The Chambered Nautilus

By Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. 1809–1894 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!

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Poet Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. 1809–1894

POET’S REGION U.S., New England

SCHOOL / PERIOD Victorian

Subjects Living, Seas, Rivers, & Streams, Time & Brevity, Nature

Poetic Terms Couplet

 Oliver  Wendell Holmes Sr.

Biography

Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was a brilliant doctor who was well known for his witty lectures at Harvard. Also a poet and essayist, Holmes’s prose series “The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table” first appeared in the Atlantic Monthly with its inaugural issue in 1857. A year later it was published as a book, which also included some of his most memorable poetry.

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Living, Seas, Rivers, & Streams, Time & Brevity, Nature

POET’S REGION U.S., New England

SCHOOL / PERIOD Victorian

Poetic Terms Couplet

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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