abstract illustration of a person standing with a large nautilus superimposed upon its body

The Chambered Nautilus

by Oliver Wendell Holmes

Start Free Trial

Scott Trudell

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Scott Trudell is a doctoral student of English literature at Rutgers University. In the following essay, he discusses the didactic, or moral, emphasis on productivity in "The Chambered Nautilus," arguing that Holmes is ambivalent about his own moral message.

Immediately before "The Chambered Nautilus" is recited in The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table, the autocrat asks, "Can you find no lesson in this?" In this way, he emphasizes that the poem will have a didactic, or a moral or instructional, quality. It is clear from the surrounding context that the poem's "lesson" will relate the ideas Holmes has been developing throughout the fourth chapter of his breakfast-table conversation series, which focuses on age, memory, productivity, personal development, and the spiritual journey through life's various stages. The autocrat's comments toward the end of the chapter about the "direction we are moving," the importance that "we outgrow all that we love," and the "race of life" in which a person must make his or her imprint on the world are intended to relate to Holmes's didactic message in "The Chambered Nautilus."

As the autocrat promises, the chambered nautilus serves as a didactic metaphor for the journey of the soul through life. The poem's speaker compares the nautilus to a ship in much the same way that the autocrat compares life's developmental progress to a sailing voyage: "To reach the port of heaven, we must sail sometimes with the wind and sometimes against it,—but we must sail, and not drift, nor lie at anchor." The poem reinforces this idea of personal agency when it dwells on the idea of leaving "the past year's dwelling for the new." For the speaker, the chambered nautilus is an ideal metaphor for the progress of the human soul through life. The nautilus achieves a kind of perpetual progress by leaving the old behind it and speeding through the race of life that the autocrat describes earlier.

The allegory in the poem is clearly Christian, guaranteeing an escape from the "silent toil" of "low-vaulted" and "dim dreaming" life, with its dangerous sirens besetting the "frail tenant" of mortality's shell. Although the nautilus, or the metaphor for the human soul, brings a "heavenly message," it is a "Child of the wandering sea, / Cast from her lap, forlorn!" It must endure life's trials with humble Christian patience, creating the perfect shell of a life's work in the process. When he reaches the end of life's voyage, the subject departs from life and into spiritual freedom, leaving this "outgrown" but beautiful shell behind as a mark of his achievement.

The poem reinforces the center of the autocrat's conversational argument and develops Holmes's idea of the noble process of development. It is not, like "Contentment" in chapter 11 of The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table, an ironic poem that playfully and purposefully undercuts the auto-crat's moral message. This is not to say that the poem is an entirely straightforward or simple allegory, however. Holmes's "lesson" dwells on a variety of preconceptions about productivity, personal development, and social mobility, and it subtly suggests potential pitfalls, dangers, and inadequacies in this worldview.

The primary preoccupation of "The Chambered Nautilus" is an obsession with productivity and industriousness. Here and throughout The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table , Holmes suggests that it is necessary to work constantly, steadfastly, and earnestly throughout one's life. The nautilus, compared to a "venturous" ship that "Sails the unshadowed main," is characterized by its "silent toil" as "year after year" it builds its shell. The main lesson the speaker extracts from the sea creature is not to float aimlessly in...

(This entire section contains 1586 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

a protective shell, enjoying life's "gulfs enchanted," but to build continuously and productively "As the swift seasons roll!"

The demanding work ethic suggested in the poem relates to the drive to increase the world's scientific, artistic, literary, and philosophical knowledge. Holmes was a prolific scientist, physician, writer, and scholar, and he was dedicated to the wide advancement of human intellectual achievement as he saw it. Well respected as an intellectual authority by his critics and friends alike, Holmes was consulted on a wide variety of matters, acquainted with nearly all of the major writers and intellectuals of his time, and continually urged to publish and speak in Boston and throughout the country. The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table, like much of Holmes's work, stresses that truth is an "eternal flow" (as it is called in the poem "What We All Think"), and it is the obligation of humankind to pursue it vigorously.

