The Chambered Nautilus

Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-1894)

“This is the ship of pearl, which, poets feign…”

oliver wendell holmes' bookplateThis
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 wreathed 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!


More poems by Oliver Wendell Holmes:


About The Chambered Nautilus

The chambered nautilus is a mollusk which
lives in a spiral-shaped shell that has an iridescent purple color.
The shell is divided into successively larger compartments or “chambers.”
These chambers are formed as the mollusk grows. When one chamber becomes
too small for the mollusk, it builds a new, larger chamber and closes
off the old. This activity is repeated many times, resulting in the
spiral shape of the shell.

The creature has often been compared to a ship by sailors
and others who saw it floating in the water. This comparison dates back
to ancient times. Indeed, the term nautilus is derived from the ancient
Greek word for sailor. The mollusk moves about the sea, easily staying
afloat because of the air trapped in the smaller chambers. Another reason
for the ship comparison is that the female of the species has thin dorsal
arms or “purpled wings,” which were once believed to act in
a fashion similar to sails on a boat.

In his poem, Holmes compared the mollusk and its shell
to the behavior of human beings. He saw the growth of the mollusk and
spiral shell as a representation of the intellectual growth of humans.
Holmes believed that, eventually, humans outgrow their protective shells
completely and discard them when they are no longer necessary.

About the Photo

Engraving, Boston, c. 1875, 10.3 x 7.4 cm.
Photo courtesy of the Boston Medical Library.
Holmes had a chambered nautilus engraved onto his personal
bookplate. Underneath the shellfish, are the words “per ampliora
ad altiora”, which translates as “through breadth to depth.”