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The Chambered Nautilus Analysis

Author: Poetry of Oliver Wendell Holmes Type: Poetry Views: 1403

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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!


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||| Analysis | Critique | Overview Below |||

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Holmes ins very insightful and wishes to show others what he has learned in life. If only we all had a little Holmes in our brains or souls or minds.

| Posted on 2012-11-21 | by a guest

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While the two 2007 analyses are correct and admirable, I think neither of them pays sufficient attention to the last seven lines, the ones starting with "Build thee..." and ending at the poem's conclusion.
I think Holmes is addressing his own soul, urging it to strive even more earnestly than it has done before, to realize its full potential "as the swift seasons roll": to build a mystical temple here on earth until at last the soul is free (of its temporal body and everything earthly) and leaves all else behind as it is united to God, the Great All-Soul, High Power, whatever the reader wants to call his Creator.

| Posted on 2010-07-22 | by a guest

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[First stanza:Well, now -- what is necessary (as is the case of all writings of the past) is to have some understanding of the time in which they are written. Oliver Wendell Holmes was of the 19th century; and, during this century, the last of the sailing ships cruised the world's oceans in search of trade. Imagine now - the large billowing sails and southern seas where spices were to be bought in exchange for goods coming off the newly developed industrial production lines of England or of the United States. These southern seas and islands, reached after many months of sailing, were filled with strange plants, animals and people: with which the 19th century industrialized man was not familiar. Strange, indeed, was that which was found on the southern continents; and strange, indeed, were the creatures found in southern seas. The nautilus was one of these, and many an idle sailor would spot this tiny shelled creature floating on the quiet sea. The nautilus is "a small dibranchiate cephalopod, the female of which is protected by a very thin, single-chambered, detached shell, and has webbed dorsal arms" - "purpled wings" formerly believed to be used to catch the wind and drive the nautilus along. The shell itself (like so many shelled creatures one might find along the seashore) is smooth and casts off a pearly iridescence, a purple hue. Many sea shells have this kind of surface (usually on the inside) and comes about as a result of a "nacreous concretion," a filmy layer of carbonate of lime of a hard and smooth texture often having a beautiful lustre: a true pearl is so formed. The nautilus, of course, took on mythical proportions when sailors told of their south sea adventures to eager listeners gathered around the fire on a cold winter's night, back in the northern ports of England or of the northeastern United States.]
[Second Stanza:The nautilus is difficult to find, though occasionally a nautilus shell of one that has died will be found, maybe floating on the ocean or maybe cast up on the shore. It is necessary to understand the anatomy of the nautilus. Though imperfectly understood by me, the nautilus outgrows its chamber and builds another a little larger and directly on top of its existing chamber and moves in to new chamber upon completion. The chamber left behind is sealed off, adding, in the process, to its buoyancy. A series of chambers are thus built, in succession, over time, in a spiral fashion using its existing structure for support; the living creature only ever being present in the last and largest chamber.]
[Third,Fourth,Fifth:"Than ever Triton blew from wreathed horn." In Greek and Roman mythology, Triton is the proper name of a sea-deity, son of Poseidon. He dwells in the sea and only rises to the surface to blow his horn, a shell much shaped like the nautilus. Sailors believe that Triton will come, if one prays, and will blow his horn "to still the blustering winds, and smooth the main." This line, "Than ever Triton blew from wreathed horn," is made all the more interesting because of the use of the word, "wreathed." A chaplet, a garland or a wreath of flowers and leaves, twisted in a circle and worn on the head like a crown on the head has classically been worn or awarded as a mark of distinction and honor. Consider the nautilus: it has twisted itself and bends itself round a unique mathematical curve as it builds its chambered shell through the years. From Triton's horn comes the magic or mystery for which sailors will be found praying during a bad storm at sea: but it is from the nautilus' wreathed shell, as Holmes poetically tells us, which comes the answer to life's mystery: if we could but listen.]

| Posted on 2007-11-25 | by a guest

.: Analysis.(hope it helps!) :.


A Chambered Nautilus is a snail-like, marine creature. It adds a chamber to its shell each year to accommodate its growing body. According to legend, a chambered nautilus can sail while floating on the water by hoisting up a membrane. The inside of the shell has a pearly look.

First Stanza: The first stanza describes the chambered nautilus. The ‘ship of pearl’ is the shell of a chambered nautilus. The purpled wings are a reference to the membrane that legend says helps it sail. Holmes says this is a legend with lines following the ‘purpled wings’. Sirens are an allusion to Greek mythology, and the ‘sea-maidens’ are mermaids. Both sirens and mermaids aren’t real, so by saying the chambered nautilus with its purpled wings is found sailing in the same bay with the mermaids and Sirens, Holmes is telling of the legend of the chambered nautilus.

Second Stanza: The second stanza tells of how a cracked chambered nautilus shell is found on the beach. This stanza speaks of how the chambered nautilus worked so hard to build the shell. The ‘sunless crypt’ is the inner chambers of the shell. Because the shell was cracked, the ‘sunless crypt’ was ‘unsealed’, as the poem says.

Third Stanza: The third stanza speaks of the time and effort the chambered nautilus put forth to build the new chambers. The chambered nautilus building new chambers represents our lives and how we cannot turn back and relive the past. The last three lines in this stanza tell of how as soon as a new chamber is built and the chambered nautilus is inside, it cannot turn back; just as we cannot turn back after we have acted.

Fourth Stanza: Triton is another allusion to Roman and Greek mythology. He was the protector of the sea, Poseidon’s son. Triton only rose out of the sea to blow his horn, which, ironically, looks much like a chambered nautilus shell. ‘Wreathed’ generally means twisted or spiraled, so ‘Triton’s wreathed horn’ is, in fact, a chambered nautilus shell. The mystery or magic that sailors would have been found praying for during a fierce storm at sea would have come from Triton’s horn, and his horn is a chambered nautilus shell. Through this Holmes is poetically telling us that the chambered nautilus brings the answer to life’s big question.

Fifth Stanza: The fifth and final stanza contains the message of the poem. From stanza four, life’s big question is, “What’s our goal in life?” The fifth stanza contains the answer. The answer is “to grow, and not to go backwards.” Our goal should be to make each year better and more dignified than the previous. The last five lines of the poem speak of growing out from a weak past (small chamber), creating new and better years (bigger chambers), continuing to create more precious years (even bigger chambers), and dying (leaving the shell on the beach).

| Posted on 2007-05-08 | by a guest

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