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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What are three effective examples of imagery in "The Chambered Nautilus"?

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Supporting the poet's purpose of expressing the importance of continually building a nobler, more spiritual existence, imagery in Oliver Wendell Holmes's "The Chambered Nautilus" becomes very effective. In the first stanza, for instance, the nautilus as the human soul is compared to a "ship of pearl" that has "purpled wings," lending it nobility with the images of a gem, the pearl, and the royal color of purple.  Further, the visual imagery of "living gauze" and "the frail tenant" in "its sunless crypt unsealed" in the second stanza points to the delicacy of the soul that must be afforded a spiritual existence. Then, growth and expansion of the soul is suggested in the third stanza with more visual imagery as "the spiral grew" and "Stretched." In the fourth stanza, Holmes's use of apostrophe conveys an outburst of feeling while the auditory imagery of notes from the horn of Triton, a sea god, emphasizes the importance of the "heavenly message" of the nautilus. Finally, in the last stanza, with the metaphor of "stately mansions," Holmes encourages the soul to strive for virtue.  The visual imagery of "low-vaulted past" and now a "dome more vast" suggests the expansion of spiritual growth and underscores the message of the poet.

Perhaps, the most effective use of imagery is with those images that associate the nautilus with the human soul.  Here are three images that create this association through personification:

  1. "its dim dreaming life" - This image appears in the second stanza and personifies the nautilus as a person capable of dreams.
  2. "the frail tenant" - This image suggests the tenuous hold the soul has upon the person, a hold that must be nurtured.
  3. "Child of the wandering sea" - This personification that includes the visual image of the ocean suggests the search that the soul has for good and its development.

Clearly, imagery in "The Chambered Nautilus" lends a visual and auditory experience to the imagined expansion of the soul in its journey through life, with the nautilus as its metaphor. 

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