Crossing the Bar By Alfred Lord Tennyson


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 crossed the bar.


Tennyson wrote this poem in 1889, three years prior to his death. It pronounces his docile and compliant attitude regarding his approaching death. It was not the last poem he ever wrote, but Tennyson always made sure that “Crossing the Bar” was printed as the final poem in his collections. The poem takes place literally in a boat on the water at twilight as the speaker is heading out to sea; however, figuratively, the setting of this poem is in some sort of spiritual realm, somewhere between life and death. The speaker is clearly still alive because he’s making his plans for when he embarks “out to sea,” but he’s also not particularly devoted to earthly life anymore, as he appears ready and content to move on.

At the beginning of the poem, the sun is setting and the moon is rising and the speaker feels himself being called. When he’s called to sea, he hopes that there’s no mourning, crashing sound of waves hitting the sand bar; but instead wants a tide so full that it makes no sounds and carries no sea foam. He wishes for “such a tide as moving seems asleep,” meaning that when he dies, he wishes for smooth and peaceful sailing, and not to hit the troublesome sandbar along the way. When the evening bell calls his name to die, and he escapes into the darkness, the speaker hopes that nobody will cry or make a big, sappy showing of farewell. While he might be headed into the darkness and leaving familiar space and time, he is headed to finally look upon the face of his “Pilot.”

In this poem, Tennyson is using a sandbar as a metaphor to represent the line between life and death. Waves must crash against a sandbar in order to reach the shore, which makes a sound that Tennyson calls “the moaning of the bar.”

The speaker is not worried about crossing the actual sandbar, he is pondering the actual barrier between life and death or life and afterlife. Tennyson also uses the word “crossing” as an image for both “crossing over” from earth to Heaven and also the traditional Catholic tradition of “crossing” oneself into faith or devotion. The cross is also where Jesus dies, so now as the speaker feels the shadow of death, he conjures the image of the cross again.

To Helen by Edgar Allan Poe

Evelyn de Morgan's 1898 painting Helen of Troy.  Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Evelyn de Morgan’s 1898 painting Helen of Troy. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Helen, thy beauty is to me
Like those Nicéan barks of yore,
That gently, o’er a perfumed sea,
The weary, way-worn wanderer bore
To his own native shore.

On desperate seas long wont to roam,
Thy hyacinth hair, thy classic face,
Thy Naiad airs have brought me home
To the glory that was Greece,
And the grandeur that was Rome.

Lo! in yon brilliant window-niche
How statue-like I see thee stand,
The agate lamp within thy hand!
Ah, Psyche, from the regions which
Are Holy-Land!

A daguerreotype portrait of Poe.
A daguerreotype portrait of Poe.  Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Edgar Allen Poe is one of the most well known American writers to emerge during the 19th century. His professional writing career spanned all areas of literature, including poetry and short story. A poet of the Romantic Movement, Poe is credited with the invention of modern detective fiction and even acknowledged as a main contributor to the science fiction genre. Poe’s most famous works include his poem “The Raven,” his short story “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and his short story “the Murders in the Rue Morgue.”

First published in 1831, his poem “To Helen” alludes to the infamously beautiful Helen of Troy. The poem explores the idea of a woman’s beauty, both in terms of body and soul. Interestingly enough, this poem depicts one of Poe’s mentors, Mrs. Jane Stanard of Richmond, VA. The mother to one of his childhood friends, Mrs. Stanard is said to have been one of the first to encourage and foster Poe’s interest in poetry.

The beginning of the poem depicts Helen as the symbol of physical beauty. In Greek mythology, Helen of Troy is the most beautiful woman that ever lived and is the reason for the ten year long Trojan War. Poe compares Helen’s appearance to the ships, the “Nicéan barks of yore,” that brought the victorious soldiers home to Greece and Rome. Helen’s association with boat imagery relays the idea that she is a vessel that moves the most powerful classical civilizations. By urging Poe to write poetry, Mrs. Stanard served as an inspiration for Poe’s writing. His writing style often emulates the classical tradition of Greece and Rome. Just as Helen serves as the “Nicéan barks of yore” for travelers, Mrs. Stanard is the vessel for young Poe.

