Marine Life / The HumanitSEAS

The Chambered Nautilus Beyond High School English

If you were walking down the street, mulling over your latest research conundrum, and were suddenly accosted by a mad-eyed figure demanding the name of an ocean-themed poem, you would probably shout over your shoulder as you sprinted away, “The Chambered Nautilus!”  (Either that or Feedback, if the insane number of hits Kelsey’s post receives is any indication of this poem’s popularity.)  It’s one of those classic high school poems that everyone reads, analyzes, and pledges to never, ever revisit.  Required reading has a way of destroying some of the very best literature though, so as your Friday winds down, do that crazy person on the street a favor and give this poem another chance.  (Commentary at the end, if you really want to feel like a high schooler again.)
A chambered nautilus shell.  Don't you feel inspired to write some poetry just looking at it? Image from

A chambered nautilus shell. Don’t you feel inspired to write some poetry just looking at it? Image from

The Chambered Nautilus
by 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!

See?  Holmes reads much better when you’re not 17, probably because most teenagers aren’t on the quest for self-improvement outlined in the last stanza.  Aside from its beautiful imagery, the poem is inspiring for its encouragement to incrementally progress beyond a “low-vaulted past.”  This applies to scientists, who can easily identify with the metaphor of building a chamber of research and data that seems inconsequential until viewed in its larger context.  (The likelihood of also working in a “sunless crypt” makes that metaphor a little more poignant…)  Unless Holmes moonlighted as a motivational speaker for scientists though, he’s also speaking to the broader human experience.  Improving one’s life in big or small ways is never simple and probably won’t seem significant at the time.  But when viewed as a whole at some critical juncture, those efforts can spiral into something stunning.

Bonus: Holmes probably never saw a chambered nautilus in action, but thanks to YouTube, you can!

Cover image from

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