Friday, July 13, 2012

Crossing the Bar

Praise for the Lord #117

Words: Alfred Tennyson, 1889
Music: Lloyd O. Sanderson, 1935

N.B. There are several famous choral settings of this text, most notably by Hubert Parry, Charles Ives, and Joseph Barnby. The musical setting discussed here is by Lloyd O. Sanderson, copyrighted by Gospel Advocate in 1935 and to my knowledge used only among the Churches of Christ.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892), poet laureate of the United Kingdom and one of the most widely quoted poets of the English language, wrote this poem late in life and under somber circumstances. He was 80 years old, and became seriously ill while crossing the Solent (the strait between England and the Isle of Wight). According to his own account, the words "came in a moment." It was a very meaningful work to the elderly poet; before his death Tennyson instructed his son to place this text last in all publications of his poems.(Hill, 496)

For those of us from land-locked places, the concept of "crossing the bar" needs some explanation. Rivers that empty into the sea sometimes deposit an underwater wall of sediment where their currents meet the tidal forces. Over time this builds up into shoals or sandbars. This is both a blessing and a curse: the bar makes a natural harbor, deflecting the rougher forces of the outside seas, but it is often a formidable barrier to cross. Not only is its sounding depth affected by the interaction of the tide and the river flow, but its configuration is subject to change through the endless process of silting and erosion. The video below shows a dramatic bar crossing by a small fishing boat, which has to ride the incoming swells to pass over the bar into the harbor.

Given the complex and changing nature of such bar harbors, commercial vessels long ago began using local harbor pilots who come aboard to take the ships in and out. A shipwreck report on the loss of the Coila in 1885 indicates the critical nature of such operations. While waiting to cross the bar out of Poole Harbour into the English Channel, the Coila's master told the harbor pilot to press on ahead of schedule. The pilot warned that he did not believe the tide was high enough yet to give them depth to clear the bar, but the ship's master insisted they go ahead in spite of the risk. The Coila grazed the bar, inflicting damage below the waterline that eventually caused her loss at sea.

For Tennyson, his fellow Britons, and all other sea-faring peoples, the perils of crossing a bar were quite familiar. In the video above it is obvious that there is a point of no return when the pilot has committed to cross and will either pass safely over or meet disaster. For a boat leaving the harbor, as in Tennyson's poem, the same is true; once the ship has begun its crossing there is no turning back.

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 a sleep,
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 crossed the bar.

There is a very fine analysis of this poem written by a Cambridge student, Claire Wilkinson, that brought out a number of features I had never noticed. First is the finality with which Tennyson discusses his impending death. Each stanza uses the term "when"--"When I put out to sea," "When that . . . turns again home," "When I embark," "When I have crossed the bar." There is no "if" in his mind; it is a departure that may be delayed but never canceled. This is emphasized on a larger level by the openings of the first and third stanzas: "Sunset and evening star" give way to "Twilight and evening bell / And after that the dark!" He has seen the progression day by day throughout his life; it has always been so, and now he sees the same advance toward the close of his own life's day.

Wilkinson also notes the elements of uncertainty: "And may there be no moaning of the bar," "And may there be no sadness of farewell;" the poet wishes this to be so, but does not know this will be the case. These are elements of uncertainty because they lie within the free will of the poet and his audience (suggested by "our" in the last stanza). In the final stanza, however, we read that "The flood may bear me far," and that the poet "hopes" to see his Pilot "face to face." These are beyond the control of the poet, and unknowable (at least in the fullest sense) until experienced.

Finally, Wilkinson notes the capitalization of just three words in this poem: "Time," "Place," and "Pilot," all of which occur in the final stanza. Time is passing in the poem, from sunset to twilight to darkness. Place is also in transition; it is a shifting, unseen shoal, right at the transition point from the known harbor to the unknown sea. Even the poetic rhythm Tennyson uses--a rambling arrangement of 6-, 10-, and 4-syllable lines--suggests the ever-evolving patterns of the waves. But the Pilot, introduced abruptly in the penultimate line, stands outside this cycle; He is the unseen second character in this story, whose role is well worth understanding.

