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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Themes and Meanings

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Much of the poetry of Oliver Wendell Holmes is occasional verse, and as such it is light, witty, and often humorous (as in poems such as “The Deacon’s Masterpiece,” “My Aunt,” and “The Boys”). It is said that such poetry can make delightful reading but that its poetic quality is seldom high. Holmes himself once remarked that his poetry was “as the beating of a drum or the tinkling of a triangle to the harmony of a band.” “The Chambered Nautilus,” often considered one of his best poems, is not in the vein of his occasional verse and has a more pensive tone than that which generally characterizes his poetry. This poem is not preachy (as is a poem such as “Old Ironsides”), and while its theme is not profound, it is certainly provocative. By observing the nautilus and by essentially “dissecting” its physical body, the poet discovers a profound spiritual truth. To him the “silent toil” of the nautilus as it struggles to achieve physical growth is symbolic of the human endeavor necessary to the growth of the soul.

That individuals should continually be engaged in building broader and more comprehensive lives, growing with age and experience, and that they should be continually concerned with the nourishment of the soul throughout their lifetimes, is the message the poet derives from his experience with the nautilus. Such a conclusion is not only a consequence of a different kind of seeing but also a result of the religious background of the poet, who was born the son of a Calvinist minister. Also, his meticulous “dissecting” of the animal in the earlier stanzas of the poem may well be attributable to Holmes’s formal training in anatomy and the many years that he spent as professor of anatomy at Dartmouth and at Harvard Universities.

In developing his theme in the final stanza of the poem, then, it is understandable that the poet makes generous use of biblical allusions. His insistence, for example, that the soul build “stately” or magnificent “mansions” seems to be an allusion to the “mansions” of matchless beauty which, according to the Bible, have been prepared in heaven for the souls of the righteous. He further insists that these “temples” of the soul be “new” and noble, or, as Scripture contends, that the soul should be clean and “undefiled.” Finally, the poet alludes to the body as a shell which is discarded after death; in the same manner as the shell of the nautilus, it is cast from the “lap” of the “unresting sea.” Implicit in this statement is the notion that only the soul is eternal. Thus, individuals must strive throughout their lifetimes to nourish and develop that which lasts—the soul. Just as the nautilus continues to grow during its lifetime, ever expanding and creating new and “lustrous coils,” so should human beings continue growing spiritually throughout their lives, ever moving toward a higher plane of existence, leaving behind all small thoughts, acts, and desires, ever striving to build “new temples”—each one perfect, each one “nobler than the last.”


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Development and Mobility

The discussion in The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table that precedes "The Chambered Nautilus" focuses on the various stages of life and the importance of making progress by moving on from what one previously knew. In a sense, the poem is an elaboration on this idea, because it focuses on the concept of sealing off one's previous boundaries to create new and larger spaces in which to live and develop. In the paragraphs before the poem, the autocrat of the breakfast table says that...

(This entire section contains 650 words.)

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"grow we must, if we outgrow all that we love," stressing the need to keep moving and developing as one ages, even if it means that one leaves one's old relationships behind. Holmes envisions a process of spiritual and personal progress in which one constantly challenges oneself to become a better person.

"The Chambered Nautilus" expresses this idea of progress, particularly in stanza 3, which describes the nautilus's practice of living only in the outermost and largest chamber of its shell, completely dividing itself off from the chambers that it outgrows. The poet depicts the nautilus's chambers as sealed, enclosed spaces, stating that they are like a dim "cell" or a "sunless crypt," although they have rainbow ceilings and are "lustrous," or glowing. Stanza 5 compares the chambers (or what they will become) to noble, "stately mansions" while noting that the previous chambers are "low-vaulted." This contradiction emphasizes that life is in a constant state of flux and that it is necessary to seal off the past in order to better oneself.

Holmes seems to imply that completely sealing off one's old relationships has its problems in the sense that this action can be considered turning one's back on one's friends. This may be why the speaker notes that the nautilus must sneak away "with soft step" to its new dwelling, soon taking the attitude that it "knew the old no more." If people go through such a process, they may find that they are "forlorn" like the nautilus and are children "of the wandering sea." Because life itself is an "unresting sea," however, Holmes also suggests that the process of spiritual and personal growth facilitated by leaving one's previous situation is a necessary act and an altruistic method of self-improvement.

Death and the Afterlife

Because the nautilus's building of its shell is an extended metaphor for the speaker's spiritual life, "The Chambered Nautilus" can be interpreted as an allegory about death and the journey toward the afterlife. The idea that the human body is a ship or shell containing its spirit is not a new one, and Holmes clearly suggests that the nautilus's shell represents the physical covering of the human body and that the living creature itself represents the human soul or spirit. As early as stanza 1, Holmes hints that he is discussing dualism, the idea that the immortal soul is a separate entity from the mortal body, when he characterizes the ship with "purpled wings" like those of an angel. Holmes also suggests in stanza 4 that the nautilus provides a "heavenly message" as though it were an immortal spirit providing advice to the living.

The most explicit discussion of the idea that the nautilus is a metaphor for the human spirit comes in stanza 5. The speaker instructs his "soul" to build increasingly "nobler" temples until he becomes free like the dead nautilus, whose shell has been pierced. Although the domes of the chambers of the speaker's soul "shut [him] from heaven," the last dome appears to break away when he leaves the "outgrown shell" and ascends into the afterlife. The nautilus's journey toward immortality is somewhat perilous, given the deadly sirens, and it is a "forlorn" and "frail" creature resigned to "silent toil." This journey seems justified, however, because it creates the "heavenly message" of the shell. Similarly, the soul's hard work on earth is seemingly rewarded with the "free[dom]" of heaven.




Critical Essays