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!

Analysis, meaning and summary of Oliver Wendell Holmes's poem The Chambered Nautilus


  1. Norma Carpenter says:

    The Chambered Nautilis is a very beautiful sea shell, purple in color and spiral in shape. It has a series of segments, or chambers. I found one once, on the shore near Miami, FL and kept it for years. The animal who had inhabited it had long since left it. I wish I knew what happened to the shell. Although very fragile, it was in perfect condition. As I understand the poem, Dr. Holmes is contemplating such a shell and comparing it to the soul of a human being. Like the shell, our souls can grow as we mature, and when we die, we leave our worn-out body behind, by “life’s unresting sea”. I hope this helps Kathy to understand the poem. I have always remembered the final stanza, since I think it is particularly beautiful.

  2. Kathy says:

    I do not understand this poem, if someone could please help be to get a better understanding ASAP I would really appreciate it! Thank you

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