The Chambered Nautilus by Oliver Wendell Holmes

gauze – sewn cloth
irised – eye-like

The Chambered Nautilus

Questions and Answers

1. Rather than describe them as sails, Holmes writes, “webs of living gauze.” In what ways are the sails of a ship “living gauze”?
Answers may vary. Example: The sails, when being used during a journey, appear alive in the wind, moving somewhat naturally and without the wind’s assistance.

2. The use of “dim dreaming…dwell” is an example of what literary device?
The repetition of the ‘d’ sound at the beginning of the words is an example of alliteration.

3. The poem’s final stanza reveals a metaphorical message of the poem. What is the chambered nautilus a symbol of?
The nautilus is, according to the speaker, similar to life, wherein one discards the old shell for something bigger and grander. Holmes, therefore, is writing a poem about a sea snail, which must leave its “home” and find a new one when the old is damaged beyond repair.

4. What “heavenly message” does the poem’s subject convey to the speaker?
The speaker sees the snail’s habit of leaving one shell for a newer, stronger, more beautiful one as something to be admired. He believes the message is to work at building stronger, more beautiful “temples.” This reference to temples may be literal, but is more likely figurative, referring to the inner temple for one’s soul, as he follows the first direction of “Build thee more stately mansions” with the declaration, “O my soul.” He believes it is important to continue to better one’s “temple” until death, when “…thou at length art free,/ Leaving thine outgrown shell by life’s unresting sea.”

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