Episode 36

The Kraken by Alfred Tennyson 

Mark McGuinness reads and discusses ‘The Kraken’ by Alfred Tennyson.

Poet

Alfred Tennyson

Reading and commentary by

Mark McGuinness

The Kraken

by Alfred Tennyson

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.

 


Podcast transcript

This is from Alfred Tennyson’s first poetry collection, Poems, Chiefly Lyrical, which was published in 1833, when he was not quite 21 years old. So this is a young poet making his debut, long before he became ‘Lord’ Tennyson, and the pillar of the Victorian literary establishment that we remember him as.

‘Kraken’ is a Norwegian word, that refers to a mythical sea monster. As with all mythical creatures, its exact shape and form was something of a mystery. But quite a few commentators described it as having octopus-like tentacles that it used to drag ships to the bottom of the sea. And unsurprisingly, it’s now thought that the myth may have originated with sightings of giant squids.

But as poetry lovers, we are not in the business of explaining things away, so we should err on the side of treating the Kraken as Tennyson did – as a mythical and mysterious sea monster. And Tennyson, very cleverly, does not describe the Kraken, in the poem, only the sponges and polypi and huge sea-worms that surround it, which makes the poem brilliantly suggestive and atmospheric.

So the Kraken remains hidden, it’s in the darkness, way down beyond the reaches of human knowledge. And inevitably there have been various interpretations of what Tennyson ‘meant’ in inverted commas, the Kraken to symbolise.

The poem was published 70 years before Freud’s his landmark work, The Interpretation of Dreams, but of course, a Freudian would have all kinds of fun interpreting it in terms of the unconscious mind and repressed biological urges and the death wish and so on.

Some critics have interpreted the poem as a metaphor for the imagination, and the creative struggles of the young artist who wrote it.

I also came across a biographical reading by the scholar Julia Courtney, that takes the phrase ‘latter fire’ as a link to Tennyson’s Aunt Mary, a strict Calvinist who threatened the teenage poet with hellfire and damnation, in the ‘latter days’ at the end of the world.

There have even been social and political interpretations of ‘The Kraken’, in terms of the slumbering proletariat waking and rising up and overturning the established order.

Other shapes that I think are lurking in the abyss of the poem are the dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures, representing the scientific discoveries that revolutionised the Christian world view of 19th century Britain, a theme that Tennyson developed more explicitly in some of his later poetry.

And we could keep going with the interpretations, but you won’t be surprised to hear that to me, ‘What does the poem mean?’ is the wrong question, or at least a risky question, because if we reduce a poem to a single interpretation, we kill the poem. Ted Hughes once wrote that a story is ‘a factory of meanings’, and it’s the same with a poem: a real poem is continually producing new meanings, so if we take just one meaning as the ‘correct’ one, then we close the factory.

And for you and I, listening to it today in the 21st century, it may well have a different meaning than it did for any of its 19th or 20th century readers.

So let’s leave the question of meaning open, and at the same time, have a look at how the poem is made and how it works.

So starting with the shape and size of the poem. It may not be immediately obvious when you listen to it, but if you saw it on the page, you would very likely say, ‘Oh, it looks like a sonnet’. It’s that classic shape and size. That distinctive sonnet-shaped block of text on the page.

And of course, the thing that everybody knows about the sonnet is that it has 14 lines, right? But if you count the lines in ‘The Kraken’, you will find it has 15 lines. So does that mean it’s not a sonnet? Well, not according to most critics, it is generally regarded and accepted as a sonnet.

Because, you know, the sonnet doesn’t always have 14 lines. Shakespeare’s Sonnet 99 had 15 lines, so if 15 lines are good enough for Shakespeare they are certainly good enough for Tennyson. Shakespeare also wrote a sonnet with only 12 lines, number 126. Tennyson’s contemporary George Meredith developed a sonnet form with 16 lines, known as the ‘Meredithian sonnet’. And another 19th century poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, wrote several sonnets with only 10 and a half lines, which he called a ‘curtal sonnet’, as well as a double sonnet, with 24 lines, which he called a ‘caudate sonnet’.

And that only takes us up to the 19th century, and doesn’t include all the weird variations of the sonnet we’ve had in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Remember what Mimi Khalvati said all the way back in Episode 3: a sonnet isn’t so much about the number of lines or specific rhyming patterns. It’s much more about the shape and size and proportions of the poem. And certainly, this looks and feels to me very much like a sonnet. So if it walks like a sonnet and quacks like a sonnet, it’s a sonnet.

And one of the advantages of a sonnet is that it’s short enough that you can read it over and over again, and find new things to enjoy and consider each time. Even more than most poems, the sonnet seems to invite re-reading, so it’s no wonder that they tend to be quite densely written, and this one is no exception.

