Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 514 words.)


(Poetry for Students)

Development and Mobility

The discussion in The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table that precedes "The Chambered...

(The entire section is 650 words.)