THE CHAMBERED NAUTILUS
by: Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-1894)
HIS 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" is the perfect example of early American poetry. It rhymes, it has a great happily-ever-after ending, and it keeps true to form. Oliver Wendell Holmes, along with 4 other poets, were among the most widely read and studied during the early to mid 1800s.
-Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
-John Greenleaf Whittier
-James Russell Lowell
-William Cullen Bryant
The need for happy endings was great in America during this time because life was hard. People died young. Death and tragedy were knocking at everyone's front door.
The speaker is walking upon the beach, and he comes across this Nautilus shell. It's broken and weary. There is nothing living inside it - it's just a shell of a life once lived. Instead of seeing it only in its brokenness, the speaker sees that there's a story to be told and a lesson to be learned by this shattered shell.
"The Chambered Nautilus" speaks of a sea-creature called a Nautilus that grows out of its shell every year. It has to add a new, bigger chamber annually to live in. Since it is always adding to its former body, it creates a round vessel. When the Nautilus leaves its old chamber for its new chamber, it builds a wall closing off the old one. The Nautilus is always moving forward, never able to move backward. Every chamber is bigger and better than the one before it. As the Nautilus closes one door, a better one opens. At the end, the Nautilus has passed on and the speaker describes it as a glorious event, "Till thou at length art free / Leaving thine outgrown shell by life's unresting sea." (ll. 34-35) No matter what happens- life goes on. We keep moving forward, even when we think we can't. There is a true blessing in that.
Sirens (l. 5) - They are mythical creatures. Women, who sing to sailors in order to capture their attention. They are often saw as irresistible. Their purpose is to lead sailors to their death.Another poet who uses them is Samuel Taylor Coleridge in "The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner."
Main (l. 2) - A body of water.
Bark (l. 3) - A boat.
Triton (l. 26) - Another creature from mythology that is saw to be the "King of the Sea." He is often seen as a fish-like creature that uses a horn, like in this poem.