Tennyson is a very sensuous poet, his language is typically very richly textured, with all kinds of evocative sound patterns and effects, which means that a lot of them are the kind of poem you find yourself reading over and over again, for the sheer pleasure of the language.

So let’s take a closer look at the language of ‘The Kraken’, starting with this wonderful first line:

Below the thunders of the upper deep;

 So right from the start, we can hear the classic Tennysonian music: in the assonance, the repeated vowel sounds, of ‘thunders’ and ‘upper’; in the consonance, the repeated ‘p’s in ‘upper’ and ‘deep’, and also in the long vowels of ‘below’ and ‘deep’, that invite us to linger over them, and start to become drawn in to their field of meaning.

And there are lots of long vowels throughout the poem, even in the first four lines, on the long ‘ee’ sound alone, we’ve got ‘deep’, ‘beneath’, ‘sea’, ‘dreamless’, ‘sleep’, ‘sleepeth’ and ‘flee’. Listing them like that, they almost sound like a poem in themselves. Have a listen for them in the opening lines:

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

And this ‘ee’ sound echoes through the second half of the poem, in ‘green’, ‘sea-worms’, ‘sleep’, ‘heat’, ‘deep’, and ‘seen’. Most of these are at the end of lines, and the critic Christopher Ricks points out that there are basically only two rhyme sounds in the whole poem: this ‘ee’ sound and also ‘i’, in ‘height’, ‘light’, ‘polypi’, ‘lie’, and ‘die’. The only two exceptions are ‘cell’ and ‘swell’.

And not only does Tennyson keep obsessively chiming on the same rhyme sounds, but he also repeats the rhyme words ‘deep’ and ‘sleep’, at the beginning and end of the poem. Normally, when you rhyme, the whole point is that you have different words that sound similar, so he’s really laying it on thick by repeating the exact same words.

So what is the effect of all this repetition?

Well, once upon a time I was a professional hypnotist, I spent many years as a hypnotherapist. And one of the things a hypnotist will do in an induction is to keep repeating key words, over and over, very often words like ‘deep’, and ‘sleep’. And I was rereading the poem this morning and it struck me what a wonderfully hypnotic poem this is. It’s entrancing in the best sense, it holds our imagination spellbound and we enjoy entering the world of the Kraken, with it’s otherworldly sights and sounds:

                                        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.

And returning to the first line of the poem, ‘Below the thunders of the upper deep’, isn’t that a weird phrase, ‘the upper deep’? Because we think of ‘upper’ and ‘deep’ as being opposites, but here the poet has combined them, and told us that we are going ‘below’ this ‘upper deep’. So right from the start of the poem, we have this delightfully disorienting effect, where we start to lose our normal sense of height and depth, but one thing is certain, and that is we are going downwards in our imagination:

Far, far beneath in the abysmal sea,

Now these days, ‘abysmal’ typically means ‘very bad’, we might say our sports team put on an ‘abysmal performance’. But in Tennyson’s day the word would be closer to the original Latin meaning, linking it to the ‘abyss’, something that is bottomless. So the poem is taking us down into the bottomless sea, as if we were descending a bathysphere or a submarine, to where we find the Kraken, sleeping the most profound sleep imaginable:

His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep
The Kraken sleepeth:

Isn’t that a marvellous line? ‘His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep’? It’s typical of another aspect of the poem I’d like to draw your attention to, and that is Tennyson’s masterly use of adjectives. Just about every single noun in the poem has an adjective. And of course, this is against all the writing advice we were given at school, right? ‘Don’t use too many adjectives.’ We’re trained to see this as ‘over-writing’ and it’s a standard editorial technique to go through and cross out as many adjectives as you can.

But Tennyson is so good at adjectives. If I were presumptuous enough to try to edit this poem, it would be hard for me to find many adjectives that are genuinely redundant. Not only are they well-chosen in themselves, but they don’t become monotonous because he varies his technique by using different kinds of adjective.

So we’ve got quite a lot of simple adjectives in the sense of just one word, one adjective, modifying another word, a noun. So we’ve got ‘upper deep’, ‘abysmal sea’, ‘faintest sunlights’, ‘shadowy sides’, ‘sickly light’, ‘wondrous grot’, ‘secret cell’, ‘giant arms’, ‘slumbering green’, ‘huge sea-worms’, and ‘latter fire’. And my goodness, what a lot of adjectives there are! There’s no way that lot would survive a modern creative writing workshop.

Okay those are the simple adjectives, one word modifying another, but Tennyson also does other types and one of the best ones, as I say, is in this third line:

His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep

Isn’t that just terrific? It’s a compound adjective, so we’ve got three words modifying the noun, ‘ancient’, ‘dreamless’ and ‘uninvaded’. What a weird idea, that sleep could be invaded. I think the strangeness of that idea is what helps him get away with ‘ancient’ and ‘dreamless’ which would be a bit stale and cliched on their own.

