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Crossing the bar

Q: I’m singing a hymn in church on Sunday, one my great-aunt used to play on the piano, “Brighten the Corner Where You Are.” A line of the chorus is “Someone far from harbor you may guide across the bar.” I’m curious about the meaning of “across the bar,” since I’m assuming it has nothing to do with serving alcohol.

A: The “bar” in the expression is a sandbar, an obstruction that’s dangerous to cross in a boat. The chorus of that hymn is an injunction to do a good deed, to help someone who’s at sea (figuratively speaking) and needs guidance to get safely home.

The word “bar” in this sense is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “a bank of sand, silt, etc., across the mouth of a river or harbour, which obstructs navigation.” The noun has been used in this way since the late 16th century.

The OED’s earliest example shows that ships were careful to give these obstacles a wide berth. The citation is from a 1587 edition of Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland:

“The port or hauen [haven] of Dublin is a barred hauen, and no great ships … doo lie in a certeine rode without the barre.” (The term “barred haven” had been used since the mid-1500s to mean a harbor protected by a sandbar or silt bank.)

Subsequent OED citations for this use of “bar” are from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, including one from a 1720 issue of the London Gazette: “Three Ships were lost upon the Bar.”

But the most famous example is found in Tennyson’s poem “Crossing the Bar” (1889). The poet likens dying to being swept from harbor to sea, and uses “bar” as a metaphor for the crossing over from life to death. Here are the final two stanzas:

Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;

For tho’ 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 crost the bar.

In a literal rather than a poetic sense, “crossing the bar” was so dangerous that in the 19th century “bar boats” (those less likely to founder on sandbars) were used to offload cargo, attempt rescues, and so on.

The OED’s earliest example for such boats is from 1857, but we’ve found several earlier uses. This one is from a newspaper article about an Australian swimmer who was carried out to sea:

“The bar boat was put off to his assistance, but on its arrival at the breakers no appearance of the lad was to be discovered.” (Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, Feb. 21, 1839. The boy was found alive two days later, eight miles down shore.)

And this example refers to a shipwreck that was narrowly averted: “This accident has shown the great importance of having a good bar-boat and boat’s crew inside this harbour.” (Sydney Morning Herald, Feb. 1, 1848.)

We’ve written before on our blog about the etymology and various uses of the noun and verb “bar,” if you’d like to know more.

As for the hymn your great-aunt used to enjoy, “Brighten the Corner Where You Are,” the words (by Ina Duley Ogden) and music (Charles H. Gabriel) were copyrighted in 1913. It was recorded by Homer Rodeheaver for the Victor Talking Machine Company in 1915 and published both as sheet music and in hymn collections.

Thanks to YouTube, you can listen to the original 78 recording played on a 1920 Victrola.

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