A summary of Tennyson’s apocalyptic poem
Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-92) didn’t write many sonnets, despite being a prolific poet (the definitive edition of his Poems spans three thick volumes). But ‘The Kraken’ is probably his most resounding success with the sonnet form, though whether it is a sonnet is open to debate. In this post we offer a brief analysis of ‘The Kraken’ in terms of its language, form, meaning, and imagery.
Below the thunders of the upper deep,
Far, far beneath in the abysmal sea,
His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep
The Kraken sleepeth: faintest sunlights flee
About his shadowy sides; above him swell
Huge sponges of millennial growth and height;
And far away into the sickly light,
From many a wondrous grot and secret cell
Unnumbered and enormous polypi
Winnow with giant arms the slumbering green.
There hath he lain for ages, and will lie
Battening upon huge sea worms in his sleep,
Until the latter fire shall heat the deep;
Then once by man and angels to be seen,
In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die.
‘The Kraken’ was published in Tennyson’s first solo collection, Poems, Chiefly Lyrical (1830), which appeared when Tennyson was still in his early twenties. The Kraken is a legendary sea monster that is said to cause large whirlpools off the coast of Norway; Tennyson probably heard about the creature in the poems of Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832).
A short summary of ‘The Kraken’ might be helpful as a starting point. Tennyson tells us that deep beneath the ocean surface, the Kraken sleeps ‘in the abysmal sea’ – ‘abysmal’ both because it is the abyss, or deepest part of the ocean, but also, arguably, because it is terrifying and appalling down there (thanks in no small part to the presence of the mythical Kraken). Like the Loch Ness monster, the Kraken appears to have existed for a long time (‘ancient’), and he is surrounded by sponges a thousand years in the making (‘millennial’); whether these sponges are part of the huge growth that is the Kraken, or are simply found in his vicinity, is not made clear. The same goes for the ‘polypi’, which strictly speaking are real creatures (like a starfish in shape but in appearance resembling a jellyfish, with lots of individual tentacles), but these ‘polypi’ may be part of the enormous creature that is the Kraken. ‘Ancient’ and ‘millennial’ are exaggeration, of course, but it all helps to create an impression of the sea-monster as vast, both in size and age.
Even the sea itself seems asleep (‘slumbering green’), and everything lies dormant far below the ocean’s surface. The Kraken can feed himself while he sleeps, ‘[b]attening’ (i.e. getting fat) on sea worms until, eventually, he wakes. When the Kraken wakes up, he dies – much like the Lady of Shalott, who, once she has broken the ‘mirror’ of illusions and entered the real world, perishes. When the Kraken leaves the world of the deep that is his natural habitat, and comes into contact with the water’s surface, he dies. Tennyson was drawn to such figures, especially in his early poetry.
Although ‘The Kraken’ looks a bit like a sonnet, it doesn’t conform entirely to either of the two main sonnet forms, the Italian and the English. Its rhyme scheme is ababcddcefeaafe, something of a weird mixture of Petrarchan (the abba structure used in the second quatrain rhyming cddc, as well as the suggestion of the Petrarchan sonnet’s concluding sestet at the end) and Shakespearean (the abab structure of the first quatrain). Really, it is a monstrous oddity, much like the Kraken itself: unique, disconcerting, unconventional. The fact that the words ‘deep’ and ‘sleep’ come at the end of not one, but two lines each reinforces not only the Kraken’s deep sleep, but also the extreme depth beneath the ocean surface at which the Kraken sleeps.
And this is, in the last analysis, our reaction to ‘The Kraken’, and to the Kraken: a feeling that we have come into contact with something irredeemably alien and monstrous, something utterly unlike ourselves or even the rest of the natural world. Tennyson’s use of the sonnet form, and ‘millennial’ imagery’, deftly enable him to convey the (literally) fundamental strangeness of the Kraken.