The demand for industriousness extends to Christian virtue, which is framed as a sort of natural extension of a productive and laborious life. As Holmes states in "What We All Think," the "one unquestioned text" around which all human study and achievement revolves is "God is Love!" This statement emphasizes that the pursuit of heavenly virtue is also the pursuit of scientific and philosophical truth. Holmes stresses that the pursuit of religious truth results in "All doubt beyond, all fear above" because, to him, it is another of the noble or necessary aims of human toil. "The Chambered Nautilus" reflects this idea in the sense that the nautilus's, or soul's, everyday toil to make its beautiful iridescent shell on earth is also its toil to build new temples, and with each larger chamber it comes closer to the "free[dom]" of heaven.

Holmes's moral of industriousness also extends to social mobility, a version of the American dream in which work results in monetary rewards. The line "Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul" in "The Chambered Nautilus" suggests that productivity applies not only to the pursuit of knowledge and Christian virtue but also to the accumulation of wealth. This suggestion is somewhat curious, because "stately mansions" are not a typical image of the humble Christian home, but the poem seems to include this kind of upward social mobility in its moral as the speaker leaves his "low-vaulted," presumably impoverished, past in exchange for the most stately of mansions, heaven. This idea is reinforced by the fact that the nautilus continually abandons its previous associations, which are no longer worthy of it. The autocrat develops this idea more explicitly in the paragraphs that precede the poem when he says, somewhat ironically, "So you will not think I mean to speak lightly of old friendships." Whether he speaks of them "lightly" or not, the autocrat values old acquaintances not for their virtues or by any sense of loyalty but only because they allow him to measure his progress in life. The nautilus is an appropriate metaphor for this kind of thinking because, as the speaker emphasizes, the shelled sea creature shuts its doors on its past and locks it away in compartments.

The poem's moral of constant, relentless productivity in the pursuit of knowledge, spirituality, and wealth reflects a typical outlook in its historical period. In the United States, as in Britain, the middle to late nineteenth century was a period in which many extremely prolific writers were obsessed with adding to the world's catalogue of truth and knowledge. Because of transcendentalist or post-Romantic thinking, however, the Boston renaissance did not always emphasize a logical scientific process as the ideal means by which to uncover truth. Knowledge, according to Emerson, was to be found within the human mind, and personal insight was the chief tool for uncovering what he and other transcendentalists considered the innate and universal truth of the world. It would be a mistake to imagine that Holmes entirely subscribed to logic and science over personal insight, although Holmes was often known to criticize the central tenets of transcendentalism.

Whether or not it can be said to include transcendentalist ideas, "The Chambered Nautilus" reveals significant ambivalence about its moral that a person is obligated to work industriously, ceaselessly, and rigorously year after year. The best example of Holmes's mixed feelings about a straightforward, logical, and productive work ethic is the fact that the nautilus is so dour as it labors endlessly in its chambers. A "frail" and "forlorn" creature confined to a "cell" or "crypt," the nautilus is continually displaced from its origins in a kind of tragic, circular toil. It is not allowed to dwell in the "gulfs enchanted" because of the alluring but deadly sirens, but it ends up wrecked on the rocks anyway. The nautilus must steal away with "soft step" as though to avoid the old friends and acquaintances it has left behind in its vigorous drive to produce. Because its final product is a beautiful but cracked-open shell, the "note" from its "dead lips" is not necessarily as clear a "heavenly message" as the speaker claims.

The speaker is certainly not aware of grim ambivalence in the portrayal of industriousness, but Holmes seems to be considering it sincerely. Ceaseless and unhappy toil may be a kind of necessary result of productivity, as it is portrayed in the poem, and the beauty of the nautilus's broken shell is, in part, a kind of signal that the labor was worthwhile. Holmes implies at the same time, however, that this tragically broken shell is a warning that the nautilus has pushed itself too hard and for rewards that it never enjoys. Although it develops a moral that urges the reader to engage in the laborious process of intellectual, religious, and financial productivity, "The Chambered Nautilus" leaves a strong hint of tragedy and resignation in the creature or person that follows this advice.

