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The Chambered Nautilus -- Oliver Wendell Holmes

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!
-- Oliver Wendell Holmes

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.

43 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Mallika Chellappa said...

Well, I think there are undertones of
agnosticism hidden here:
"shut thee from heaven"
"till thou at last are free"
having left them behind.


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In a complex way involving invasions, wars, conquests, etc., two categories of composers originated. Poets like Chaucer and John Gower appeared in one category wherein music was not a part. Minstrels, on the other hand, swarmed at feasts and festivals in great numbers with harps, fiddles, bagpipes, flutes, flageolets, citterns, and kettledrums.

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