The title "The Chambered Nautilus" refers to a sea creature that lives in the western Pacific and the Indian oceans and has a hard external shell, or exoskeleton. The creature lives in and is able to withdraw into the outermost compartment of its shell, which consists of sealed sections and is one of nature's best examples of a logarithmic spiral, one that grows at an exponential rate and appears to expand while it grows. Line 1 calls the nautilus a "ship of pearl," which combines a comparison to a human-made sailing vessel with a description of the pearly finish of the nautilus shell. The speaker then notes that "poets feign," or pretend, that the nautilus "Sails the unshadowed main," or the wide-open waters.
Lines 3, 4, and 5 continue the conceit, or extended comparison, of the nautilus to a ship, creating an image of a "venturous," or adventurous, wooden ship whose "purpled wings," or sails, fly on the "sweet summer wind." This description sounds like some kind of magical fairyland, and the speaker notes that the ship, or nautilus, sails to enchanted "gulfs." A gulf is a large, partially enclosed body of water, and the word gulf has a secondary meaning of "chasm" or "abyss." The speaker notes that "the siren sings" in these gulfs. This image refers to the beautiful and seductive water nymphs of ancient Greek mythology that sang so beautifully as to lure sailors to be destroyed on the rocks surrounding their island. Lines 6 and 7 continue this imagery, describing coral reefs that "lie bare." This image refers to the beautiful yet dangerous reefs that can destroy a ship but is also vaguely suggestive of the nude "cold sea-maids" who lie in the sun and dry their "streaming hair."
Stanza 2 discusses the nautilus's wreckage and death in the past tense. In line 8, the speaker's conceit continues and expands as the nautilus is said to have "webs of living gauze," or sails. It is important to consider which part of the nautilus refers to the sails and which indicates the "ship of pearl." Logic would suggest that the sails, or "purpled wings" and "webs of living gauze," are the tentacles and head of the creature and that the pearly ship is the shell. In this stanza, however, the sails do not "unfurl," because the ship is "Wrecked" and the nautilus is presumably dead.
In lines 10 through 14, the speaker describes the nautilus's empty shell, continuing to use the comparison of a ship. The speaker discusses "every chambered cell," referring to the compartments and rooms of a ship as well as the sections of the nautilus's exoskeleton, which it makes as it grows larger, closing off old compartments and moving into new ones. The speaker describes these abandoned cells as expired locations where the nautilus's "dim dreaming life" used to dwell. Line 12 refers to the nautilus as a "frail tenant" constructing "his growing shell." Line 13 refers to the reader as "thee," suggesting that the empty shell lies directly in front of the reader. Line 14 describes the inside of...
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