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Among his most famous poems, Holmes wrote The Chambered Nautilus in 1858. Here, he writes it out in full and signs it in 1890. OLIVER WENDELL HOLMES.
Autograph Manuscript Signed, The Chambered Nautilus
, 1890. Boston, April 13, 1890. 3 pp., 7 x 4½ inches. With later notation in French, in hand of M. Bentson (?), signed and dated Boston 1893 on verso.
The Chambered Nautilus
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 wreathe’d 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
Boston, April 13, 1890
In another hand:
“Te n’y a pas de mort faux que le Souvenir, l’espérance et la priére nous rattachers a nos bien aimés disparus. La véritable mort c’est ‘l’oubli.
Boston 11 Xbre 93”
[trans approx]: “Remembrance is false death, hope and prayer bring back our departed loved ones. The true death is forgetting. M. Bentson (?) Boston 11 December 93”
Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. (1809-1894) born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was a brilliant doctor, poet, writer, scientist, essayist, philosopher, and professor well known in Boston literary and philosophical circles. He was a member of the so-called “Fireside Poets,” a New England group that rivaled their European counterparts. Holmes taught first at Dartmouth, then at Harvard Medical School, where he an energetic medical reformer. His literary output rivaled his medical impact, and an early poem, “Old Ironsides,” was influential in saving the historic USS Constitution in the 1830s. 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. He helped coin the term “Boston Brahmin.”