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.)