Giant squid

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(HOST) A thrilling scientific discovery recently caused commentator Peter Gilbert to think of the work of Victorian poet Alfred Lord Tennyson.

(GILBERT) I love it when fact and fiction collide, when art and reality meet, like when a mirrored wall meets the floor and reflects it vertically. It happened recently when Japanese researchers announced that they had photographed a rare 26-foot-long giant squid in the wild – a thrilling accomplishment that some people thought could never be done.

Known to exceed fifty feet in length, Architeuthis, the world’s largest invertebrate, is a real-life sea monster, now seen for the first time in its own environment three thousand feet below the ocean’s surface. The photos show the purplish-red animal first stretching out its tentacles toward the scientists’ bait, and then struggling to get free.

Giant squids are the stuff of legends, of myths. In Norwegian folklore, the Kraken is a not a sea serpent, but rather an enormous sea monster that was described as either a giant octopus or a giant squid. It was said to be capable of attacking even the largest sailing ships and dragging the vessel down in a whirlpool as it submerges again. These stories may have been inspired by the real Architeuthis.

In 1830, Alfred Tennyson published his popular poem “The Kraken” about a shadowy, slimy monster sleeping timelessly
at the deepest part of the deep, until, finally, it rises to the ocean surface to be seen once by men, and to die. Here is Tennyson’s fifteen-line poem “The Kraken”:

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 fins the slumbering green.

There hath he lain for ages and will lie
Battering upon huge seaworms in his sleep,
Until the latter fire shall heat the deep;
Then once by men and angels to be seen,
In roaring he shall rise
and on the surface die.

Modern scientists have captured both live and dead giant squid to examine, dissect, and decipher. In Tennyson’s poem, the Kraken leaves his dark and languid death-in-life existence at the ocean’s bottom, and rises to the surface only to die.

In this case, after four hours of struggling, the rare and mysterious squid pulled so hard that it severed one of its own tentacles and escaped, leaving only the tentacle and the photos for the scientists to examine.

This is Peter Gilbert in Montpelier.

Peter Gilbert is the executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council. He spoke from our studio in Montpelier.

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