Source: Scott Trudell, Critical Essay on "The Chambered Nautilus," in Poetry for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.

Eleanor M. Tilton

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

In the following essay, Tilton examines the influence of Holmes's friend, the historian John Lothrop Motley, on Holmes's writing, asserting that Motley's influence affected the quality of Holmes's work negatively.

In the spring of 1857, Oliver Wendell Holmes sent to the historian John Lothrop Motley a private printing of a long poem written two years earlier for the opening of the 1855 lecture season of the Boston Mercantile Library Association. In 1857 Holmes seems to have had no plans for publication of the poem, but evidently felt the need of more discriminating criticism than the newspaper reporters had been in the habit of giving him. By then his friendship with Motley had reached that degree of intimacy that made him willing to ask for criticism that Motley felt willing and free to give.

Motley went through the private printing carefully, annotating his marks of praise and blame, and in his covering letter of May 3, he adumbrated his critical principles. His marginal notes and his letter provide a revealing illustration of mid-nineteenth-century sensibility. What would have been regarded in 1857 as the finest taste is recognizably moribund, an amalgam of elements drawn from the eighteenth century through Blair's Lectures on Rhetoric and of ingredients diluted from German sources. Blair was known to every American college student, and Motley had not escaped him at Harvard; with some of the principal German sources he had been familiar from his school days at Joseph Green Cogswell's Round Hill School.

Deferring to his friend's taste, Holmes revised the poem carefully before its first publication in 1862 in Songs in Many Keys. Except for the deletion of matter appropriate only to the original occasion, nearly all the changes were directed by Motley's marginal notes and his letter. For this criticism Holmes remained loyally grateful all his life. In 1889 he wrote to Morley's daughter Lily: "I believe your father is the only friend to whom I ever submitted a manuscript for criticism, though Edward Everett sent and borrowed one and made some more or less wise suggestions. But everything your father said, had meaning for me."

Introduced by the portion later entitled "The Old Player" and closing with the section later entitled "The Secret of the Stars," this discursive sentimental poem belongs essentially to the same genre as Crabbe's "The Borough," although in those places where he allows his wit to rule, Holmes's manner is more nearly that of Pope. The poem deals with five figures—a recluse, a banker, a lover, a statesman, and a mother—each of whom cherishes a secret he fears to reveal. What Holmes called his "simple thread" was not so simple as he supposed, for the several "secrets" have no very close relation to one another. Motley, however, appeared to have no difficulty finding his way about the untitled private printing and was not disturbed by the juxtaposition of Daniel Webster and the Virgin Mary.

Of the seven parts of the poem, Motley without hesitation selected as the best the portion now entitled "The Mother's Secret." In his letter he said of this part: "The pictures are finished with an artistic delicacy of touch & a piety of feeling, which remind me of the Florentine painters of the 14th & 15th centuries." In the text against the lines describing the Nativity he wrote: "This is a picture worthy of Fra Angelico." In his letter, Motley went on to speak of sections he did not like: the recognizable portrait of Daniel Webster ("The Statesman's Secret"), the embezzling banker's farewell dinner-party ("The Banker's Secret"), and the mystery of the recluse of Apple Island ("The Exile's Secret"), although for the last of the three he was willing to make concessions. Motley's letter provides the grounds for his preferences:

The Webster photograph is bold, shadowy and imposing—but would probably elicit more hearty applause from a public audience, than from some of us who have perhaps pondered too much the unheroic & the unpoetical elements which constituted so much of that golden headed & clay footed image—

The same remark I shd be inclined to make upon the fraudulent banker. You have painted a very vigorous picture, but there is something in the details which are too inharmonious with the ideal—I suppose that you will not agree with me, and very likely it is some narrowness on my part or over squeamishness—but the particulars of a modern dinner party, refuse to make poetry to my imagination—The more life like they are (and nothing can be more vivid than your sketch) the more does my mind rebel at them—At the same time, I beg you to believe that I feel as warmly as anyone can do the genial flow of the atmosphere & the genuine ring of the verse, even in the passages which I put below the other parts of the poem in comparison—

Indeed the description of the ruined home on Apple Island, is almost the best thing in the poem….

