Featured Poem: The Kraken by Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Remaining in the water just a little while longer – this shall be our last aquatic adventure, for a little while at least, before we start to resemble wrinkled prunes or find that our water-wings are rapidly deflating – to discover what other delights, or dangers, are lurking in the deep…and to come across this particular sea-creature, immortalised in many literary guises but made ‘popular’ by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, you’d have to go a long, long way indeed. Mainly because the creature in question is mythical (or is it? If you’ve ever come across a giant squid, you may beg to differ). Legends of any kind have always proved endlessly fascinating, especially to writers looking to spin an engrossing tale, but add a super-sized sea monster into the equation and much speculation and suspicion – as well as a considerable amount of terror – ensues.
Yet on reading this poem, there seems to be very little about the Kraken to be frightened of. Whereas last week we could not help but be carried along and caught up in the magnetic energy that coursed through the water and aroused – quite literally – the fish who inhabited it, thanks to the irresistible and electric quality of ‘the bait’, the kraken, as gigantic as it is, is very much characterised by considerable inertia. Any action that does occur takes place far, far away from where it lies in the remotest depths, lazing and sluggishly slumbering; even in sleep appearing largely sedentary, merely guarding itself against ‘huge seaworms’ – a gentle giant if there ever was one. The Kraken reverses what happens in The Bait; as Donne reached his conclusion, the energy possessed by the frantic fish petered out as they succumbed to capture. By contrast, it is only at the very end of the poem that the Kraken is moved into action, briefly and ultimately fatally. It is as if for a creature so monumentally large that takes up so much space, a sacrifice had to be made somewhere. Its gargantuan proportions are not put to a purpose that could cause legitimate fear amongst those on dry land; though the legend has it that the appearance of the Kraken signals ‘the end of days’, it seems in Tennyson’s description that the creature itself bears the brunt of the consequences. Perhaps, alongside Paradise Lost, Tennyson was taking inspiration from the Norwegian ‘krake’, which whilst referring to the sea-creature also means ‘frail, poor being’. Despite the weight and size of the Kraken being particularly emphasised, there are things that point to fragility and an incompatibility with life above the surface; the ‘faintest sunlights’ and ‘sickly light’ especially ominous, appearing to foreshadow the creature’s eventual fate.
Precisely what ‘the latter fire’ that heats the deep and causes the Kraken to rise up and then swiftly perish has caused much debate, giving rise to several interpretations. Given the story that has been told in many forms it would appear to be the embodiment of the fiery apocalypse. Whilst such a matter continues to be discussed and touted by various sources – as has been the case just recently – slight variations straying from prophetic visions hit even closer to home. At the time of writing, it may have been a comment on the ongoing industrialisation of society and in modern times that could be stretched to take in computerisation and increased media influence. On an entirely personal note, the fire and the Kraken could closely represent the ‘monster’ within us all; the concealed emotions that lie dormant as we are preoccupied, building and building before the tension finally snaps and erupts. As with The Bait, the occupants of the water are used to hold a mirror up to facets of ourselves that are not particularly pretty but cannot be denied, or indeed quite so easily defeated as the poor Kraken was.
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, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892)