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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Topics for Further Study

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  • Research the characteristics of the chambered nautilus and give a class presentation about its biological and environmental significance. How does the species survive? What is its place in evolution? How and why does it build its shell in a logarithmic spiral? What was its status and contact with humans in the mid-nineteenth century, and what is its status today? Does Holmes's poem accurately portray the biological characteristics of the nautilus? Why or why not?
  • Holmes was renowned for his conversational skills. Read The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table and use it as an inspiration for leading a class discussion about philosophical, scientific, artistic, and other issues. You do not need to focus on the themes of the book, and you can include issues that are pertinent and topical to you and your classmates, but make sure that you address the universal and philosophical significance of these issues. Make an effort, like the autocrat, to discomfort and even shock your classmates in order to stir debate and conversation.
  • Write a poem that uses an animal or sea creature as a metaphor for a person or some kind of human endeavor. Try to tailor your description of the animal to emphasize the particular qualities of the person or endeavor that are the object of the metaphor, and try to use the technique of personification. For example, if you were using a particular dog to represent a vicious person or quality, you could dwell on the color and the points of its teeth that are in perfect order because it had braces when it was young.
  • Research the cultural climate of mid-nineteenth-century Boston and write an essay discussing its intellectual atmosphere. What were the major factions or groups of thinkers, and how were they important and influential? Describe the key philosophical debates of the period. What was the significance of the Boston renaissance to the rest of the country? Describe some of the factors that sparked this movement and how it came to an end. What writings of the period have endured, and why have they endured?

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