“The Chambered Nautilus” by Oliver Wendell Essay
“The Chambered Nautilus” by Oliver Wendell
The Chambered Nautilus by Oliver Wendell Holmes, is one of the famous American Renaissance poems. Like most American Renaissance poets, Holmes tries to decipher the mysteries and meanings of life. As a doctor and a poet, Holmes uses a creature from nature-the nautilus-to try to explain the meanings of life. By using extended metaphor while using the nautilus, in The Chambered Nautilus Holmes unravels the mystery that is life.
In the first two stanzas, Holmes describes the anatomy and structure of the chambered nautilus. Holmes describes the anatomy of nautilus using a variety of metaphors. The ship of pearl as he calls the nautilus for its pearly shell. As part of his description, Holmes tells the sailors legend of the chambered nautilus. He begins describing the legend with the purpled wings used for sailing the seas. Next, he alludes to Greek mythology when telling the legend, by saying sirens and sea-maidens swim in the same bay where the chambered nautilus is found sailing. The second stanza one can imagine Holmes finding a cracked nautilus sunless crypt unsealed on a sandy beach, holding it in his hand, and talking about life. This same method is found in the scene in Hamlet, where Hamlet holds a skull in the light and talks bout life and destiny. Holmes starts speaking of how the chambered nautilus worked so hard to build its shell, pointing out that after all this work it ended up like most organisms: dead.
In the third stanza, Holmes continues to describe the cycle of the nautilus as well as the time and effort the chambered nautilus put forth to build. According to Holmes Year by yearspiral grew the chambered nautilus adds a chamber each year and seals it to increase its buoyancy above water. In the last three lines of the stanza, Holmes uses the building and sealing of a new chamber to represent the human life. As each year passes by, one cannot turn back to undo or redo what he/she has done.
In fourth stanza, Holmes alludes once again to Greek and Roman mythology, in order to illustrate the significance of the chambered nautilus in discovering the meaning of life. Holmes uses Triton, Neptunes son, as an allusion to Greek and Roman mythology. According to mythology, Triton only rose out of the sea to blow his horn, which in wreathed or twisted just like the chambered nautilus. In the same way that Tritons horn shows the magic or mystery for which sailors pray for during a bad storm at sea, the nautilus wreathed shell, as Holmes says, can answer lifes mystery. Holmes ends the stanza saying that the answer to lifes big question is present, but it must be looked for and discovered using nature or in this case the chambered nautilus.
The fifth and final stanza contains the purpose or message of the poem. Holmes finally answers the main question: What is the purpose of life? He states that the purpose or goal in life is to grow and expand. Holmes encourages expansion and growth by saying, Build thee more stately mansions. He also says that the soul should not dwell on the past, instead it should plan and look forward to the future. The last five lines of the poem summarize the purpose and the ideal life cycle for human life. According to Holmes this ideal life cycle is divided into four main parts: 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).
Being a Renaissance poet, Holmes tries to discover and decipher the meaning of life. In his five-stanza poem Holmes uses Greek and Roman mythology, biological anatomy, famous legends, and deep pondering in nature, in order to unravel the mysteries of life. In addition, Holmes uses the chambered nautilus in a highly adept way to explain the meaning of life. Most importantly, though, is Holmes use of extended metaphor to convey one critically and important message: grow and do not go backwards.