Viewpoint: Ancient Wisdom in a Chambered Nautilus


By John Algeo

The chambered nautilus is a shellfish or mollusk with a spiral-shaped shell divided into a series of compartments or "chambers." The term nautilus is from the Greek word for a sailor, implying that the shellfish is a sailor and its shell is the ship in which it sails.

In stanza one of "The Chambered Nautilus," by Oliver Wendell Holmes, the speaker is walking by the shore of the sea and discovers a chambered nautilus shell, which he compares to a ship. He thinks of it as sailing the sea of life, where the Sirens sing to entice passing sailors.

But, as stanza two reveals, this shell has been broken open, so the speaker can see its insides. He thinks of it then as a wrecked ship, abandoned by the sailor but open to the observer's inspection.

In the third stanza, the speaker looks at the spiral chambers inside the shell and thinks of the mollusk's making the shell year by year as it grows too big for one chamber and therefore creates a new, larger chamber in which to live.

In the fourth stanza, the speaker thanks the shellfish for the message it has given him. Though the shellfish is now dead, the shell it has left behind speaks with a sound clearer even than that of the horn of Triton, which could quiet the waves of the sea.

The fifth stanza is the message of the chambered nautilus to us. Like it, we must continually build ourselves greater intellectual and spiritual houses in which to live. As Christ told his followers, "In my Father's house, there are many mansions." We must not become trapped in a single chamber that is too small for us, but construct new, larger ones, until one day we have no more need for any chambers, but are free in the ocean of life.

H. P. Blavatsky said that Theosophy is a kind of jñana yoga, the yoga of knowledge. We study Theosophy to form a picture of the universe and of ourselves in it that will satisfy our longing for a worldview that is full and comprehensive. After a certain amount of study, we think that we have found the perfect picture. But as we look carefully at it, we see certain flaws, certain holes or imperfections in our picture of the universe. And then we study more and make a bigger, greater, fuller picture, which we are sure is complete and comprehensive. But after we have looked at it for a while, we discover in it also some flaws and holes. And so we make yet a bigger picture, which also in time proves to be flawed.

So we move from picture to greater picture, ever increasing our understanding of the world and our place in it, until one day we break through to the discovery that no picture can ever represent the universe fully or accurately because all pictures are flawed. Then we realize that we do not need pictures, but can experience the universe directly, not merely through a representation, but itself, as it is. That is the zenith of jñana yoga: using the mind and understanding to pass to a realization of Reality that surpasses the mind and understanding.

That zenith of jñana yoga is what "The Chambered Nautilus" is about. A pearl-lined, iridescent shell with ever-larger chambers can carry us across the sea of life and protect us from the ocean's storms. But there comes a time when the stateliest mansion of the mind—the largest chamber of comprehension, the greatest temple of the spirit—is inadequate. Then we will leave the outgrown shell of our intellect by the sea of life and move with confidence into the unchambered ocean of reality.

However, neither Blavatsky nor Holmes was talking about giving up the structure of our understanding before we are ready to do without it. The vast majority of humanity need their shells. They can all grow within them and build larger mansions to let their minds and spirits expand. There is nothing wrong with the shell. It is beautiful. It is practical. It is necessary.

We must remember two things. First, as it grows, the chambered nautilus can enlarge the chamber in which it lives. Second, for a shellfish to do without its shell, it must have become a different species, it must cease to be a shellfish. So we can enlarge the mental world in which we live, but we cannot do without some mental structure—some conditioning or viewpoint—until we too have become a different species of being. It is only when we cease to be human and have assimilated to the Buddha or Christ nature that we can do without the support of our human shell.

Oliver Wendell Holmes

Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809–94) was a physician, professor of anatomy and physiology at Harvard, essayist, novelist, and poet. The inventor of an early form of the stethoscope, he coined the word anesthesia. He was a friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose biography he wrote. "The Chambered Nautilus," written in 1858 and one of the favorite poems of the last century, expresses ideas of Emerson and transcendentalism, a form of proto-Theosophy.

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 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 are free,

Leaving thine outgrown shell by life's unresting sea!

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