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

The Chambered Nautilus

by Oliver Wendell Holmes

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The Poem

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In the five stanzas of “The Chambered Nautilus,” the poet contemplates the broken shell of a nautilus, a small sea animal which the American Heritage Dictionary describes as “a mollusk whose spiral shell contains a series of air-filled chambers.” In his contemplation, he moves from a metaphorical description of its beauty and lifestyle to the ultimate lesson that it teaches.

The first three stanzas trace the life cycle of the little animal, emphasizing the various stages of its growth and development and its eventual death and destruction. In the beginning, the poet likens the nautilus to a ship which sets out to sea—beautiful in its majesty as its sails unfurl to the “sweet summer wind.” He imagines the many wonderful adventures the nautilus has encountered as it challenged the mighty sea, sailing “the unshadowed main.” During its lifetime it ventured into enchanted gulfs and heard the siren songs and has seen mermaids sunning “their streaming hair.”

In the second stanza the poet laments the death of the nautilus, whose shell now lies broken and abandoned on the seashore like the wreck of a once beautiful ship—a ship that will no more “sail the unbounded main.” Like a ship that once teemed with life and now is silent, the nautilus lies lifeless, useless. Just as when a ship is wrecked, the top may be ripped and torn and its interior laid bare for all to see, so the little sea animal is destroyed—its shell broken, its insides exposed, and every “chambered cell revealed.” In the third stanza the poet considers the evolution of the nautilus through the various stages of its life. As it grows, its shell continues to expand in order to accommodate that growth, as evidenced by the ever-widening spirals that mark the shell. The nautilus moves into its new home quite tenuously at first, and for a time it misses the familiarity of its old home. In time, however, the new quarters become familiar and more comfortable.

The fourth stanza is addressed directly to the nautilus, thanking it for the lesson that it has brought him. It is a lesson of great importance, and one which strikes the poet with startling clarity—a message as clear, he says, “as ever Triton blew on his wreathèd horn.” This message is stated in the final stanza of the poem, beginning, “Build thee more stately mansions.” The lesson is that the growth of the human being should parallel that of the nautilus; the individual should continue to grow spiritually throughout his lifetime.

Forms and Devices

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The poet employs three major figures of speech, metaphor, personification, and apostrophe, to create the imagery in the poem—images which are at first quite impersonal but which become increasingly more personal as the poem progresses toward its conclusion. This helps prepare the reader for the intensely personal message of the final stanza.

The poet begins with sea imagery, using a sailing vessel as a metaphor for the nautilus. He refers to it as a “ship of pearl,” suggesting not only its beauty and grandeur but also its value as both a living organism and a teacher. The poet’s use of the term “venturous bark,” in reference to the nautilus, evokes images of the majestic sailing ships of bygone days, eager to explore different worlds. His allusions to the songs of the “sirens,” the “enchanted gulfs,” and the coral reefs where “sea-maids rise to sun their streaming hair,” all help to reinforce the images of grand and glorious adventures reminiscent of the mythological voyages of the great classical heroes of the ancient world. In the second...

(This entire section contains 417 words.)

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stanza, the poet continues with the ship metaphor, likening the “webs of living gauze,” by which the nautilus moves, to the sails which move the ship. The beauty and grandeur of this little ship, however, has now been destroyed and will no longer “unfurl” its lovely sails to the wind.

In the third stanza the imagery becomes personal. Here the nautilus is compared to a human being who, when he outgrows one home, abandons it and moves into new quarters that will better accommodate him. This personal imagery is enhanced by the poet’s use of terms usually associated with human behavior to describe the activities of the nautilus. He speaks, for example, of the “silent toil” by which the animal built his new “dwelling,” and the “soft step” with which he entered his new home. Finally, the nautilus “stretched in his new-found home,” expressing its contentment in the same manner as a human being would. The imagery becomes even more personal in the fourth stanza as the poet abandons the use of metaphor altogether and utilizes the apostrophe to address the nautilus directly, thanking it for the lesson it has brought him, even in death. He refers to it as a “child” cast from the “lap” of the sea—thus using personification to establish a mother-child relationship between the animal and the sea, further enhancing the personal tone and preparing the reader for the final message of the poem.