Ms. Wilkinson closes her essay by inviting comment on who the Pilot might be. Some have suggested that Tennyson was speaking of Arthur Hallam, a fellow poet and close friend from his youth, whose death at the age of twenty-two grieved Tennyson the rest of his days. But the far more obvious explanation--though I do not fault Ms. Wilkinson for challenging us to draw conclusions for ourselves--is what Tennyson himself said. According to the poet, the Pilot is "that Divine and Unseen Who is always guiding us . . . The Pilot has been on board all the while, but in the dark I have not seen him."(Hill, 496)

This is not to say that Tennyson was a traditional Christian; in "Tennyson and religion," Ms. Wilkinson notes that the poet described himself at least once as a kind of "pantheist." But the image of the Pilot in the poem is very particular: He is a person, not a force; He can be known "face to face." And if "crossing the bar" is death, who better for the Harbor Pilot than Jesus Christ, who has made the crossing before? I wonder if Tennyson found himself, as many people do, looking again for comfort in the faith of his youth at the end of life's day.

Tennyson was absolutely right about one thing: we will all "cross the bar" someday. There is no "if," but only "when," in regard to that statement. "It is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment."(Hebrews 9:27) That is an appointment no one will miss; no one will even be late. Now, we may not wish to think about it; I do not like to contemplate the fact of my eventual death any more than anyone else. When I was a boy I used to assume for some reason that Jesus would come back before I died, and that I would not have to go that route myself; but as years pass and I go to more and more funerals, I realize that I have no more reason to suppose I will escape death by that means than any of the other billions who are living and have lived on this earth. I cannot cheat death, and there is no good in denying its reality. What I can do, is to "put my house in order"(2 Kings 20:1) so that I am ready when the time comes.

And what of the "moaning of the bar?" Some have interpreted this as the moaning of people who have come to see the ship off, who might gather near the bar, that being the furthest point to sea they could reach. This harks back to the earlier line of the "sadness of farewell." But in context, I believe it refers to the speaker's own experience--he explicitly says that, instead of a "moaning of the bar," he prefers "a tide as moving seems a sleep." He wishes for a peaceful transition; and I believe he is speaking of the experience of death itself, not of the reactions of others.

Perhaps Tennyson wished, as we sometimes hear expressed in prayer, for "a quiet hour in which to pass"--a death free from physical turmoil and suffering. But the entire poem is so reflective of the poet's frame of mind toward death, I would suggest that he really wishes for a calm spirit at the moment of departure--that he would not be "moaning of the bar," but instead surrender himself serenely into the hands of God.

Scripture gives us many scenes of the end of life, some noble and some ignoble; but when we are looking for examples of how to meet that appointment we all shall keep, we can do no better than those given by Jesus and His apostles who followed in His footsteps. Peter knew for years--ever since Jesus told him on the shore of Galilee--that he would die at the hands of men.(John 21:18-19) By the time of the writing of 2 Peter he could say, "I know that the putting off of my body will be soon, as our Lord Jesus Christ made clear to me."(2 Peter 1:14)

What then was his thinking about his impending death? "I think it right, as long as I am in this body, to stir you up by way of reminder . . . and I will make every effort so that after my departure you may be able at any time to recall these things."(2 Peter 1:13,15) He was busily working for the kingdom, doing what he could for the glory of God and the benefit of the church. There is no retirement plan in Christ's kingdom; we are at our posts until relieved. Age slows us down, but as long as we can teach and encourage, as long as we can pray, there is work to be done and we are needed!

