about something else; perhaps I should write Something Else, since clearly, in both poems, something deeply significant is implied. Sunset and evening star, twilight and evening bell, and the dark, and the farewells: these signal an end to an earthly life, and the poem explores a passage from one state of existence to another, or, more exactly, a return from one state of existence to a place of deeper origin. In the atmosphere created by these words, the use of bourne (meaning a region) in the first line of the fourth stanza will bring to our minds Hamlet's description of death, in his suicide soliloquy (Hamlet, Act III, scene 1, ll 56-89), as "The undiscovered country, from whose bourne / no traveler returns." The sea, throughout human history, has been a place of uncertain returns. Fathomless, vast, and mysterious (and how much more so in the nineteenth century, before the age of deep-sea exploration), the sea is an earthly equivalent of the universe, a vast region like a physical manifestation of our unanswerable metaphysical questions, surrounding us, sustaining us, reminding us of our ultimate insignificance but also connecting us with larger forces. There is no indication of a destined land for the speaker, when he finally embarks; he will simply be carried farther and farther out on the flood. The sea, the "boundless deep," is here seen as itself the destination, as "home," though an unknown one, and the waves returning back from the shores are described as "turn[ing] again home."

What is the bar that he must cross? I'm going to excerpt the Merriam-Webster definition, because I like the way it's phrased:

2:  something that obstructs or prevents passage, progress, or action: as
c :  a submerged or partly submerged bank (as of sand) along a shore or in a river often obstructing navigation

What I like about this definition, in the context of this poem, is that it emphasizes the obstructive implications of "bar," instead of just stating that it can be a submerged bank near a shore. The bar is a difficulty that must be overcome; clearly, these difficulties are much on the poet's mind: the bar is mentioned in the title, and in the last line, and much of this brief poem is taken up with a wish that the tides might be high enough for smooth sailing past it, smooth enough so that the waves seem asleep. This is one of the great Tennysonian themes, the pull of sleep and languor and semi-stupefied dreaminess against the need to move forward and take action – no wonder he admired Virgil, another melancholy singer of another imperial power.
I take it that the bar would moan when the tides are low enough for it to emerge, so the waves lap and splash against it, and the wind hits against it, making it difficult to navigate past it. In addition, the idea of moaning connects us to mourning and wailing, which, like "the sadness of farewell," the speaker is hoping to avoid, though he realizes he can do no more than urge – he uses a non-imperative may when expressing the wish that these things be avoided. This poem may at first appear very definite, but it is actually one of great uncertainty: no moaning of the bar, and smooth sailing, and no sad farewells, are all things he is wishing for, not necessarily things he can demand, or things that he will get. He doesn't know when he will embark. He doesn't even know where he's going – the flood "may bear him far" but the use once again of may indicates that he doesn't really know, and it's not something he controls. In fact he hasn't been in control at any point; there is a Pilot, an unnamed, mysterious guiding force, who has been in charge all along. In the context of the life transition suggested by the poem, the Pilot pretty clearly seems to be God, or a God substitute, and the ending may sound like a Victorian expression of solid faith, but we have seen by now how slippery may can be. Note that the speaker does not say he shall see, or he trusts he will see, or he knows he will see the Pilot – no, he merely and modestly hopes that he will see the Pilot – which leaves open the possibility that he will not see the Pilot face to face, or even that there is, in truth, no Pilot to be seen in any form. He can only hope. A frequent stereotype of the Victorians is that they are stodgy industrious optimists, but here the poet they took to their hearts is expressing the deep religious and philosophical uncertainties that tormented the age.

For the new year, here's hoping – I was going to add more, but what more do I need to add? Here's hoping.

A hat tip to Sibyl for suggesting this poem. I took this from Tennyson: A Selected Edition, edited by Christopher Ricks, though I think any selection of Tennyson's poems or of nineteenth-century English poetry would include it; immediately upon its publication in 1889 it was seen as a culmination of Tennyson's work, and he wanted it printed as the final poem in all collections of his work. He said he wrote it in about twenty minutes; sometimes these things crystallize deep down and spring forth suddenly like that.


Lisa Hirsch said...

Using the word "fathomless" to describe the sea: deliberate or your subconscious making the perfect choice?

Patrick J. Vaz said...

deliberate, though I should credit my subconscious for first suggesting the word

Sibyl said...

OH! Thank you so much! Cin cin and Happy New year!

Sibyl said...

And also. Since I was a Victorian poetry specialist in college, this poem came up in class after class, and your exegesis is as good as any I ever heard. Crossing the Bar may be my favorite Tennyson, and I think exactly because there is that lack of certainty.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Thank YOU very much! Thanks for the kind words, and a happy new year to you too