Literary Style

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"Personification," or the attribution of human qualities to nonhuman objects or creatures, is an important literary technique in "The Chambered Nautilus." One of the poem's main extended metaphors compares a nautilus to the human soul, and the success of this metaphor depends on imagery that associates the nautilus with a human. Examples of this personification include the idea that the nautilus has a "dreaming life," its description as a "tenant," its stealing with "soft step," its ability to stretch out in a home, and the notion that it is a "child" with "lips." All of these characteristics are not literally possible in a shelled aquatic creature, and they implore the reader to imagine that the nautilus is human. Holmes uses this technique to develop the idea that the nautilus is a metaphor for the human condition, because personification makes it easier for readers to imagine themselves as a nautilus.

Symmetrical Rhyme Scheme

"The Chambered Nautilus" contains five stanzas, all of which follow the same rhyme scheme consisting of a rhymed couplet (group of two lines), followed by a rhymed tercet (group of three lines), followed by another couplet. Also written aabbbcc, this rhyme structure makes the verse flow musically by adding rhythm and musicality to the poem. Rhyme can also serve other functions, including linking words and associating them thematically, although Holmes does not seem to use it for these purposes.

Alliteration and Diction

Holmes carefully uses language to develop the meaning, rhythm, and structure of his poem. He uses alliteration, or the repetition of consonant sounds such as the use of d in "dim dreaming life was wont to dwell," to draw attention to the words that are alliterated and provide a pleasing or musical sound. Holmes's diction, or choice of vocabulary, is also carefully selected for various purposes; for example, it sounds somewhat antiquated (even for 1858) in order to make the poem seem more eloquent or authoritative. Finally, the poet uses diction to develop his thematic agenda, using spiritual terminology when he wishes to discuss the human soul and mythological references when he wishes to strike a fanciful or "enchanted" note.

Compare and Contrast

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  • 1850s: The United States is an increasingly divided country. Tensions flare between Southerners and Northerners, and two presidents fail to ease the conflict over slavery and ideology that is building steadily toward civil war.Today: The United States appears to be a divided country once again. Republicans and Democrats have deep ideological differences, and the administration of President George W. Bush is known for rewarding its ultraconservative base and refusing to take a moderate stance.
  • 1850s: Boston is the literary and intellectual hub of the United States, boasting the greatest thinkers and scholars of the American Renaissance.Today: Although Boston remains a center of American intellectual life, home to many of the best universities in the country, New York is a larger hub of literary and philosophical thought.
  • 1850s: In the United States, slavery is legal in Southern states, African Americans throughout the country are impoverished and segregated from white society, women cannot vote, and discrimination against immigrants is widespread.Today: The United States guarantees equal rights for all adult citizens under the law, but discrimination against minorities continues to exist.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Holmes, Oliver Wendell, The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table, J. M. Dent & Sons, 1960, pp. 88-90, 92.

――――――, "The Chambered Nautilus," in The Poetical Works of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1975, pp. 149-50, 152.

Macy, John, "Holmes," in The Spirit of American Literature, Doubleday, Page & Company, 1913, pp. 155-70.

Parker, Gail Thain, "Sex, Sentiment, and Oliver Wendell Holmes," in Women's Studies, Vol. 1, No. 1, 1972, p. 49.

Prothero, Rowland E., "A Review of The Writings of Oliver Wendell Holmes," in Quarterly Review, Vol. 179, No. 359, January 1895, pp. 189-206.

Further Reading

Emerson, Ralph Waldo, Nature and Selected Essays, Penguin, 2003, originally published by J. Munroe and Company, 1836.

Emerson's first and most influential work on the post-Romantic philosophy of transcendentalism, Nature is a crucial work in the historical context of mid-nineteenth-century Boston.

Gibian, Peter, Oliver Wendell Holmes and the Culture of Conversation, Cambridge University Press, 2001.

In this important book about Holmes's place in American history, Gibian provides a literary and historical analysis of Holmes and his intellectual circle.

Hawthorne, Hildegarde, The Happy Autocrat: A Life of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Longmans, Green, 1938.

Hawthorne's biography of Holmes sketches the historical context surrounding "The Chambered Nautilus" and provides a useful overview of the poet's life and career.

Traister, Bryce, "Sentimental Medicine: Oliver Wendell Holmes and the Construction of Masculinity," in Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 27, No. 2, Autumn 1999, pp. 203-25.

Although it does not discuss "The Chambered Nautilus," Traister's article provides an interesting commentary about Holmes's views on gender relations, particularly his idea of male medical authority and its approach to women.


Critical Essays