Analysis Pages

Themes in The Chambered Nautilus

The Spiritual Journey of Life: The main theme of the poem remains unclear until the final stanza, when the nautilus delivers its wisdom to the speaker. It becomes clear that the travels of the nautilus—both through the sea and through its interior progression of chambers—represent a process of spiritual expansion, or at least Holmes’s speaker imagines them so. The ever larger chambers of the nautilus are as ever “nobler” temples, which are grand but limiting. Only through the nautilus’s final journey—out of the confines of both its shell and “life’s unresting sea”—can it achieve an ultimate freedom.

Themes Examples in The Chambered Nautilus:

The Chambered Nautilus

🔒 4

"outgrown shell by life's un-resting sea!..."   (The Chambered Nautilus)

In the poem’s final lines, the nautilus reaches the state of freedom it seeks by leaving behind its “outgrown shell” entirely. Building on the themes of the final stanza, the nautilus is only able to achieve its spiritual aim by shedding its body. The religious idea that the physical, sensuous world blocks us from uniting with a veiled transcendent reality has roots in the Judeo-Christian and Gnostic traditions. In the Christian tradition, access to transcendence—figured as heaven—generally only occurs after the death of the body. In the Gnostic tradition, access to transcendence is an epistemological quest that results in gnosis, the Greek word for “knowledge.” The American transcendentalist movement, spearheaded by Ralph Waldo Emerson, repurposed some of the principles of Gnosticism, and Oliver Wendell Holmes was profoundly influenced by Emerson’s writings.

"Let each new temple, nobler than the last, Shut thee from heaven with a dome more vast,..."   (The Chambered Nautilus)

In a continuation of the metaphor of the shell’s chambers as mansions that mark one’s progress, Holmes swaps out “mansions” for “temples,” explicitly signalling the spiritual nature of the progress. These ever larger and “nobler” temples, however, “shut thee from heaven,” suggesting that the temples are ultimately limiting constructs, preventing the nautilus from reaching the numinous reality it seeks.

"Thanks for the heavenly message brought by thee,..."   (The Chambered Nautilus)

In the penultimate stanza, the speaker turns his attention to a “message” delivered by the nautilus, supposedly emanating from within the shell. It is a “heavenly message,” despite the origins of the nautilus being the “wandering sea,” rather than a classically empyrean heaven. This turn towards the heavenly indicates the poem’s shift toward spiritual themes.

"dim dreaming life..."   (The Chambered Nautilus)

To imaginatively endow the nautilus with a “dim dreaming life” is to ascribe it a kind of consciousness, albeit a “dim,” unknowable one. In any event, the nautilus itself has died, leaving behind the biographical record of its shell and, for the speaker, subtle intimations of a consciously experienced existence. These intimations of consciousness form the foundation of the speaker’s encounter with the nautilus and give rise to the spiritual themes that take hold in the final two stanzas.

Analysis Pages