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In today’s class, we will be talking about reading and analyzing non-African poetry: ”Crossing the Bar” by Alfred Lord Tennyson. Enjoy the class!
Reading and Analyzing Non-African Poetry: ”Crossing the Bar” by Alfred Lord Tennyson
THEMES IN THE POEM
Literally, the poem is about someone’s intention or beckoned to undertake a journey on the sea. Figuratively, however, it is about someone realizing the approach of his death. The “Sunset” and “evening” referred to in the poem actually mean that period of life when man’s instinct tells him that the end of his existence on the earth is imminent. Although this usually happens at an old age, it can also happen before such a time. The poetic persona presents an attitude which does not suggest a typical fear of death attitude which many usually have. He looks forward to death, a journey of no return. He, however, expresses a desire for a peaceful death when he notes: “And may there be no moaning of the bar/ But such a tide as moving seems asleep”. The sadness and wailing which usually attend people’s death are also detested by the poet. He hopes no such conducts would attend his death. In the poem, death is not conceived as the end of life or the end of everything. It is seen as a journey and a transition from one plane of existence to another. This is perhaps while the poet does not want his death to be attended by sadness. The fact that life continues after death is evidenced in the poet’s hope that he will see his ”Pilot face to face“ after “Crossing the Bar”. As universally believed and accepted, death is presented as inevitable. It is a sure thing in the life of every creature. This is underscored by the poet’s use of the adverbial “When” each time he talks about death. It can therefore be asserted that “Crossing the Bar” is also a poem about the transience of death. The poem presents a poetic persona who sees his death approaching and faces it with courage and hope. The poem attests to the fact that this life as we know is not external. The poem relates that all things would soon Fade and pass away. The poem underscores the fact that man is a mortal being; hence, he will face death sooner or later. Just as there is “one clear call” for the poetic persona, everyman’s clear call will eventually come. The poetic persona speaks with certainty in regards to his death and translation into another realm of existence.
Hope is an important theme of the poem and it is expressed in each of the first stanzas making up the poem. In the stanzas, this theme is noticed where the poet recognizes impending death but hope that when it eventually comes, it would not be attended by any form of agitation or pain. This hopeful desire is re-inscribed in the second stanza where the poet likens the kind of circumstance of his desired death to “a tide as moving seems asleep”, that is a relatively peaceful one. The note of optimism also comes across as desire in the poem is also seen as an expression, “And may there be no sadness of farewell, When I embark”. The most expressive and emphatic hope is found in the last two lines of the poem where the persona says he hopes to see his “Pilot fact-to-face” after crossing the bar. With this last expression, we have a hopeful view of death presented in the poem. Death is made to appear attractive, rather than frightening. The poem shows the courage exhibited by the poetic persona in the face of death. He accepts the impending call with tranquility. He is neither agitated nor afraid. Although the poetic persona perceives that the end of his pilgrimage on earth is at hand, he is not frightful, rather, he looks forward to meeting his Pilot and seeing the one who steered the course of his life, face to face. The poetic persona “preaches” a calm acceptance of death and dying since they are inevitable components of this life.
POETIC TECHNIQUES IN THE POEM
The entire poem is one long metaphor that offers a meditation on the inevitability of death. Ordinarily, the poem reads like a piece on a proposed sea voyage. A close reading however reveals that the journey in question is actually one to the land of the dead. Besides presenting the entire poem as a metaphor, specific words, phrases and ideas in the poem are used metaphorically. Form the very first line where the poet talks about “Sunset and evening star”, metaphor is employed. The idea of sunset and evening refer to old age when it steadily becomes certain that exist in the earthly realm is coming to an end. The word “Twilight” in line 9 also has the same metaphorical meaning. The idea of “evening bell” in the same line is also suggestive of the fact that the time is up. In the evening or at twilight people naturally stop work and return home. After the “evening bell” comes “the dark”, is also another metaphor, meaning death. Further examples of metaphor in the poem can be seen in the expressions: “moaning of the bar”, “sadness of farewell”, “bourne of Time and Place”, “crossed the bar”, “my pilot” while the first two expressions refer to death and God respectively. The idea of “flood” carrying the poetic persona far away is also metaphorical of death. The journey to be embarked upon by the poetic persona is also metaphorical because it refers to death.
Closely linked to metaphor is the use of symbolism in the poem. Some of the instances of metaphorical representations in the poem are also symbolically relevant. Such temporal references by words like “sunset”, “evening” and “twilight” are symbolic of death. The “bar” that the persona looks forward to the crossing is symbolic of what divides life and death. Traditional beliefs have it that a man’s life consists of three seasons – morning, afternoon and evening or night. Images of sunset and twilight clearly depict that the end of the persona’s days is at hand. Phrases such as “no moaning of the bar”, “full of sound and foam” and evening bell” invite the reader to participate in the actions of the poem by listening to and also imagining the poetic persona’s experiences. Words such as “tide” and “foam” produce images that enable the reader to share in the poetic persona’s feelings. Nautical images also abound in the poem. Such words as “deep”, “sea” and “tide” all serve to create a vivid background and setting for the poem.
The use of imagery in the poem occurs in two broad ways, which are visual and audio. The visual form can be further classified into maritime imagery. The poet makes use of several sea and water-related registers. These words are bar, tide, flood, boundless deep, sea, foam and embark. The words, in combination, easily evoke the idea or picture of a harbor and an impending voyage. More importantly, they draw attention to the physical setting of the poem. The use of time-related words such as “evening”, “sunset” and “twilight” also suggests the temporal setting of the poem. At the literal level, it suggests that the poetic persona’s meditation as seen in the poem takes place in the evening hours. At the figurative level, it points to a period or stage of the poet’s life, especially in terms of age. Audio imagery is equally prevalent in the poem. From words such as “moaning”, “sound foam”, “evening bell” to “call for me” and sadness of farewell”, the reader’s sense of hearing is mentally activated and tends to perceive these sound-related actions. For instance, “moaning” engenders a perception of painful sound while “evening bell” evokes the ominous sound, which signals the death of a person in a Christian community.
There are some instances of personification in the poem. In line 3, the poetic persona talks about “moaning of the bar”. The bar, which refers to the sandbar that is usually mounted at the seashore to prevent sea waves from overflowing its banks, certainly does not moan, just as tides lack the attribute of sleeping. In lines 5 and 12, these statements, “But such a tide as moving seems asleep” and “The flood may bear me far” respectively show the use of personification by the poet. The tide and the flood are personified to further deepen the comparison of the vast sea through which the protagonist must travel to his destination in the world of the unknown. The expressions are particularly significant for their function in the overall conception of the entire poem as a metaphorical piece.
In lines 2 and 6 of the poem, we have the sounds /k/ and /t/ alliterate respectively. Line 2 reads “And one clear call for me” while Line 6 reads “Too full for sound and foam”. The distinctness engendered by the prominence of pitch that results from a repeat of /k/ in line 2 underscores the beckoning significance of the “Sunset and evening star” in the previous line. The sound /f/ in the second example emphasizes the idea of fullness implied in the expression. The repetition of these sounds also enhances the lyrical quality of the poem.
- Analyze the content of the poem “Crossing the Bar.”
- Comment on how the poet sees death.
- Discuss the use of poetic devices in the poem.
In our next class, we will be talking about Reading and Analyzing Non-African Poetry: Faceless by Amma Darko. We hope you enjoyed the class.
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