‘Crossing The Bar’

IT was written in the space of only twenty minutes, but it will endure as long as men cling to faith and cherish good literature.

I am referring to the poem ‘Crossing the Bar’ from the pen of the nineteenth century poet Laureate, Alfred Lord Tennyson.

A new biography of the great poet was published last year by Chatto and Windus, from the pen of Professor John Batchelor.

Tennyson, we learn, was born into a large family in a Lincolnshire rectory where his father exercised a long, but not particularly happy, ministry.

During his Cambridge days, Tennyson formed friendships with fellow-students who were destined to take centre stage in Victorian England, among them the brilliant four-time Prime Minister, William Ewart Gladstone.

Alfred was never anything other than a poet, a life of reflection and writing made possible through the generosity of kindly relatives, and a pension granted at the behest of Gladstone.

His latest biographer paints Tennyson ‘warts and all’, highlighting his egocentrism and shrewd business sense; as well as the inordinate secretarial burdens he laid upon his wife.

Even when his royalties made him a wealthy man, he still held on to the £300 a year government pension which had set him up many decades before.

Those who know even a little about Tennyson will know the striking poems, ’The Lady of Shalott’, ‘The charge of the Light Brigade’ and the jingoistic ‘The Revenge’.

Perhaps his most famous poem is ‘In Memoriam’, a lengthy lament for his death undergraduate friend, Arthur Hallam.

Though reared in a rectory Tennyson was not a regular church-goer, although his wife Emily was a devout believer in a rather rigid creed.

His own scepticism was expressed in lines from ‘In Memoriam’; “there lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds”.

The publication of Charles Darwin’s, ‘Origin of Species’ raised further doubts, although when Tennyson once said to the famous scientist, “Your theory of evolution does not make against Christianity,” Darwin reportedly replied, “No, certainly not”.

But as years advanced, Tennyson grew more open to spiritual things. In October 1889, when a boat was bringing him the short distance across the Solent and over the sandbar to his home of the Isle of Wight, he composed the lyric that became known as ‘Crossing the Bar’.

It came in a moment, Tennyson said, and he directed that it be placed last in all editions of his poems, a last word of faith and hope.

The first verse faces the inevitable closing of life and runs:

“Sunset and evening star, and one clear call for me,

“And may there be no moaning at the bar, when I put out to sea”.

The final verse strikes a note of assurance:

“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 crossed the bar”.

May that be the assurance of us all.