Below the “upper deep” of the ocean, far submerged, the Kraken waits in his “ancient, dreamless, uninvaded” sleep. Small rays of sunlight play off his sides, and massive sponges undulate above him. In the “sickly light,” innumerable and colossal polyps winnow about in the green water. The Kraken has lain here for ages and grown fat on seaworms in his sleep. Soon the fire of the End Times will heat the deep, and the Kraken will rise to the surface of the sea and die, seen briefly by men and angels.
This short but memorable poem was published in 1830, included in Poems, Chiefly Lyrical. It is a sonnet, but it has fifteen lines instead of fourteen; it is modeled on the Petrarchan rather than Shakespearian sonnet with its form of three quatrains and a concluding couplet.
The poem is derived from the Norse legend of the kraken, massive sea monsters that dwell off the coast of Norway and Greenland. The word is Norwegian, but its origins are obscure; krake means an unhealthy animal or something twisted. The creatures are most likely based on sightings of giant squid, which live at great depths but have occasionally surfaced to reportedly attack ships (in earlier works, however, the kraken are described as crab-like). The Norse legend centers on two creatures called Hafguta and Lyngbakr, mentioned in the 13th-century Icelandic saga Orvar-Odds. A passage from the saga explains, “the hafguta is the greatest monster occurring in the water. It is its nature that it swallows both men and ships and whales and everything that it can reach. It is submerged both day and night together.” The anonymous author of the 13th-century work Konungs skuggsja wrote that the hafguta is “more like land than a fish ... it seems to me as though there must be no more than two in the oceans.”
The famed 18th-century taxonomist Carolus Linneaus classified the kraken as a cephalopod in his Systema Naturae, but the creature was removed from later editions. The kraken were also mentioned in the work of Erik Pontoppidan, bishop of Bergen, whose Natural History of Norway details the creatures’ destructiveness. The Swedish author Jacob Wallenberg wrote in 1781, “Could one doubt that this is the Leviathan of Job?”
Tennyson was no doubt influenced by the Biblical Leviathan, and especially its presence in John Milton’s Paradise Lost. In Book One, Milton writes, “There Leviathan / Hugest of living creatures, on the deep / Stretch’d like a promontory.” Other possible sources are Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology (1830-1833), which challenged the geological timetable of the Bible, and T.C. Croker’s Fairy Legends (1828), a book Tennyson owned.
The poem’s debt to ancient legends is clear, as is the poet’s immense powers of language. He is able to summon for his readers a mysterious and magnificent image of a vast monster hovering in the dark deep of the ocean, with a myriad of dim rays of sunshine illuminating the murky green of the sea. The final image of the monster obeying some primeval impulse to rise to the surface, fulfilling some kind of Biblical prophecy of the End Times or “latter” days, and die in the most glorious and dramatic manner possible is unforgettable.
One critic, James Donald Welch, reads the short poem through the lens of Tennyson’s conception of time, a popular theme in critical writing on the poet. He begins his article by noting the two different types of time found in Tennyson’s work: the first is a time that is “repetitive or static, without goal or terminus ... usually associated with isolation,” and the second time is “dynamic, purposeful, non-repetitive, and is associated with some kind of contact between the individual and the community.” Tennyson uses similar landscapes when conveying time—sea, river, island or other isolated locale, sunset and sunrise, the horizon, and the wasteland. Poems that suggest the first type of time include “Mariana,” “The Lotos-Eaters,” and “Tithonus”; poems that suggest the second type of time include “The Charge of the Light Brigade” and “Demeter and Persephone.”
“The Kraken” includes both types of time, and Welch argues that the enigmatic lyric is about “a deep truth that is imageless: the quality of time itself.” The first part of the poem is sleep, isolated, languid time that yields death to the end of time. The last sentence, disturbing the sonnet form, explodes to reflect the End Times, nearly outside of time, just as the kraken does.
The Kraken is a monster whose end is to rise and die, but in one brief splendid moment he embraces the dynamic rush through time to the end of time. The sublime effect of this rushing contrast between sluggish life and the quick spark of death is also conveyed through the switch from subject to verb and the use of sight and hearing, which are absent from the first twelve lines. “The Kraken” moves, Welch argues, from stasis to “the movement out of this enclosed spatial time, enduring but not progressing, into that moment in which time and eternity meet, when vision is both human and transcendent.” One thus might see oneself and one’s fate in the kraken.