O Oliver Wendell Holmes

The Chambered Nautilus by Oliver Wendell Holmes

‘The Chambered Nautilus’ by Oliver Wendell Holmes is an interesting and beautiful poem. In it, the poet describes the nautilus and the life of struggle and improvement it engages in.

The Chambered Nautilus by Oliver Wendell Holmes Visual Representation

The Chambered Nautilus‘ was first published in 1858 and spoke about a small sea creature—a nautilus, and its ability to craft its own home. The poem highlights the strength one can gain through struggling and the message one can interpret from the nautilus’ life.

The Chambered Nautilus
Oliver Wendell Holmes

This is the ship of pearl, which, poets feign,
Sails the unshadowed main,—
The venturous bark that flings
On the sweet summer wind its purpled wings
In gulfs enchanted, where the Siren sings,
And coral reefs lie bare,
Where the cold sea-maids rise to sun their streaming hair.

Its webs of living gauze no more unfurl;
Wrecked is the ship of pearl!
And every chambered cell,
Where its dim dreaming life was wont to dwell,
As the frail tenant shaped his growing shell,
Before thee lies revealed,—
Its irised ceiling rent, its sunless crypt unsealed!

Year after year beheld the silent toil
That spread his lustrous coil;
Still, as the spiral grew,
He left the past year’s dwelling for the new,
Stole with soft step its shining archway through,
Built up its idle door,
Stretched in his last-found home, and knew the old no more.

Thanks for the heavenly message brought by thee,
Child of the wandering sea,
Cast from her lap, forlorn!
From thy dead lips a clearer note is born
Than ever Triton blew from wreathèd horn!
While on mine ear it rings,
Through the deep caves of thought I hear a voice that sings:—

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!
The Chambered Nautilus by Oliver Wendell Holmes


Summary 

The Chambered Nautilus’ by Oliver Wendell Holmes it’s about the nautilus’ life and the lessons one can learn from it.

In the first stanza of this poem, the speaker describes, in complimentary terms, the struggle that the nautilus engages in as it attempts to construct more perfect compartments within its shell. He speaks about the creature’s death, its creation of a new home, and more. As the poem progresses, the speaker addresses the nautilus itself, thanking it for the message it delivers through its existence. 

The final stanza is addressed to the speaker’s soul, asking it to take strength from the nautilus’ life and construct evermore perfect structures or improve the speaker’s own spirituality and the strength of their soul.

Structure and Form

The Chambered Nautilus’ by Oliver Wendell Holmes is a five-stanza poem that is divided into sets of seven lines. These lines follow a rhyme scheme of AABBBCC. Throughout, the poet uses numerous examples of alliteration and other literary devices that enhance the overall rhythm and lyrical quality of the text.

Literary Devices 

Throughout The Chambered Nautilus,’ the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to: 

  • Personification: can be seen when the poet personifies the nautilus. He depicts it as a “tenant,” describes it as a “child” and as having “lips.” 
  • Metaphor: can be seen in the speaker’s comparison between two unlike things without using “like” or “as.” For example, the extended metaphor comparing the Nautilus to the spiritual development of human beings. 
  • Caesura: can be seen when a poet inserts a pause into the middle of a line of verse. For example, “Its irised ceiling rent, its sunless crypt unsealed!”
  • Alliteration: occurs when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the bieginning of multiple words. For example, “pearl” and “poets” in line one. “Sweet summer” in line four of the first stanza is another good example. 


Detailed Analysis 

Stanza One 

This is the ship of pearl, which, poets feign,

Sails the unshadowed main,—

The venturous bark that flings

On the sweet summer wind its purpled wings

In gulfs enchanted, where the Siren sings,

And coral reefs lie bare,

Where the cold sea-maids rise to sun their streaming hair.

In the first stanza of The Chambered Nautilus,’ the speaker begins by comparing the nautilus, a sea creature, to a “ship of pearl.” The “pearl” speaks to the exterior of the nautilus’ shell, which the poet is using as a metaphor to compare to a ship that contains the creature’s true body and soul (as the human body contains the soul). 

The extended metaphor continues with the poet saying that the creature (referred to as a “bark” or small ship) moves through the sea with “purple wings” and sails on the “sweet summer wind.” By you are using this lyrical and magical-sounding language, the poet is able to create an enchanting and interesting atmosphere

This is furthered by the poet’s description of the “Sirens” singing in these “gulfs.” This is an allusion to the image of beautiful water nymphs in Greek mythology that lure sailors into the dangerous rocks surrounding their island. They are again alluded to in the final line of the stanza as “cold sea-maids.” 

Stanza Two

Its webs of living gauze no more unfurl;

Wrecked is the ship of pearl!

