This Petrarchan sonnet of 15 lines begins as a lyric contemplation of the Norwegian sea-beast of Scandinavian mythology; but it evolves into an association of the beast with other mythological representations of invisible yet vast, destructive forces that would devour from below or swallow sojourners on the seas of everyday life.  In a broader sense, then, and by means of the mythological representation, the poem may be understood as a contemplation of ideology and blind allegiances to the status quo—which lose their destructive powers only when they are recognized for what they are.


The octave of this sonnet is the contemplation of the sea-monster as a vast being or vaguely living power that inhabits regions “Below the thunders of the upper deep, / Far, far beneath in the abysmal sea” (ll. 1-2).  There, the ageless, ancient being sleeps dreamlessly.  The contemplation leads the poet to reflect upon the extension of the creature: “Huge sponges of millennial growth and height” (l. 6) grow above it, but seem grounded in and growing off of it.  The final lines of the octave (ll. 7-8) lead into the volta (or turn) of lines 9-10, where the contemplation leads to the vision of “Unnumbered and enormous polypi” (hydrae and octopi)—again, extensions of the monster’s being—that “Winnow with giant arms the slumbering green.”  The sestet begins with the locative “There,” as if the poet has achieved an intuitive awareness of the monster’s location or bounds—or nature, perhaps, as ironically boundless.  The contemplation on extension leads the poet to grasp, through allusion and association, the connection between this mythological representation and that of Demagorgan in Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound (and by extension, then, the Demagorgan of Spenser and Milton, and the Leviathan of Milton, Psalms, Isaiah, and Job, and the first beast of Revelation.)  The linking of Scandinavian mythology to the Biblical and to those of Western Tradition testifies to the persistent sense of a vast, yet generally invisible, destructive power that civilizations recognize but can grasp only by indirection—and cannot conquer.  Only some apocalyptic fire of truth seems to be able to force this power into clear visibility, which spells the power’s doom.  The nature of this power—which loses its force when seen clearly for what it is—suggests that the image may well represent something like ideology, as critic Isobel Armstrong has argued.  This accords quite well with issues that Tennyson was exploring at the time—including the perceived failures of Western Tradition’s mythologies to point modern culture in the direction of genuine human flourishing.  

 In the realm of the medical profession, the poem may invite a contemplation of structures and practice conventions, blindly accepted, that undermine the accomplishment of quality care.  Or the poem may serve as a contemplation of relational engagements (including professional ones) ironically founded on unacknowledged egotism and narcissism that undermine the relationships.  Mental Health professionals may find the poem to be a powerful means of contemplating depressive fear. (In the context of a course, I would recommend having students read Kay Redfield Jamison’s chapter—in Touched With Fire: Manic-Depression and the Artistic Temperament--- on the Tennyson family’s well-documented genealogical affliction with depressive illness, and on Tennyson’s persistent fear of the “black blood” flowing in his veins—which clearly informs the fears communicated in this poem.)  And in a larger sense, then, the figure of the monster could represent any number of inherited conditions—and the fears associated with those conditions making their presence known.  For those theologically disposed, the poem may serve as a contemplation of theological concupiscence or sophisticated notions of Original Sin and its effects, and might be paired with a reading of St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans 7: 14-25, again with application in medicine to structural / systemic failures, iatrogenic treatments, sustenance of the hidden curriculum, and so on.  In relation to Professional Identity Formation, the poem may serve as a moving, disturbing contemplation of human limitation and fallibility.

Primary Source

Tennyson's Poetry



Place Published

New York, NY


Robert W. Hill, Jr.

Page Count