Guest poem submitted by Mac Robb:
(Poem #1705) The Chambered Nautilus
This is the ship of pearl, which, poets feign, Sail 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!
(1809-1894) The current theme of poems known by heart (and often no longer read, much less memorised) is in its way as much fun as the discovery in Minstrels of poems hitherto unknown to me, by poets both known and unknown. It was, in fact, my own modest commentary on Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Song" a few days back that put me in mind of Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and John Greenleaf Whittier - the "Fireside Poets" of mid-nineteenth century New England, whose verses were till recently mainstays of primary school "readers" and known to everyone who attended public school in North America. So much so that many of the famous lines from such poets remain clichés while their sources have faded from the popular canon. "The Chambered Nautilus" is doubtless one such - "Build thee more stately mansions O my soul" is sometimes thought a quotation from holy writ, Milton or Shakespeare. Not so, of course. Oliver Wendell Holmes is perhaps mostly remembered nowadays as the father and namesake of the eminent puisne justice of the US Supreme Court ("Well, if he was 'junior' there must have been a 'senior,' right?"). It was once the other way around and Holmes Senior, who was a professor of anatomy and physiology at Harvard Medical School, was known even more widely for his poetry, originally published in The Atlantic Monthly, of which he was a founder and which he named, than for his eminence as a physician and medical educator. Perhaps as much as its old-fashioned quality of their verse it's the old fashioned liberalism of their opinions that has caused the Fireside Poets' eclipse, particularly among those who might seem their modern constituency. Holmes was a proponent of science as the discreditor of the Calvinistic orthodoxy of his Puritan forbears and, well... we used to think the Scopes Monkey Trial was the ludicrous last gasp of fundamentalism in modern life but look where we are these days. The nautilus is a cephalopod of the Indian and Pacific oceans; it adds a new chamber to its spiral shell each year and annually moves into a more stately mansion. (The Greeks thought it could erect a membrane and sail - the reference in lines 3-5.) And whereas the Calvinism of traditional Congregationalism and Presbyterianism propounded ideas such as predestination, original depravity and original grace, Holmes hopefully saw the shellfish's shell-building as a metaphor for man's ability to seek and find ever higher attainment. Remember too that it was published in 1858, and it can't be a coincidence that this was a year after the infamous Dred Scott decision of the American Supreme Court which confirmed the legitimacy of slavery in the South and ruled the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional - thus bringing the issue to even greater national attention and strengthening the resolve of high-minded Yankee abolitionists. Mac Robb Brisbane, Australia [thomas adds] I've only just noticed that I forgot to credit Mac Robb with the submission of and commentary to Poem #1700, "The Pilgrim" by John Bunyan. Many thanks to Mac and to all the other submitters of the guest poems we've run on the Minstrels mailing list. -t.