The apostle Paul thought about his death frequently, not surprising for someone who seems always to have been just a step ahead of a lynch mob. I believe the key to Paul's serene attitude toward his mortality is revealed in his statement to the Christians at Philippi:
It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.(Philippians 1:20-24)
You cannot break a man like Paul; he cared about one thing only, and no amount of threatening, beating, or stoning could take it away from him. His only reservation about death was the loss of his usefulness to the cause of Christ in this world; other than that, he found it a gain in every way.

When I come to the end of my life, I pray that I will be able to face death like Paul. At the close of 2 Timothy, Paul sounds very much like a tired old man, but his words are still full of that martial vigor: "I have fought the good fight. I have finished the course. I have kept the faith."(2 Timothy 4:7) He never said that he had won every battle, or that he came in first in every race. But he kept the faith. He had fought as well as he could, and never abandoned the field; and whether he finished the race running, walking, or crawling, he crossed the finish line.

Of course our greatest example of all, in this as in all things, is Jesus Christ himself. And though we obviously cannot imitate Him in every aspect of His unique death, we can be comforted and advised by considering the attitude with which He approached it. He gave His disciples a preview of His distinctly different thinking when He said,
For this reason the Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of My own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from My Father."(John 10:17-18)
We do not have such mastery and foreknowledge of our own departures, but we can remind ourselves that death is a part of our Father's plan to bring us back to Him, and submit trustingly to His will just as Jesus did. Jesus did not cling to His life, begging for mercy; He "yielded up His spirit."(Matthew 27:50). He "bowed His head and gave up His spirit."(John 19:30) But consider first the last words Jesus spoke before this act: "Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit!"(Luke 23:46) This was a quote from Psalm 31:5, and at least as far back as the Mishnah was part of the prayers a faithful Jew would say every evening before going to sleep. One scholar notes,
The custom to pray before going to sleep reflects man's need for protection in a state of suspended consciousness and vulnerability, especially since sleep was held in ancient times to be similar to death.(Blumenthal)
Traditionally one would recite the Shema first (Deuteronomy 6) as a reminder of and recommitment to the Torah; but some rabbis held that those who studied the Torah daily were already in such a state, and needed only to recite the invocation from Psalm 31:5. Jesus, living as He did in constant subjection to and awareness of His Father's will, said only the customary bedtime prayer before giving up His life.

One of the saddest lines in all of poetry is from Dylan Thomas's famous poem about death: "Rage, rage against the dying of the light / Do not go gently into that good night." When all is finished, what does that attitude accomplish? What is gained? How much better to lay our heads down to sleep as little children, committing our spirits to God who has promised to keep us in His care? Here is my own desire for myself; and I believe this is what Tennyson's poem reaches for as well.

Finally, it is interesting to compare Tennyson's "Crossing the Bar" to the well-known hymn "Jesus, Savior, pilot me," written by Edward Hopper in 1871. Hopper speaks of Jesus as the Pilot who guides us home: "When at last I reach the shore / And the fearful breakers roar." Tennyson, however, speaks of the Lord as a Pilot who is taking us out from the familiar harbor into the unknown sea. Certainly both uses of the metaphor are valid and meaningful in their own ways; but "crossing the bar" to Tennyson is the beginning of the journey, not the end. This life is not the ocean, but just a harbor where we prepare for the great adventure, where "that which drew from out the boundless deep"--the eternal part of us, made in the image of our Father--"turns again home."

About the music:

My wife and I have a number of ongoing debates about music, some dating back to our courtship nearly 30 years ago. (These debates will never be resolved, but they do serve to sharpen one's thinking!) Many of these take the form of, "What is the best song by 'X'?" When it comes to Lloyd O. Sanderson, though, we have always been fairly well agreed: "Be with me, Lord" is his best song overall, in terms of its longstanding value to so many people, but his prettiest song, far and away, is his setting of Tennyson's "Crossing the Bar."

