The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 425 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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 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...

(The entire section is 417 words.)

Literary Style

(Poetry for Students)


"Personification," or the attribution of human qualities to nonhuman objects or creatures, is an...

(The entire section is 354 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Poetry for Students)

  • 1850s: The United States is an increasingly divided country. Tensions flare between Southerners and Northerners, and two...

(The entire section is 181 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Poetry for Students)

  • Research the characteristics of the chambered nautilus and give a class presentation about its biological and environmental significance....

(The entire section is 343 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Poetry for Students)

  • Holmes's "Old Ironsides" (1830), available in books of his collected poetry, such as The Poetical Works of Oliver Wendell Holmes...

(The entire section is 182 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Poetry for Students)


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

(The entire section is 249 words.)