The second half of the poem explores a woman’s soulful beauty with the allusion to Psyche, the goddess of the soul. In Greek mythology, Psyche discovers the true identity of her husband, Cupid, when she holds a candle above him while he sleeps. In the poem, Poe depicts Psyche, “How statue-like I see thee stand, / The agate lamp within thy hand!” Poe’s lines serve as a direct connection to the story between Psyche and Cupid. By referencing the goddess of the soul, Poe relays the idea that Helen possesses both outer and inner beauty.

Poe’s poem “To Helen” is a glorification of one of his childhood mentors who inspired him immensely. Poe creates Helen, or Mrs. Stanard, to possess both outer and inner beauty that captures him as a young boy and perhaps, even as an adult. With the mention of “Naiad airs,” Poe alludes to the mythological nymphs of the water, the Naiads. The Naiads’ restful and peaceful nature seem to ring true to Helen’s persona, which brings him back to his picturesque childhood which he refers to as the “Holy-Land.” Poe’s placement of Mrs. Stanard, or Helen, on a pedestal as one of his beloved childhood mentors speaks to his lifelong admiration of her. She still exists in Poe’s mind as a woman that captures all types of beauty and who he thinks of as his Helen of Troy.


Lincoln in Marble by Henry Hart

The Lincoln Memorial
The Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

No one shoos pigeons from his marble hair
or sandblasts tears of soot from craters
in his cheeks. No sculptor climbs a ladder
to carve or hoist his stovepipe hat.

Having stared so long at the moldy onion
of the Capitol, his eyes solidify to chalk.
His shadow slips toward fluted columns
and skies doublecrossed by jets.

Stars fall into the black reflecting pool
like snow on the grave of his beloved Ann.
Again he fingers a jack-knife in his pocket
while a nighthawk cheeps on a branch.

A man in torn army coat and camouflage fatigues
pushes a shopping cart full of amputated limbs
from Bull Run through Washington’s mud.
Cars filibuster up Rock Creek.

Where Whitman wrote letters home for the dying,
offering them sweetcrackers and raspberries
on hospital cots of pine boughs,
grass fades like dollar bills.

Shadows touch the bronze boot
of a bandoliered solider rubbed to gold
by NRA lobbyists, slip toward a monument
splitting green turf like a beached destroyer.

How many ghosts have read the Braille
carved in its black hull? How many
have seen the dead light candles
and float them across the Potomac?

Soon tourists dressed like John Wilkes Booth
scuffle beneath Lincoln’s stone boots,
trigger fingers poised on loaded cameras.
Planes reopen the wound in his head.

He stares at monumental clouds,
like the time he threw away his flintlock
and stood on a stump in a cleared field
waiting like marble for the words to come.

The Lincoln Memorial at night.  Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
The Lincoln Memorial at night. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Henry Hart has written three books of poetry (The Ghost Ship, The Rooster Mask, and Background Radiation). His poems have been published in The New Yorker, Kenyon Review, Sewanee Review, and other journals, and served as a founding editor of the international poetry journal Verse. Henry Hart is currently a Professor of English and Humanities at the College of William and Mary. “Lincoln in Marble” was previously published in Shenandoah Volume 47, Number 3.