It reminds us that, though Sanderson is always associated with the more workaday materials of hymnals for congregational singing, he also had a background in classical choral music. He began his music career as a choir director for the Methodist Church in his home town, and in the 1920s directed the chorus at Harding University. He also made the most of the education opportunities that were available to him, taking college courses in music through Southwest Missouri State and the University of Arkansas as his work permitted.("Autobiography")

Sanderson's setting of "Crossing the bar" first appeared in Christian Hymns no. 1, published in 1935 by the Gospel Advocate in Nashville, Tennessee and by Firm Foundation in Austin, Texas. It was one of a number of new songs written by Sanderson, who was hard-pressed to fill out the hymnal given the Gospel Advocate's limited funds for purchasing copyright permissions. Ironically, these songs were (in my opinion) Sanderson's very best work!

What Sanderson accomplished in this setting is proof that the thoughtful application of a few simple, timeworn rules of thumb is the path to great craftsmanship and sometimes to exceptional brilliance. The opening phrase pair ("Sunset and evening star / And one clear call for me") give us first a plagal ("Amen") cadence, then an imperfect authentic cadence (ending on the tonic chord, but with MI in the soprano instead of DO--it doesn't sound quite as finished as it might). These are just short sallies away from the home key; but then the next phrase pair ("And may there be no moaning of the bar / When I put out to sea") brings us firmly to a cadence on the dominant chord of the key (SOL-TI-RE).

I am always hesitant to say what a composer was thinking, but I believe Sanderson may have been illustrating the text here; the opening is serene but in motion, then there is a determined move away from the home key--when we reach then end of the phrase "When I put out to sea," there is no question that we have left the tonic chord and are headed somewhere else!

In the second half of the setting, Sanderson builds the tension through each successive sub-phrase by the placement of the highest notes of the melody. We already heard the high "TI" or leading tone of the key on the word "I" in "When I put out to sea;" that TI is left hanging, begging to be resolved up to DO. Sanderson touches it again in the next phrase: "But such a tide as moving seems a sleep." He ups the ante in the phrase that follows, passing up DO to peak on RE: "Too full for sound or foam." Now comes the highest note of the entire piece, one step higher yet, then striding firmly back down the scale: "When that which drew from out the boundless deep." The final phrase ("Turns again home, turns home") is an anticlimax, actually monotone in the melody but with chords moving quietly underneath.

Now, did Sanderson intend to paint a picture of "crossing the bar" in the second half? A phrase reaches toward the top of the scale but falls short; another phrase reaches a little higher; then there is the triumphant third try that resolves into calm. I think this may well have been his plan. It is also interesting to see how well the words of the final pair of stanzas fit the music the second time around. Of course, Tennyson wrote his poem with that kind of parallelism; but Sanderson had the good sense to follow it!

There are only minor adjustments to the text here and there, particularly the repetition in the lines "Turns again home, turns home" and "When I, when I embark." In both cases Sanderson had to smooth out the irregularities of Tennyson's varying line lengths, in order to make the music fit both sets of words. Necessary and permissible, since the repetition of the music fits the parallels in the poetry!

I wish I could find a recording of this work to post here; if anyone knows of one (that can be used legally!) please link it in the comments section.


Hill, Robert W. Tennyson's Poetry. New York: Norton, 1971.

Wilkinson, Claire. "Practical criticism: Tennyson's 'Crossing the bar.'" Cambridge Authors. Cambridge University, 2012.

Wilkinson, Claire. "Tennyson and religion." Cambridge Authors. Cambridge University, 2012.

Blumenthal, H. Elchanan. "Night Prayer." Jewish Virtual Library. American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, 2012.

Sanderson, Lloyd O. "'The Lord has been mindful of me': an autobiography of L. O. Sanderson." Gospel Advocate 146/9 (September, 2004), pages 26-28.

1 comment:

  1. This is one of my favorite songs, but have never heard it sung in worship. I have listened to the other versions of the song and I don't think they measure up to the music that L.O.Sanderson gave it. I have searched several times for an acappella choral rendition of Sanderson's you know of one?