Underlying the preferences here—aside from political disapproval of Webster—is the familiar opposition of the Ideal and the Actual. Having as its subject the mother of Jesus, "The Mother's Secret" could not escape being satisfactorily Ideal; an American politician, with or without feet of clay, and a banker, even an honest one, were bound to be grossly Actual. Motley was less sure of himself when he came to "The Exile's Secret." For reasons shortly to be noted, he was pleased with a passage clearly "beautiful" but put off by the fact that he could call the rumored exile by his actual name, William Marsh, and could identify the island, although Holmes had refrained from naming either and had idealized the location by referring to Boston as St. Botolph's town. So fixed in Motley's mind was the opposition of the Ideal and the Actual that he found "inharmonious with the ideal" any detail that seemed to speak or even to hint of actuality. With few exceptions, Motley's marginal protests and injunctions to "omit" or "change" are directed against such details as "refuse to make poetry" to an imagination instructed by Blair and a sensibility nurtured on the assumed opposition of Ideality and Actuality. The kind of picture Motley wanted was a Claude Lorrain. From Eckermann's Gespräche mit Goethe he could have taken a text for his criticism:

These paintings have the highest Truth, but no trace of Actuality. Claude Lorrain knew the real world by heart down to the smallest detail, and he used it as the means to express the world of his beautiful soul. And this is the true Ideality: in knowing how to use realistic means to reveal the True and make it create the illusion of the Actual.

For his criticism Motley did not need a text; the paired opposites, disassociated from their philosophical and literary sources, had become cant by 1857; as catchwords, they had been frequently evoked to praise Schiller as the poet of the Ideal and to disparage Goethe as the poet of the Actual. Longfellow exclaimed:

But who has told them [Goethe's admirers] that books are to be nothing more than an exact reflexion of what passes in real life? There is enough misery in this world to make our hearts heavy;—in books let us have something more than this—something to strengthen and elevate and purify us. Schiller—the beautiful Schiller does this. He is the prophet of the ideal—Goethe the prophet of the real.

Emerson made the same judgment: "Goethe, then, must be set down as the poet of the Actual, not of the Ideal; the poet of limitation, not of possibility; of this world, and not of religion and hope; in short, if I may say so, the poet of prose, and not of poetry."

The adored Schiller had offered the paired opposites as to indicate a standard for the artist's aspiration: "But how does the artist protect himself from the corruptions of his time, which beset him from all sides? By disdaining its judgments. He should look upward to his dignity and divine law, not downward to Fortune and material need…. He should relinquish to the Understanding, which is here at home, the sphere of the Actual; he should strive instead to effect the birth of the Ideal from the union of the possible and the necessary."

In Carlyle's prefatory comments on the writers he translated for his German Romance, the opposition is implied in his final judgment of the humoristic Musäus: "His imagination is not powerless: it is like a bird of feeble wing, which can fly from tree to tree; but never soars for a moment into the æther of Poetry, to bathe in its serene splendour, with the region of the Actual lying far below, and brightened into beauty by radiance not its own. He is a man of fine and varied talent, but scarcely of any genius."