On the week of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday and with the upcoming 150th anniversary of his assassination, Henry Hart’s poem explores the ways we commemorate one of the nation’s greatest presidents. However, the poem’s tone reflects the grim reality of Lincoln’s legacy; though we build monuments to the man and know his face, we fail to shoo the pigeons from the monument’s hair or prevent his eyes from becoming chalky after gazing upon the Capitol and the modern government. It’s somewhat easy to trivialize the man whose face is so commonplace that it greets you every time you see a penny on the sidewalk or pull a five dollar bill out of your pocket. The line “grass fades like dollar bills” reminds us of this fact and brings attention to Lincoln’s modern reputation. Tourists who visit the Lincoln Memorial (“dressed like John Wilkes booth”) and are interested in the spectacle of the monument itself rather than displaying deference to the actual man minimalize the enormous impact Lincoln had in shaping the country we know today. Hart’s final stanza recalls the reason why Abraham Lincoln is worth remembering even today by conjuring images of the Gettysburg Address, reminding us of the incredible challenges he faced as president in guiding the country through a Civil War and successfully rebuilding it as a united nation in its aftermath.

Those interested in recent publications about the life and death of Abraham Lincoln should check out the newly released books Mourning Lincoln by Martha Hodes, Lincoln’s Body by Richard Wightman Fox, and Founder’s Son: A Life of Abraham Lincoln by Richard Brookhiser.

“Yorick’s Reply” by Tom Disch

A prop of Yorick’s skull currently on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Shakespeare exhibit.  © 2014 Ryan Scott.
A prop of Yorick’s skull currently on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Shakespeare exhibit. © 2014 Ryan Scott.

The rub. Milord? Then, if you please, a bit
To the back. Yes, there, just where the mud
Has scabbed to it. But still I want to know:
The rub? Who ever forfeited his sleep
For fear of dreams? Dreams vary here on Earth,
And so they may hereafter. Why be perplexed?
Life is a dream, as I have heard, and if
Our death’s another, may we well not hope
For dreams that correspond to what we wish?
I did—and I have dreamt of you, with all
Your sweet advantages. A mother mild
And coddling. True, she is a whore, but so’s
Ophelia, that’s nothing new. She loves
And, what is more, she needs you. If I were you,
I would simply poison Claudius.
Then all is square, and you can your coitus
Take with a bare whatever. I jest, Milord,
And do exceed my limit—or yours, at least.
You grimace. Think: if life’s a dream, our wishes
Matter. Conform yourself to what may be
And leave the rest to molder here with me.


A statue of Hamlet in Stratford-upon-Avon.  Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
A statue of Hamlet in Stratford-upon-Avon. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Though best known today as a science fiction writer, Thomas Disch’s work spans a plethora of genres and mediums. In addition to being a pioneer in the field of “New Wave” science fiction, which sought to elevate the genre from its pulp roots, Disch also tried his hand at video games, collaborating with Electronic Arts in 1987 to create the text-based adventure game Amnesia, and theatre, as the author of a metafictional retelling of Ben-Hur and the critically acclaimed poem/monologue The Cardinal Detoxes. Born in 1940 in Iowa and raised in Minnesota, Disch moved to New York City in the 1950s, a city to which he would always return despite his constant travel and even short periods of time living in England, Spain, Rome, and Mexico. Disch published his first short story in 1962 and his first novel, The Genocides, in 1965, kicking off a long and prolific career that lasted until his death in 2008.

In his poetry, Disch sought to appeal to a different audience than that which read his fiction. Consequently, it is hardly surprising that this piece concerns not science fiction but Shakespeare, imagining the skull of the dead jester Yorick replying to Hamlet’s lamentations. Interestingly, Disch’s Yorick seems to be responding more to Hamlet’s famous “To be or not the be” monologue rather than what the Prince of Denmark actually says to the skull in the graveyard. The tone of the poem is mocking toward the young Hamlet, opening with a pun off his comment, “perchance to dream; ay, there’s the rub” (Act Three, Scene One) and later urging the infamously indecisive hero to quit philosophizing and just kill his uncle already. Befitting a disembodied skull, Yorick is especially contemptuous of Hamlet’s dread of death, describing both life and what lies beyond as being dreams to be shaped by the mind. The former jester has not entirely forgotten his love for the child he once entertained, however, and ends the poem on a note of sympathy, exhorting Hamlet to let his fears lie dead with the past.

