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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"Build Thee More Stately Mansions, O My Soul"

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Context: The poem "The Chambered Nautilus" appeared in the series of articles entitled The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table that Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote for The Atlantic Monthly. The poet calls the shell of the sea animal "the ship of pearl" and alludes to legends of the nautilus sailing "the unshadowed main" and flinging "its purpled wings/ In gulfs enchanted. . . ." Now, though, the ship of pearl is wrecked and "every chambered cell/ . . . Before thee lies revealed. . . ." The poet, observing the construction of the broken shell, describes the slow work of the animal moving each year into a new and larger cell of its spiral home. The "heavenly message" inspired by the nautilus is for the poet a clearer note "Than ever Triton blew from wreath├Ęd horn!" The poet gives the message in the last stanza of the poem:

Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul,
As the swift seasons roll!
Leave thy low-vaulted past!
Let each new temple, nobler than the last,
Shut thee from heaven with a dome more vast,
Till thou at length art free,
Leaving thine outgrown shell by life's unresting sea!

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