Motley could not have expected Holmes always to reach the heavenly "æther of Poetry," but his criticism shows that he wished his friend to make the attempt. Wherever he found Holmes "spiritualizing the grossness of this actual life," Motley was content. We borrow the phrase from Hawthorne, for in Hawthorne's vein is a passage in "The Exile's Secret" that Motley marked with parallel lines of approval "as Channing used to do our themes":

   Who sees unmoved,—a ruin at his feet,—   The lowliest home where human hearts have beat?   Its hearth-stone, shaded with the bistre stain   A century's showerly torrents wash in vain;   Its starving orchard, where the thistle blows   And elbowed spectres stand in broken rows;   Its chimney-loving poplar, never seen
   Save next a roof, or where a roof has been;   Its knot-grass, plantain,—all the social weeds,   Man's mute companions, following where he leads;   Its dwarfed, pale flowers, that show their straggling heads,   Sown by the wind from grass-choked garden-beds;   Its woodbine, creeping where it used to climb;   Its roses, breathing of the olden time;   All the poor shows the curious idler sees,   As life's thin shadows fade by slow degrees,   Till nought remains, the saddening tale to tell,   Save home's last wrecks,—the cellar and the well!

Motley questioned the phrase "elbowed spectres" and asked "can a shadow fade?", but approved of the whole,… Not strictly speaking "Ideal," the picture is "beautiful" according to standards supplied by Blair:

There is, however, another sense … in which Beauty of writing characterizes a particular manner; when it is used to signify a certain grace and amenity in the turn either of style or sentiment…. In this sense, it denotes a manner neither remarkably sublime, nor vehemently passionate, nor uncommonly sparkling, but such as raises in the reader an emotion of the gentle placid kind, familiar to what is raised by the contemplation of beautiful objects in nature; which neither lifts the mind very high, nor agitates it very much, but diffuses over the imagination an agreeable and pleasing serenity.

Blair had earlier used as an example of the "beautiful" the movement of a bird in flight, contrasting that with flashes of lightning, which he clearly took for "sublime." The passage quoted is followed by a grudging admission of the pleasure afforded by novelty, an admission made in such a way as to discourage the student from trying to achieve it and the reader from admiring it. The faithful pupil of Blair was encouraged to provide the mixture as before. It is noticeable that Motley nowhere criticized his friend for being trite; the acceptable ideality of picturesque ruins made him content with stereotypes.

Pleasing to Motley and also "beautiful" according to the standards of Blair are lines from the introductory section, "The Old Player."

   From groves of glossy beech the wood thrush fills   In the dim twilight with his rapturous trills;   From sweet still pastures, cropped by nodding kine,   Their noon-tide tent the century-counting pine;   From the brown streams along whose winding shore   Each sleepy inlet knows my resting oar;   From the broad meadows, where the mowers pass   Their scythes slow-breathing through the feathered grass;   From tawny rye-fields, where the cradler strikes   With whistling crash among the bearded spikes;   Fresh from such glories, how shall I forget   My summer's day-dream, now the sun is set?

The critic apparently found ll. 5-10 especially satisfying, for he gave them two sets of approving parallels. Again Motley was sufficiently taken with the ideality of the subject to be indifferent to the quality of the language, to the grotesque effects of the personifications, and to the haphazard arrangement of the details.

Employing the same standard of the "beautiful," Motley gave his accolade to the pseudo-Homeric catalogue of ships in "The Exile's Secret"; but when human beings appear on the scene he had complaints. He did not like an "old skipper" who "curses," an "excursion crew" of fishermen, a "slightly tipsy" sailor, and a group of "clamadventurers." Here Motley appears to be obeying the injunction of Blair against the use of "such allusions as raise in the mind disagreeable, mean, vulgar or dirty ideas."