And even the order of the adjectives is important here. He could have written ‘His uninvaded, ancient, dreamless, sleep’, and that would have scanned perfectly well as iambic pentameter, but it’s not nearly as good, is it? Probably because if you put the longer and more surprising adjective, ‘uninvaded’, first, then ‘ancient’ and ‘dreamless’ are a bit of an anticlimax afterwards. So ‘uninvaded’ is much more effective coming last, once he’s softened us up with the first two adjectives, it gives the feeling that the line is becoming more extravagant and mysterious the longer it goes on.

Because that whole line is one adjectival phrase, a single noun with an enormous adjective trailing behind. Almost, you could say, like the tentacles of a giant sea monster.

His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep

And we’re not done with the extravagant adjectives. A few lines later we get:

                                                     above him swell

Huge sponges of millennial growth and height;

What an amazing image. So first of all, ‘millennial growth’ means the sponges have been growing for thousands of years, to reach such an enormous size. And apparently this is true, some sponges are indeed estimated to live for thousands of years, it’s not just a poetic exaggeration. And this comes on like a simple adjective, ‘huge sponges’, which would work fine by itself, but then we get ‘of millennial growth and height’ trailing after the word ‘sponge’. So we get the sponges’ size first, and then these other aspects of the sponges come into view, as if the whole creature is coming into view in the light from our bathysphere.

A few lines later, we find yet another compound adjective taking up an entire line:

Unnumbered and enormous polypi

Instead of a list, this one combines two adjectives with ‘and’. This is a favourite technique of Shakespeare’s, which is probably where Tennyson picked it up. And it’s a great example of sound and meaning working together in the poem. Listen to all the ‘n’ and ‘m’ sounds, combining with ‘u’ and ‘o’, so that the line is almost lulling us to sleep:

Unnumbered and enormous polypi

And moving from the sound to the meaning, it’s no accident that Tennyson is using words with Latin roots in this line. We’ve already seen that the etymology of ‘abysmal’ is a portal onto the bottomless abyss. And in this line, ‘unnumbered’, ‘enormous’ and ‘polypi’ are all words that came from Latin. And this is very evocative of the language of biology, because in biology all species are given Latin names, so that scientists who speak different languages can be confident they are talking about the same type of hedgehog or squid or primrose or whatever.

And there’s something a bit creepy and intimidating about these Latin names. Ted Hughes has a terrific line in his poem ‘To Paint a Water Lily’, which is also about underwater monsters, though in his case they are the creatures you find at the bottom of a pond, where he says that the ‘prehistoric’ creatures ‘crawl that darkness with Latin names’. And I get the same kind of spine-tingling effect from this line of Tennyson’s:

Unnumbered and enormous polypi

So Tennyson is clearly a master of the use of adjectives, and the result of him using so many, which we’re not allowed to do in normal life, is an incredible density and richness. Everything slows down. Reading ‘The Kraken’ is like being underwater, when you can’t move quickly, because of the density of the water. And the water also magnifies and distorts your visual field, and you’re also hyper aware of all the details of what you see, because you’re not in your normal element.

And the poem is so slow and static, and it’s so easy to be hypnotised by the details of the strange world we have entered, that it’s easy to overlook the fact that there is actually some action in ‘The Kraken’. So if we retrace our steps, the first sentence tells us that the ‘Below the thunders of the upper deep… Far, far beneath’ etcetera, ‘The Kraken sleepeth’. So the Kraken is asleep down there in the abyss.

And stuff is happening around him: the sunlight is fleeing, the sponges are swelling and the polypi are winnowing with giant arms the slumbering green. So things are kind of passively happening around him. Interestingly, the one concrete bit of description we get from Tennyson about the Kraken is that it is male, via the pronouns.

So all the way down to ‘slumbering green’, there’s nothing much happening, the Kraken is sleeping and the life of the sea is going on around him. But then he starts to stir into motion:

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.

This feels like the turn in the sonnet that Mimi talked about back in episode 3. So in the Petrarchan sonnet the usual proportions are eight lines and then six, the octave then the sestet. And in the octave, the poet sets up a situation or context and then in the sestet, the last six lines, the poem shifts in some way, by introducing another perspective, or some kind of change in the action or shift in the argument. And obviously the proportions are a bit distorted here, Tennyson has got 15 lines and he takes 10 of them to get to what feels like the turn.

But then maybe this is another way that Tennyson achieves that effect of slowness and stasis. It’s like a slow-motion octave.

