The Chambered Nautilus

The Chambered Nautilus

Original Text
The Complete Poetical Works of Oliver Wendell Holmes, ed. H. E. S. (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1895): 149-50. PS 1955 A1 1895 Robarts Library.
2  Sails the unshadowed main, --
3  The venturous bark that flings
4On the sweet summer wind its purpled wings
5In gulfs enchanted, where the Siren sings,
6  And coral reefs lie bare,
7Where the cold sea-maids rise to sun their streaming hair.
8Its webs of living gauze no more unfurl;
9  Wrecked is the ship of pearl!
10  And every chambered cell,
11Where its dim dreaming life was wont to dwell,
12As the frail tenant shaped his growing shell,
13  Before thee lies revealed, --
15Year after year beheld the silent toil
16  That spread his lustrous coil;
17  Still, as the spiral grew,
18He left the past year's dwelling for the new,
19Stole with soft step its shining archway through,
20  Built up its idle door,
21Stretched in his last-found home, and knew the old no more.
22Thanks for the heavenly message brought by thee,
23  Child of the wandering sea,
24  Cast from her lap, forlorn!
26Than ever Triton blew from wreathèd horn!
27  While on mine ear it rings,
28Through the deep caves of thought I hear a voice that sings: --
30  As the swift seasons roll!
31  Leave thy low-vaulted past!
32Let each new temple, nobler than the last,
33Shut thee from heaven with a dome more vast,
34  Till thou at length art free,
35Leaving thine outgrown shell by life's unresting sea!


1] The nautilus is a spiral-shelled mollusk whose web-like membranes were imagined to act as sails.
"We need not trouble ourselves about the distinction between this [the pearly Nautilus] and the Paper Nautilus, the Argonauta of the ancients. The name applied to both shows that each has long been compared to a ship, as you may see more fully in Webster's Dictionary or the Encyclopedia, to which he refers. If you will look into Roget's Bridgewater Treatise you will find a figure of one of these shells and a section of it. The last will show you the series of enlarging compartments successively dwelt in by the animal that inhabits the shell, which is built in a widening spiral. [This poem seemed to share with Dorothy Q. Dr. Holmes's interest, if one may judge by the frequency with which he chose it for reading or for autograph albums. He says on receipt of an album from the Princess of Wales, `I copied into it the last verse of a poem of mine called The Chambered Nautilus, as I have often done for plain republican albums.']" (p. 149)

"I have now and then found a naturalist who still worried over the distinction between the Pearly Nautilus and the Paper Nautilus, or Argonauta. As the stories about both are mere fables, attaching to the Physalia, or Portuguese man-of-war, as well as to these two molluscs, it seems over-nice to quarrel with the poetical handling of a fiction sufficiently justified by the name commonly applied to the ship of pearl as well as the ship of paper." (p. 341) Back to Line

14] irised: iridescent, like a rainbow. Back to Line
25] Perhaps an allusion to Wordsworth's "The World is too much with us": "Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea; /Or hear old Triton [the son of Poseidon, god of the sea] blow his wreathèd horn." Back to Line
29] Cf. John 14:2: "In my Father's house are many mansions." Back to Line
Publication Start Year
Publication Notes
The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table (1858)
RPO poem Editors
Ian Lancashire
RPO Edition
RPO 1998.