Anxious to meet his friend's standards, Holmes frequently diluted his original matter. Lines of the Private Copy reading:

   We stand a moment on the outstreched pier;—   Ho! lazy boatman, scull your dory here!   The tide runs fast;

became in Songs in Many Keys:

   So fair when distant should be fairer near;   A boat shall waft us from the outstretched pier.   The breeze blows fresh;

The change was dictated by Motley's protest against the imperative: "Scull your dory here!" That in quest of the Ideal and in evasion of the Actual, one might come upon the insipid—this consequence the exponents of the favored opposition failed to perceive. Holding to the principle, Motley pushed Holmes toward an alien style. He bracketed and questioned these lines:

   Pilots, with varnished hats and shaggy coasts;   Fishers, with scaly oars and slippery boats;   Boys of rude speech, who spread a ragged sail   On courtesying skiffs that want a crew to bale;   Sires of the town who quit the cushioned chair   On some bright morning when the breeze is fair,   And tempt the dangers of the tossing brine   To learn how paupers live,—and guardians dine;

The critic's marginal note is: "I would omit this—It is very good & Crabby, but I like your heroic style best particul[arl]y in this poem." Not Holmes at his best certainly, these lines are nevertheless in his best vein, and Motley did him no service by trying to shift his attention from a Crabbe to a Schiller. The whole of "The Exile's Secret," alternating between the "beautiful" and the "Crabby," did not give Motley the same satisfaction as "The Mother's Secret," with its clearly Ideal theme. The incongruity of the styles did not disturb Motley; what disturbed him was any intrusion of the Actual. "Artistic feeling" required the avoidance of Actuality; here Motley did not trust Holmes. In his letter he wrote: "To the morally pure & noble, there is no need of my exhorting you—To that you are always instinctively and unerringly true—To the intellectually beautiful & sublime you are equally loyal—It is only to the artistic feeling that you are sometimes false, and so far, false to your own nature…."

In the section now called "The Statesman's Secret," with its unheroic and unpoetical subject, Daniel Webster, Motley found two passages that he evidently regarded as notably "false" to "artistic feeling."

   The cheated turncoat shakes his broken chain,   The baffled spoilsman howls, "In vain! In vain!"   The whitening bones of trampled martyrs strew   The slippery path his sliding feet pursue.   Go, great Deluded! Go and take thy place   With thy sad brethren of the bovine race, frenzied   The herd of would-be quadriennial kings   The white-house gad-fly crazes when he stings!

Motley wanted both deleted, explaining why in a marginal note to the first:

a presidential election is in its details so vulgar & unpoetical, that you must soar as high as possible into the general empyrean of poetical ambition—This you have done very skilfully, & if you will omit as above suggested, the picture is grand & solemn—it ought in no sense to be comic

Deleting the first passage, Holmes revised the second:

   Shake from thy sense the wild delusive dream!   Without the purple, art thou not supreme?   And soothed by love unbought, thy heart shall own   A nation's homage nobler than its throne!

Avoiding the democratic Actual, Holmes could reach for the Ideal only by resorting to an inappropriately royal diction.

Bankers, like politicians, similarly tempted the poet toward the vulgar Actual, and the embezzler's dinner-party displeased Motley in proportion as it evoked Holmes's sense of the comic. The critic did what he could with the offending subject. The Hostess who thinks of her "vexed cuisine" is "too bourgeois"; there are "too many" extra dinner guests; the amount of drinking is "too strong for a ladies' dinner party." The "Blairish" objection to the "mean" shows in protests against such words as "sweating," "slink," "lugs out," "slow-coach," "slap on," and "jolly," offenses that Holmes amended or deleted.

A far safer subject was that of "The Lover's Secret." From Motley's standpoint a love-sick ancient Roman was Ideal in his condition, his time, and his place. Although Motley found a few inelegant words, he considered the "whole episode … classic, original, & brilliant," and marked the first eighteen lines with the parallels:

   What ailed young Lucius? Art had vainly tried   To guess his ill, and found herself defied.   The Augur plied his legendary skill,   Useless; the fair young Roman languished still.   His chariot took him every cloudless day   Across the Pincian Hill or Appian Way;   They rubbed his wasted limbs with sulphurous oil   Oozed from the far-off Orient's heated soil;   They led him tottering down the steamy path   Where bubbling fountains filled the thermal bath;   Borne in a litter to Egeria's cave,   They washed him, shivering, in her icy wave.   They sought all curious herbs and costly stones,   They scraped the moss that grew on dead men's bones   They tried all cures the votive tablets taught,   Scoured every place whence healing drugs were bought,   O'er Thracian hills his breathless couriers ran,   His slaves waylaid the Syrian caravan.

