With its rich imagery and ringing verse, "The Chambered Nautilus," by Oliver Wendell Holmes, is one of the most enduring nature poems of the mid-nineteenth century. Its subject is the nautilus, a sea creature that lives inside a spiral shell. As it grows, the nautilus makes new, larger chambers of its shell in which to live, closing off the old chambers and gradually forming a spiral. Holmes compares the nautilus to a "ship of pearl" sailing through enchanted but dangerous waters until it is wrecked. The speaker or narrator of the poem uses the nautilus as a metaphor for the human soul, stressing that its example provides a "heavenly message" of how people should grow and develop through their lives. At the end of the poem, Holmes emphasizes the idea that humans expand their horizons until they achieve the spiritual freedom of heaven or the afterlife.
Although it may appear abstract or timeless, "The Chambered Nautilus" is grounded in the world of mid-nineteenth-century Boston, sometimes called the American Renaissance because of its flowering in literature, philosophy, and culture. Holmes—a medical doctor, poet, novelist, travel writer, scientist, essayist, philosopher, lecturer, and conversationalist—was a prominent figure in the literary and philosophical circles of his era. "The Chambered Nautilus" was originally published in the new magazine Atlantic Monthly as part of a series combining poetry and prose that derived from Holmes's many stimulating conversational groups in Boston's intellectual society. In 1858, this series, called The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table, was published in book form, and it was widely received as a witty and insightful work. "The Chambered Nautilus" is available in collections such as The Poetical Works of Oliver Wendell Holmes, published by Houghton Mifflin in 1975, as well as in reprint editions of The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table, such as that published by J. M. Dent & Sons in 1960.