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The Kraken by Tennyson: Analysis & Overview

Instructor: Francesca Marinaro

Francesca M. Marinaro has a PhD in English from the University of Florida and has been teaching English composition and Literature since 2007.

This lesson analyzes Alfred Lord Tennyson's poem 'The Kraken.' Here we'll look at the poem's historical background, consider several interpretations, its structure, and finish off the lesson with a quick quiz.

'The Kraken': Background and Summary

'The Kraken' is a sonnet by English poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, first published in 1830 in Tennyson's Poems, Chiefly Lyrical.

Alfred Lord Tennyson, 1809 to 1892
Alfred Lord Tennyson

The poem's subject explores the legend of the Kraken, a giant sea monster that supposedly swallowed ships off the coast of Norway. The creature probably originated from the spotting of gigantic squid and was first identified in A History of Norway (1752). The creature is also said to be a biblical reference influenced by Milton's Paradise Lost. In Book One, line 42, Milton describes 'There Leviathan / Hugest of living creatures, on the deep / Stretch'd like a promontory.' This creature is said to refer scripturally to a Crocodile (appearing in the Book of Job 41:1), a sea serpent (referenced in Isaiah 27:1), or a whale (referenced in the Book of Psalms, 124:6).

Tennyson is also thought to have been influenced by nineteenth-century discoveries in geology that called into question the biblical creation of the Earth. In 1822, English geologist and paleontologist Gideon Mantell discovered dinosaur skeletons in Tigate Forest in Sussex. This together with his discovery of the Iguanodon in 1825 challenged a previously held belief that, based on estimates of Old Testament prophets, the world had been created in 4004 B.C. The poem thus imagines a creature pieced together from theories of scripture, mythology, and natural history.

Structure of the Poem

'The Kraken' is referred to as a sonnet, though it contains 15 rather than 14 lines. It models the Italian rather than the Shakespearean sonnet. The Italian sonnet or Petrarchan sonnet (which Tennyson is said to have loosely modeled his poem after), is divided into an octave, two quatrains of four lines each, and a sestet, two tersets of three lines each. Like the Shakespearean sonnet, the Italian sonnet identifies a theme or problem in the octave and resolves it in the sestet.

Let's look at how this works in Tennyson's poem:

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.

While there are nine rather than eight lines in this first half of the poem, Tennyson devotes these lines to describing the creature, sleeping deep beneath the ocean's surface. Now let's look at the rest of the poem:

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.

Line 10, 'There hath he lain for ages and will lie,' signals a shift, or turn, from describing the theme to resolving it. The creature has slept for ages, but will awaken at the end of time, and when he rises from the sea, he will die.

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