Thirty-one additional lines received Motley's approving parallels. He asked for the omission of one couplet, pointed out the redundancy in "hired sicarius," and objected to "The maid of lion step," because "lion is too masculine," suggesting "panther" as a substitute. The maid is she who "bade black Crassus 'touch her if he dare!'" Motley protested in the margin: "I don't like 'touch her if he dare!'—too prosaic and the passage is very poetical & romantic." The whole, however, pleased Motley because he saw in it the ideal qualities of "classic elegance" and "tenderness & truth."

In "Ideality," however, it could not match "The Mother's Secret." In that section, Motley was able to mark nearly half the poem with the parallels; and here he saw little to complain of. Combining religion and domestic affection, "The Mother's Secret" nowhere tempted Holmes toward the gross actualities Motley wanted him to avoid. Motley saw not only Fra Angelico; he found in the description of the elders in the Temple "a vivid picture in 2 Rembrandt strokes":

   They found him seated with the ancient men,—   The grim old swordsmen of the tongue and pen,—   Their bald heads glistening as they clustered near,   Their grey beards slanting as they turned to hear,   Lost in half envious wonder and surprise   That lips so fresh should utter words so wise.

Consistent in his major criticisms and in certain minor ones not here noted, Motley holds to the standard of the opposed Ideal and Actual as if by 1857 it were second nature to do so. As a directive for both the critic and writer, this standard carried weight well into the late nineteenth century. Extracted from their philosophical ground, the concepts of the Ideal and the Actual had degenerated into trite maxims for the selection of subject-matter and the choosing of words. The conspicuous insipidness of much American writing and painting of the period is traceable to this critical formula, not to the so-called "genteel tradition." Notions of gentility no doubt affected social behavior, but such notions cannot clearly be related to literary taste. Reference to the habit of condemning the Actual and demanding the Ideal will provide a better explanation of much nineteenth-century criticism—e.g., objections to the "realism" of William D. Howells—then loose of an assumed "tradition" of gentility. As for Victorian prudery too often charged to the Puritans, it operated to rule out entirely from the range of selection certain subject matter; but, as our illustration of taste shows, considerations of prudery need not be evoked at all. Here the magic formula provides the only standard except for those recollections of Blair not inconsistent with it.

A usable, or at least not damaging, directive for a writer of Hawthorne's interest and talents, the formula was scarcely the right one for Holmes. Using it, Motley was led to discount—perhaps was blinded to—his friend's gift for satire. For example, he enjoined Holmes to omit from "The Exile's Secret" the sharp couplet:

   I dress the phrases of our tarry friend,   As lawyers trim the rascals they defend.

Apparently assuming that his friend's taste was superior to his own, Holmes accepted all Motley's criticism, except two trivial verbal ones. Had Holmes resisted this imposition of a standard alien to his temper and his talent, he would have been a wiser and possibly a better poet than he was. However successful a venture into the Ideal "The Chambered Nautilus" (1857) may be and may have seemed to its author (or to Motley), "The Last Leaf" (1831) is a better indication of where Holmes's real, if slight, talent lay. Finally, our illustration of taste suggests that a question possibly worth investigation is how far other writers (e.g., Henry James) were deflected from their courses by explicit or implicit exhortations to soar into the heavenly æther of the Ideal.

Source: Eleanor M. Tilton, "Holmes and His Critic Motley," in American Literature, Vol. 36, No. 4, January 1965, pp. 463-74.


Critical Overview