Sailors, Ships, and Shore Mates from the Great Lakes to the Great Barrier Reef
Alfred Lord Tennyson and the River Witham - Re-Crossing the Bar
English Poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson vividly illustrates the parallels between brooks, rivers, and the sea and human life in his “maritime” poems. He literally and figurately used the sea to navigate through his life and beyond.
Rivers and the Sea Are Central to Tennyson’s Life
In Lincolnshire where Tennyson lived in his early years, he developed a close relationship with the River Witham. In 1869, he built Aldworth, a French style Gothic house that stands on a ridge overlooking a forest south of Haslemere, with the English Channel glimmering in the distance. Faringford, his summer home on the Isle of Wight still operates as a luxury hotel.
The sea plays a central part in many of Tenneyson’s poems, including Ulysses, The Brook, and Break, Break, Break. One of his most famous “sea” poems is Crossing the Bar.
Harbor Bar Legends
A sandbar is a ridge of sand that currents build up along a shore. The waves must crash against the sandbar to reach the shore and the action of the waves creates a sound that can be described as the “moaning of the bar.”
There are legends about harbor bars from the fishing towns of western England. The “bar” is the sand bar across the entrance to a small harbor that keeps the water calm inside the harbor. In the days of sail, ships and fishing boats would leave the harbor as the tide withdrew. The legend of the moaning of the bar began when people heard the withdrawing tide making a moaning sound over the bar and began to interpret what the moaning sound meant. Some believed that the moaning foretold disaster. Others believed that it was a tribute to a person who had already died.
Old Harry and the “Moaning of the Bar”
In Ipswich, Massachusetts, old Harry Main had enjoyed a career of piracy, smuggling and blasphemy. Then he became a wrecker, luring ships to their destruction with false lights. The legend says that after he died he was sent to haunt Ipswich Bar where he had sent many ships to their doom. When the winds and the tide are rising together, people hear the moaning of the bar and they say, “Old Harry’s grumbling again.”
Alfred, Lord Tennyson Writes Crossing the Bar and Crosses the Bar
In October 1889, 80-year-old Tennyson and his son Hallam made ready to travel from Tennyson’s summer home at Aldworth in eastern England to his winter home at Farringford on the Isle of Wight.
Tennyson walked along the shore and the sound of the sea in his ears reminded him of the phrase”moaning of the bar.” In Tennyson’s case, “moaning of the bar” seemed to refer to a sandbar at the mouth of the Test River where it empties into the Solent. Ships could not pass over the sandbar until high tide.
Tennyson’s son Hallam told the story of how Crossing the Bar was written. As Hallam and his father crossed the Solent, the narrow strait separating the Isle of Wight from the mainland, the phrase “moaning of the bar” kept running through Tennyson’s mind and he thought of some words to accompany it.
After Tennyson arrived at Farringford, he wrote down the poem and showed it to his son after dinner that evening. Tennyson liked Crossing the Bar so well that it was read at his funeral in October 1892 and it is performed as a hymn at many 21st century funerals. Hallam reported that his father instructed him to include Crossing the Bar at the end of every edition of his poems.
“…And May There be No Moaning of the bar, when I put out to sea…”
Tennyson used the metaphor of the sand bar and successfully crossing it into the open sea effectively in his poem, 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.”
Many people have interpreted Tennyson’s poem from a Christian perspective, believing that Crossing the Bar is a metaphor for crossing over from life to death and its mysteries. They say that meeting his “pilot face to face” is the meaning of the poem. They believe Tennyson’s words mean that death is not a sad end, but the joyous beginning of eternity and the mariner is telling those he left on shore not to mourn him.
"When that which drew from out the boundless deep, turns again home”
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.
The tide that Alfred, Lord Tennyson so vividly describes "turned again home" in May 2008, when a modern business polluted the brooks and River Witham, which played an important part in Tennyson’s childhood and early poems.
A farm in Lincolnshire that Woodlark Farming Ltd. operated polluted more than eight miles of the River Witham at Colsterworth in Lincolnshire with pig waste. Slurry backed up in a drainage system and overflowed from a damaged manhole and several protected native white clawed crayfish and about 450 brown trout were killed.
Mrs. Anne-Lise McDonald prosecuted the case in Grantham Magistrate’s Court. Woodlark Farming Ltd. pleaded guilty and paid a $9,500 dollar fine and $14,900 in costs.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson Still "Turns Again Home"
In May 2009, a 130 mile long Tennyson Trail was opened in Lincolnshire, celebrating his 200th anniversary and featuring some of his favorite maritime scenery. There is also a Tennyson Trail on the Isle of Wight.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson continues to “turn again home."
Danver, Steven L., Editor and Zumerchik, John, Editor, Seas and Waterways of the World: An Encyclopedia of History, Uses, and Issues, ABC-CLIO, 2009
Messier,Vartan P., This Watery World: Humans and the Sea, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008
Payoyo, Peter B., Publications On Ocean Development, Cries of the Sea: World Inequality, Sustainable Development, and the Common Development and the Common Heritage of Humanity, Kluwer Law International, 1997
Rosenberg, John, Elegy For An Age: The Presence of the Past In Victorian Literature, Anthem Press, 2005
Tennyson, Alfred, and Tennyson, Hallam Tennyson, The Works of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Nabu Press, 2010
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Photograph courtesy of the Ecorse, Michigan Rowing Club.