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Literary Devices in The Chambered Nautilus

Rhyme and Meter: Holmes composed “The Chambered Nautilus” in a variation of rhyme royal, a verse form invented by Geoffrey Chaucer. The poem contains five septets, or seven-line stanzas, each with an unusual metrical mix of pentameter, trimeter, and hexameter. The rhymes are very straightforward, with each stanza following an AABBBCC scheme.

The Many Metaphors of the Nautilus: Throughout the poem, Holmes continually refigures and reimagines the primary subject, the chambered nautilus. The nautilus itself is figured as a ship and a “child of the wandering sea”; the shell as “webs of living gauze,” an “irised ceiling,” and a “sunless crypt”; and finally the chambers as “deep caves of thought” as well as “dwellings,” “mansions,” and “temples.” The nautilus, in all its intricacy, provides seemingly endless fodder for Holmes’s figurative imagination.

Literary Devices Examples in The Chambered Nautilus:

The Chambered Nautilus

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"Stole with soft step..."   (The Chambered Nautilus)

The phrase “stole with soft step” uses rich consonance—a litany of s and t sounds—to convey the susurrous action of the nautilus as it moves its soft body from one chamber of its shell to the next.

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"Year after year beheld the silent toil..."   (The Chambered Nautilus)

Holmes employs an unusual structure by writing “The Chambered Nautilus” in five septets, or seven-line stanzas. The rhyme scheme represent a slight variation on rhyme royal, a septet-based rhyme scheme introduced by Geoffrey Chaucer in the 14th century. Whereas Chaucer’s septets follow an ABABBCC scheme, Holmes’s go AABBBCC. Metrically, Holmes’s septets are erratic. Line by line, each stanza contains a line of pentameter, two of trimeter, another of pentameter, another of trimeter, and finally a line of hexameter. The alternating five- and three-beat lines imitate the nautilus’s toilsome, cyclical progression through its sequential chambers. The expansive hexameter of the last line expresses the nautilus’s final release, as figured in the poem’s final stanza.

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"poets feign,..."   (The Chambered Nautilus)

In a perplexing gambit, Holmes takes a self-referential turn in the very first line of the poem. After comparing the chambered nautilus to a “ship of pearl,” Holmes’s speaker pivots, saying “which, poets feign, sails the unshadowed main.” The phrase “poets feign” places the poem itself at a critical distance, questioning the validity of its own statements. Not only does the phrase recognize the poem as a poetic artifact, but also the word “feign,” which means “pretend,” points directly to the fictitious nature of all poetic works.

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"This..."   (The Chambered Nautilus)

Holmes’s “The Chambered Nautilus” serves as an example of a poem in which the title plays a critical role. The subject of the poem, as well as the tenor for all of its conceits and metaphors, is the chambered nautilus, an animal only ever named in the title. The first line of the poem begins with the word “This”—a pronoun pointing back to the title of the poem.

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