Sunday 12 January 2014

A Victorian Alphabet: K is for 'The Kraken' (Tennyson, 1830)

Following on from the popularity of a post on Tennyson’s ‘To Virgil’ (1882) I wrote in October, I thought I’d use ‘K’ in my Victorian Alphabet to look at another of his poems – the shorter, and earlier ‘The Kraken’ – looking at each line of a poem in a little more depth, now that we’ve gone through some of the first steps for approaching an unfamiliar text.

A kraken
Below the thunders of the upper deep;                1
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           5
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.     10
There hath he lain for ages and will lie                   
 Battening upon huge seaworms 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.      15

The first step identified last time was to ask ‘what is this poem about?’ or ‘do I understand what’s going on here?’. And these questions lead naturally to the question ‘what additional information do I require to understand what’s going on here?’.

Whereas for ‘To Virgil’ a large amount of knowledge was required (e.g. an awareness of Virgil’s work, a basic understanding of the history of European empires), here there is relatively little to look up. A ‘kraken’ is a sea monster, with mythic Scandinavian origins; a polyp or polypus is a sea organism with a central mouth surrounded by tentacles.

We might summarise: ‘In ‘The Kraken’ (1830), Tennyson describes a sleeping sea monster. At the end of the world, the sea monster will come to the surface and be seen for the first time – then it will die.’ But even this apparently straightforward summary raises issues. How does Tennyson describe something that’s never been seen (‘once by man and angels to be seen’)?  Does he actually describe the kraken at all?

To address these concerns, let’s look at what we actually learn about the kraken. The first ten lines introduce the monster, with its name emphatically positioned at the start of line 4.

The first two lines set the scene literally and atmospherically – the kraken is in such a deep part of the sea that it is not just ‘far beneath’, but ‘far, far beneath’ regions of the ocean already described as ‘deep’ – the repetition serving to strengthen Tennyson’s description. The very first word of the poem is ‘below’, directing the reader’s attention to this lower world, while the verb ‘thunders’ plays (at least!) a treble role: it creates an ominous atmosphere, suggesting an approaching storm; it introduces the idea of aural, as well as geographic, ‘depth’, suggesting creatures of immense size; and it helps paint a separate submarine reality, where the upper reaches of the world, complete with the weather systems we associate with the sky, are all below the surface of the sea. The word ‘abysmal’ demonstrates the dual function of Tennyson’s description (to convey atmosphere as well as fact) perfectly. The sea is ‘abysmal’, in that it is a deep ‘abyss’, but it is also miserable, threatening and bleak.

Tennyson has brought us there – we are ready to see the kraken which lives in such an alien and terrifying landscape. We might expect something like this:

‘Below the thunders of the upper deep;
Far, far beneath in the abysmal sea,                       
His massive, dang’rous, uninviting arms                
The Kraken flaileth’

Well okay, Tennyson would have found a rhyme.

But Tennyson in fact doesn’t describe the creature in this place at all. With a sharp change of perspective from the guiding third person we might have expected, the next lines actually give us the experience of being the kraken, not seeing it.

‘His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep                            
The Kraken sleepeth’

There is the same sense of scale here – the kraken has age, as his home has depth – but further ideas are also introduced. The word ‘uninvaded’ casts anyone who would disturb the creature in the role of aggressor, rather than the monster itself, while the detail that this sleep is ‘dreamless’ makes the kraken unknowable, and its consciousness unfathomable, even at the very point where we most identify with it.

It is our inability to see, describe or understand the kraken which dominates lines 4-10. 

                                ‘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.’

The dingy ‘sickly’ lighting conditions in the depths of the ocean limit our ability to see the creature in his entirety, as does, it is suggested, the fact of his immense size. The phrase ‘shadowy sides’ leaves it ambiguous as to whether they are ‘shadowy’ only because of the lack of light or because of the kraken’s own towering form. Rather than tell us the kraken is large, Tennyson describes the great size of the other creatures which surround him (‘huge sponges of millennial growth and height’, ‘enormous polypi/…with giant arms’), so we will imagine this monster is even larger, while he also reemphasises the impossibility of comprehending this being or the world he lives in by reference to quantities beyond those computable to the human mind (‘unnumbered’, ‘millennial’).

Part of making this world so uncanny involves describing it in ways which are almost repulsive, while maintaining a sense of the miraculous. Describing a world as ‘wondrous’ and ‘secret’ seems attractive but, in keeping with the ‘sickly’ nature of this deep an hidden world, the choice of the word ‘grot’ for ‘grotto’ and the coupling of ‘secret’ with ‘cell’, suggesting ‘secretion’ is off-putting, even revolting. The final line of this sentence – ‘winnow with giant arms the slumbering green’ – is perhaps the poem’s most beautiful, but the new idea which comes next, in the sonnet-like turn (although the poem is 15 lines, not 14), that the kraken will not sleep forever, means the full force of all that has been horrifying or unnerving in the description of the kraken’s world is again made apparent.

The immediate shift which comes though is not one of the kraken’s imminent arising, as we are first told about the continuance of this state (‘There hath he lain for ages and will lie’). The greater shift is in the knowledge level of the poet – the prominence Tennyson himself comes to, as some sort of all-knowing oracle, rather than a man whose knowledge of the kraken is as necessarily limited as our own through our inability to understand his external being or internal motivations. ‘Then once by man and angels to be seen’ could be a prediction or a decree that something must be so, just as we saw Tennyson set himself up as a prophet-like figure in ‘To Virgil’.

Still, what we are left with is still a sense of the kraken as indescribable and unknowable. The creature’s purpose is unclear as he appears to be waiting for something in his slumber but ‘In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die’ rather than effect any damage. What has this creature from Norse myth to do with a Christian apocalypse? Would the act of explicitly describing the creature in actual fact destroy him, like his own ‘roaring’? Is the kraken’s power in its invisibility?

If we return to summarising Tennyson’s poem we can say: ‘In ‘The Kraken’ (1830), Tennyson doesn’t describe a sleeping sea monster.’ And the poem is all the more powerful for that.

What should be ‘L’ in my Victorian Alphabet? Do you have any thoughts on, questions about or insights into Tennyson’s ‘The Kraken’? And what would you like the Secret Victorianist to write about next? Let me know here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

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