‘The Kraken,’ by Alfred Lord Tennyson (1830)

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.

MEANING

The first thing to be said about ‘The Kraken’ by Alfred Lord Tennyson is that it is one of the great images to emerge from the Romantic poets of the 19th century. Though it is short, I class it with ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ for evoking the weird but profound. As far as I can tell, it has no hidden allegory or social intent, neither is it concerned with metaphysics in some obscure way: it is simply the evocation of an image, a moving image, which is meant to convey the awful grandeur of an ancient and arcane monster whose greatness mirrors the greatness of the sea in which he lives. It is important I think to remember that this was written well before any deep sea submarine exploration had made something of an attempt to reach or map the ocean depths. If someone were to write this today, one might see where the image, the basic notion of the visage of the sea’s deeper caverns, might come from for someone to be able to riff poetical. But, as it is, Tennyson sees it by the use of his imagination primarily.

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…

Are utterly remarkable, pristine. We are drawn down into the depths to finally see him, the Kraken, the immovable and inexorable presence of the deep. We are then taken to look up from the depths we have descended to:

    …above him swell
Huge sponges of millennial growth and height…

And then all around at the arms of the Kraken, taking up every space imaginable, filling up the caverns and reservoirs of that hidden world:

From many a wondrous grot and secret cell
Unnumbered and enormous polypi
Winnow with giant arms the slumbering green.

If a sense of magnitude in spatial and bestial terms was implied so far (as if the Kraken could make the ocean itself appear small or at least an equal), then the temporal vastness of the situation is approached. He is “lain for ages.” The present appears briefly, passed over for the distant, or at least unknown future, the apocalyptic age of reckoning. It is treated as something as distant as the olden past. The image of a monster or giant, to be revealed only at the end of days when they shall pass with all creation as relics of time – this is a common motif. It is well used here, however consciously Tennyson grasped onto it.

It all creates a sense of cavernous dimensions, in both space and time. And, in the center, the Kraken looms mightily, elder and terrifying – a kind of reflection or image of the awesome quality of that space itself made concrete and tangible.

STRUCTURE

There is a lot to say about the technical aspects of the poem, but I think I will begin with the rhyme scheme. The purpose of rhyme, fundamentally, is to create patterns of sound and meaning. Poetry is all about patterning language, and this has always been one of the most obvious forms of patterning available to the poet. Now the point of this is to achieve a pattern which is not only pleasing, but pleasing in a certain context, pleasing with relation to a poem with a certain meaning. It is meant to enhance meaning.

Now, there is a spectrum that lies between monotony and chaos. If a rhyme scheme is to repetitive, then it distracts and bores, whereas it is supposed to hold the attention not lose it. This is why it is generally the case that short poems, let’s say one of 15 lines like this poem, are not wholly made up of couplets, since it isn’t quite interesting for that length. Paradoxically, if one reads a long narrative poem made up of couplets (such as many of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales) it works, but that is precisely because the sheer length, perhaps 500 to 1000 lines of more, makes the couplets a virtuoso achievement, something that through repetition over an extended space of words settles over the mind. Again, this doesn’t mean one cannot have a poem made up of, say, two couplets or four or even ten, it just isn’t as useful most of the time at that scale.

Now the opposite mistake is to spread out one’s rhyme scheme, separating lines that rhyme by too much space, or varying the pattern so much one can no longer hear the rhyme (which defeats the point of the rhyme in the first place). Thus, the goal in a shorter form, something like a sonnet (which this poem is), is to have a rhyme that can be heard but is varied enough to be interesting, to bring the hearer away from one thing and then back to it again when required, guiding the attention. Some of the earlier Italian or English sonnets do achieve this variation, but do so in perhaps a somewhat more consistent manner. Shakespeare’s sonnets are an example of regular but interesting rhyme schemes. Tennyson’s sonnet is quite a bit less regular in its rhyme scheme, it is fair to say, which I think reflects something of the mighty chaos lurking under the surface of the sea within the poem, and it works rather precisely because of this conjunction of meaning and form, which I hope to further explain for the remainder of this post. There are other technical aspects that could be addressed, but I think attending to the rhyme scheme will be the most revealing.

So the scheme is as follows: ababcddcefeaafe. The first thing to notice is that the first four lines contain the regular pattern of the typical sonnet you find in Shakespeare, an alternating rhyme: abab. This grounds the poem at first, and sets up another rhyme later. The second set, cddc, changes the pattern, providing variation. The third set, efe, is different now in that its last member is cut off, so that there is no rhyme corresponding to green as there is for polypi and lie. If it were not for this, if it were efef, then it would have mimicked the first set, but Tennyson avoids this. So he has three sets of lines all with different rhyme patterns, but the rhyme is still rather audible. And then he repeats a in double: aa. And not only that, but he uses the same words even, deep and sleep, but they occur in reverse order, sleep to deep, setting up a chiastic contrast. What does this do? Well, the recall of the earlier rhyme achieves the effect of tying the end of the sonnet to the beginning, and the repetition of the same words solidifies the effect. The reversing of order again achieves variation. Chiastic patterns are satisfying. The final and concluding set, fe, of course varies most of all from, say, a Shakespearean sonnet in that there is no final couplet. That would have been far too neat; placing the couplet before the end achieves an ending that is both clean but not quite symmetrical. It is the difference between a major and a minor chord concluding a song. Also, the final fe is a repetition of the last two elements of the third set, efe. This works because the repetition of fe is near in form to the third set, but not quite a mimic (so that all the sets are dissimilar from each other), while the separation of the couplet aa allows for the sense of interlocking completeness that, again, doesn’t sound too put together.

Now, the game of making older traditional poetic forms a bit spicier or more engaging for new subjects is itself an old game. Tennyson engages in it here in a manner that is not only imaginatively satisfying but technically interesting.

POETRY INSIGHTS

I think I will pull one insight that I think rather valuable from this poem. Sometimes it is good to take something only accessible to the wonder-making capacities of your imagination, and to convey the intuitive feeling of that experience. Don’t think of concepts, ideas, or precision, at least at first. Grab onto the words that make the most of some far off dream of eerie or joyful wonders beyond the grasp of waking life or observation.

Featured image: ‘Sunrise at Mid-Ocean,’ by Thomas Moran (1907), image in the public domain.

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