Anyway, the Kraken has been dozing there for what feels like forever, and it feels like he wakes up with a jolt with that word ‘until’:

Until the latter fire shall heat the deep;

I don’t know what he means by that ‘latter fire’ heating the deep. I’ve just come back from Japan where we got to relax in some hot spring baths where the earth’s fire had indeed heated the deep, but it wasn’t ‘latter fire’, it was everyday geothermal activity.

So that phrase ‘latter fire’, as well as the reference to ‘angels’, makes me think of the ‘latter days’, the coming of the end of the world and the final judgment, with lashings of brimstone and hellfire. So I think Julia Courtney had a point when she suggested the poem may have been influenced by Tennyson’s Aunt Mary and her dire warnings about being cast into ‘everlasting fire’, which as Tennyson said, ‘didn’t make a boy of fourteen feel very comfortable’.

According to the poem, when the latter fire heats the deep, the Kraken will rise, and be seen by man and angels for the first and last time, and then, when he reaches the surface, he will die:

Then once by man and angels to be seen,
In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die.

Now I don’t know about you, but when I hear that last line, I can’t help thinking about the phrase, ‘rise and shine’, which is about as upbeat and sunny and optimistic a phrase as you can have: ‘Come on, it’s a bright new day, rise and shine!’ And I don’t know if that phrase would have been current in Tennyson’s day, but even if it wasn’t, it still feels pretty odd that the Kraken should ‘rise and die’. We associate rising with waking and coming to life and achieving things; whereas we associate death with falling and sinking, you know, ‘a dying fall’, as Shakespeare put it.

So once again, Tennyson is playing with our sense of height and depth, just as he did with that phrase ‘the upper deep’ in the first line. And you may recall back in Episode 24, about D. H. Lawrence’s poem ‘Humming-bird’, I talked about H.P. Lovecraft’s cosmic horror story, The Call of Cthulhu, and the ‘hideously non-Euclidean’ geometry and perspective of the landscape around the lair of the monster Cthulhu.

And given that Lovecraft was a big fan of Tennyson’s poetry, and that Cthulhu was a monster with squid-like tentacles around its mouth, who was waiting in a ‘dark house in the mighty city of R’lyeh under the waters’, until the day he will ‘rise and bring the earth again beneath his sway’, I think it’s a fair bet that Lovecraft had read ‘The Kraken’ more than once.

And that’s not to diminish Lovecraft’s originality, but merely to place the Kraken and Cthulhu in a long line of monsters from the deep that have fascinated writers and storytellers for millenia. We could trace the lineage back through Milton’s Paradise Lost, where he describes ‘Leviathan / Hugest of living creatures, on the deep / Stretch’d like a promontory’. And of course Milton found Leviathan all the way back in the Bible, in the Book of Job. And before him, the Beowulf poet got a lot of mileage out of two monsters that emerged from the bottom of a lake to terrorise the world of humans. And before that, there were plenty of sea monsters in The Odyssey and other ancient tales.

It’s also possible that Tennyson was influenced by this mind-bending passage from the Book of Revelation:

The beast that thou sawest was, and is not, and shall ascend out of the bottomless pit and go into perdition; and they that dwell on the earth, whose names were not written in the Book of Life from the foundation of the world, shall wonder when they behold the beast that was, and is not, and yet is.
Revelation 17:8

And if we take the family tree of the creature from the bottomless pit forward from Tennyson, we would note that ‘The Kraken’ was written twenty years before Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, forty years before Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and a century before Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu. We could keep going, with Godzilla, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, and even Jaws and Alien.

It’s a timeless theme, and as I say, I’m not in a hurry to pin the Kraken down, to have him classified like a museum specimen, and analysed to death. I’m much happier to have him out there, sleeping under the sea and, who knows, maybe we will catch a glimpse of him in the latter days.

But until then we have the poem to enjoy as a wonderfully atmospheric piece of Victoriana. So let’s have a listen to it again.

 


The Kraken

by Alfred Tennyson

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.

 


Alfred Tennyson

Portrait of Tennyson as a young man

Alfred Tennyson, 1st Baron Tennyson, was an English poet who was born in 1809 and died in 1892. He made his early reputation with exquisite short lyrics, and went on to write some longer works, such as ‘In Memoriam, A.H.’ And The Idylls of the King, that dealt with some of the major preoccupations of his era and established him as the quintessential Victorian poet. In 1850 he was appointed Queen Victoria’s poet Laureate, a position he held until his death. He resisted the offer of a peerage for many years, but finally accepted in 1884, when Victoria made him Baron Tennyson. He is buried in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.


A Mouthful of Air – the podcast

This is a transcript of an episode of A Mouthful of Air – a poetry podcast hosted by Mark McGuinness. New episodes are released every other Tuesday.

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