“Yorick’s Reply” was originally published in the fourth issue of Shenandoah’s thirty-eighth volume, printed in 1988. The poem is currently available in the latest collection of Disch’s poetry, About the Size of It.

“Cyrano” by David Jauss

A portrait of the historical Cyrano de Bergerac.
A portrait of the historical Cyrano de Bergerac.

How we admire Cyrano’s suffering,
his noble silence, the purity
of a love kept secret, as he whispers

into the ear of his dying rival
It’s you she loves. Unwitnessed,
his lie wins him no praise, much less love

and thus we define goodness as a form
of privacy. But what if he believed
God was watching, as all-knowing and voyeuristic

as a moviegoer? An audience
taints every good act, a judge
corrupts it utterly. So faith

is the greatest obstacle
to virtue? I’m falling
through this though when I hear her,

a woman two rows down, weeping so loudly I suspect
a grief too personal to be expressed
except in public. Her shoulders

shudder with each sob, she whips
her head back and forth,
as if saying the word no over and over

to someone not there. Or is she
talking to her life? Sympathy
is one disguise curiosity wears:

if I comfort her, I wonder, would she tell me
the sorrow that sits down with her
each day for dinner, the pain

that makes her bed each morning?
I believe she would, and I’m tempted
to be the audience that would give her grief

its twist of pleasure. But I turn back
to the movie and try not to listen
as her sobs gradually subside. In an hour

we sit through twenty-seven minutes of darkness —
the black spaces between frames —
and though we can’t see it, we feel it

behind the images light casts
on the blank screen: the blue sky,
the green lawn, and Roxanne’s face,

beautifully ignorant, as Cyrano, now old
and dying, visits one last time,
his secret the only thing

holding him, and us, up.


A statue of the de Bergerac character with his comically-enlarged nose.
A statue of the de Bergerac character with his comically-enlarged nose.

David Jauss is the author of four collections of short stories, two collections of poetry, and two books of essays, in addition to countless other stand-alone poems and stories published through a variety of literary journals. A native of Minnesota, Jauss studied at Southern Minnesota College, Syracuse University, and the University of Iowa. He taught Creative Writing at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock from 1980 to 2014, and has taught the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts since 1998. From 1981 to 1991 he was the editor for the literary journal Crazyhorse, and he is a member of the editorial board for Hunger Mountain: the Vermont College of Fine Arts Journal of Arts and Letters.

“Cyrano” was originally published in the first issue of Shenandoah’s forty-fifth volume, printed in spring 1995. The poem is also available in Jauss’s collection Improvising Rivers.

The poem revolves around an audience watching a film version of Edmond Rostand’s play Cyrano de Bergerac as a vehicle to explore themes of isolation, virtue, and, above all, witness. The narrator ponders on the seeming altruism of Cyrano’s actions and tries to apply his moral reflections to his own life. But this exploration of Cyrano’s morality is only a means for Jauss to reach the poem’s primary fascination: the notion of witness. In the narrator’s wonderings, even God is reconfigured as a voyeur whose omniscience potentially precludes any moral action. The narrator is snapped out of his borderline-blasphemy by the sobs of another audience member. Having been forced to witness this public display of extremely private emotions (“grief too personal to be expressed/ except in public” [17-18]), the narrator frames his reaction not in terms of empathy or concern but instead exhibits merely abstract curiosity, even dismissing sympathy as a “one disguise curiosity wears” (24). After briefly considering acting the audience to the woman’s sorrows, the narrator turns his attention back to the film, but finds that witnessing is not a voluntary act as he “[tries] not to listen/ as her sobs gradually subside” (31-32). After her sobs die down, the narrator returns his attention and the poem’s focus to the movie, where he notes the unseen emptiness that underlies and surrounds the flashing images of light projected onto the screen. The narrator closes the poem as it began, by focusing on Cyrano’s secret anguish that is consumed as entertainment to an audience about which de Bergerac can never know.