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 message does the nautilus convey in stanza 4?

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In the first three stanzas, the speaker examines the empty spiraled shell of a nautilus, a sea creature that abandons an old home for a new one. As the poet puts it when he finds the shell, its "tenant"

left the past year’s dwelling for the new.

In the fourth stanza, the narrator suddenly understands the import of the empty shell. He calls it a "heavenly message" that rings out as loud and clear to him as any call from Triton's horn: the narrator, too, will leave his "home," his earthly body. One day, too, his mortal frame or earthly coil will also lie dead and forlorn. However, like the nautilus, the speaker realizes that leaving one bodily home is not the end: he too will go to a new home, to "more stately mansions." The death of his body will not be an end but a new beginning, in heaven. The narrator is thankful to the nautilus for conveying this message to him.

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In Oliver Wendell Holmes' poem "The Chambered Nautilus," the poet describes through the first three stanzas, the practice of sea creatures living in a shell for a time. And when a creature decides it is time, it leaves one shell to move on to another. It attaches itself to its new abode which becomes home, while the old "dwelling place" is forgotten.

In stanza four, the poet seems to be speaking to one of the shells that has been washed ashore and retrieved by him:

Child of the wandering sea,

Cast from her lap, forlorn!

The poet personifies the shell, describing it as forlorn, and continues the personification when describing that its lips create sound:

From thy dead lips a clearer note is born

Than even Triton blew from wreathed horn.

The poet writes that while it may no longer be a home, it rings in his ear (as when one places a shell to his ear to listen to the ocean), and when deep in thought, he hears a voice singing, like the sound of the ocean.

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