The Chambered Nautilus

Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts



Tucked away in a shaded spot in the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is the small tombstone of Jules Marcou, born in France on April 20, 1824, and died at Cambridge, Massachusetts, on April 7, 1898, just 3 days short of his 74th birthday. Marcou was a noted geologist who published a series of books and papers, including: Cretaceous formations of the Jura, Dyas (Permian) of Nebraska, Taconic rocks of Vermont and Canada, American Geological Classification and Nomenclature, Geological Map of the World, A Little More Light on the United States Geological Survey, and Geology of North America. Marcou was a protégé of famed natural historian Louis Agassiz and also published Life, letters, and works of Louis Agassiz.

Marcou’s gravestone is delicately carved into a Nautilus—a spiral shaped sea shell, a “lustrous coil”. The Nautilus is intricately comprised of a series of chambers, each abandoned and sealed off as the sea creature grows bigger and needs a larger living space. Once the smaller space is abandoned, it is sealed off completely and cannot be returned to. The Nautilus-shaped gravestone is likely a paean to Marcou’s work in geology but others see the Nautilus as having a deeper meaning.

The poem, The Chambered Nautilus, by Oliver Wendell Homes, Jr., contemplates the Nautilus and the metaphor that can be drawn between it and the changes one goes through in this life. Holmes most clearly draws the metaphor in the last stanza.

Here, in this stanza Holmes hopes that each stage of life will be better than the last as the past is left behind, “Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul.” He calls out to, “Leave thy low-vaulted past!” Out with the old and in with the new and better self, “Let each new temple, nobler than the last, Shut thee from heaven with a dome more vast.”

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 art free,

Leaving thine outgrown shell by life’s unresting sea!


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1 Response to The Chambered Nautilus

  1. Pingback: Jules Marcou : Jura – Rocky Mountains |

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