And every chambered cell,

Where its dim dreaming life was wont to dwell,

As the frail tenant shaped his growing shell,

Before thee lies revealed,—

Its irised ceiling rent, its sunless crypt unsealed!

In the second stanza, the speaker alludes to the possibility that this particular nautilus is dead. The metaphorical ship “of pearl” is wrecked. And “every chambered cell” of the creature’s shell is empty. This continues the extended metaphor while also alluding to the duality between the body and the soul. Throughout its life, the nautilus works to create compartments within its shell, which it moves into and then closes off like the compartments of a ship. The poet also continues to use his dream-like language, utilizing words like “sunless crypt” and “dim dreaming life.”

Stanza Three

Year after year beheld the silent toil

That spread his lustrous coil;

Still, as the spiral grew,

He left the past year’s dwelling for the new,

Stole with soft step its shining archway through,

Built up its idle door,

Stretched in his last-found home, and knew the old no more.

Here, the poet looks back on the creature’s life and the “silent toil” it engaged in order to create the compartments within its beautiful, pearlescent shell. Now, rather than comparing the shell to a ship carrying the nautilus’ soft body, he compares the shell to a dwelling that has an “archway” and “idle door.”

These are wonderful examples of personification that create a new extended metaphor easily recognized by the reader. Within the stanza, the speaker also emphasizes the hard work the Nautilus engaged in, in order to create a shell day by day and year by year. The creature’s shell contains multiple compartments or chambers, some of which are sealed off and work as ballast tanks, like those found in a submarine. The nautilus expels water and brings it back in in order to swim, adjusting its buoyancy as is needed. 

Holmes’ speaker spends the last lines of this stanza describing how the nautilus leaves “past years dwellings” for the new, stretching out in its new home and knowing the “old no more.”

Stanza Four

Thanks for the heavenly message brought by thee,

Child of the wandering sea,

Cast from her lap, forlorn!

From thy dead lips a clearer note is born

Than ever Triton blew from wreathèd horn!

While on mine ear it rings,

Through the deep caves of thought I hear a voice that sings:—

In the fourth stanza, the poet engages in what is known as an apostrophe. They turn their words directly towards the sea creature, addressing it as though it can hear and respond to them (despite the fact that it can do neither).

The speaker thanks the nautilus for the message he has interpreted from its life and practices. Within these seven lines, the poet uses repetition, repetitively describing the nautilus’ message in different terms without ever clearly stating what he feels that message is. He compares its message to a “clearer note” than even Triton was capable of blowing from his horn. This is an allusion to a mythological figure, the son of Poseidon, who resides in the sea that is meant to emphasize how strong and powerful that message is.

Stanza Five 

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!

In the final stanza of the poem, the poet uses a different apostrophe. This time he is speaking to his own soul. He asked their soul to build “more stately mansions,” as they have been inspired to do by the nautilis’ life. He hopes that “each new temple” he constructs will be “nobler than the last.” These lines are a metaphor for bettering one’s life through hard work, as the nautilus has done, as well as furthering one’s spirituality and the strength of one’s soul. 

One should leave behind that which they don’t need or that one should discard from their life that which doesn’t benefit their soul. 

FAQs 

What are the themes of ‘The Chambered Nautilus?’ 

The main themes of this poem are struggle and the soul. Throughout, the poet discusses the difference between the body and the soul and how like a nautilus, one should discard that which doesn’t benefit you in order to create a better and stronger home. 

What is the tone of ‘The Chambered Nautilus?’

The tone is passionate and appreciative. Throughout, the speaker describes the nautilus in entirely complimentary and appreciative terms. He elevates the small sea creature in a way that allows the reader to appreciate their existence as well.

Who is the speaker of ‘The Chambered Nautilus?’

The speaker is unknown. It is not necessary for the reader’s comprehension of the text in order to understand who is delivering the lines. It’s possible to imagine any person within the speaker’s role, including the poet himself. 

What is a nautilus? 

The “nautilus” is a small sea creature that lives within a spiral, pearlescent shell. It’s well-known for its beauty, proportions, and its ability to create new compartments within its own shell. It’s through the flooding and emptying of these that it manages to travel through the oceans’ waters. 


Similar Poetry 

Readers who enjoyed this piece should also consider reading some other Oliver Wendell Holmes poems. For example: 

  • Old Ironsides’ – speaks on the glory of the USS Constitution on the eve of its decommissioning.
  • The Living Temple’ – describes the relationship the speaker sees between humankind and God’s marvelous natural creation.
  • To a Blank Sheet of Paper’ – talks about the power of a blank sheet of paper that can make one happy or sad depending on what a writer writes on it. It’s like an element used in creating a new world. 

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The Chambered Nautilus by Oliver Wendell Holmes Visual Representation
Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
About
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.
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