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The Chambered Nautilus

Page history last edited by PBworks 14 years, 8 months ago

"The Chambered Nautilus," by Oliver Wendell Holmes


American Literature (Romantic period)


Essential Question:


How does Holmes use his knowledge of math and science to create a deeper meaning within his poem "The Chambered Nautilus"?







  1. Read Oliver Wendell Holmes's poem "The Chambered Nautilus."
  2. Pass around nautilus shells or show pictures of shells.
  3. Explain now the nautilus creates its shell based on information from Nautilus: Wikipedia. Be sure to explain how it was named -- that it was thought at one time that the shells really sailed. If possible, invite a biology teacher into your classroom to describe the nautilus -- how it functions, how it creates its shell, etc.
  4. Read pp. 93-96 (hardcover version regular version) of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code to students. This is the scene in which Langdon describes an art class he taught about the Golden Ratio and starts when he writes 1.618 on the board and asks if anyone knows what it is. It concludes when he describes how the Golden Ratio has been used in art.
  5. Demonstrate how to create a Golden Ratio and allow students to try, using graph paper, rulers, and compasses. They should see its similarity to the Nautilus. Although students generally get excited when doing this activity, I think it is important to do it before discussion so they can see the relationship to the spiral formed by graphing phi before discussing the poem.
  6. Discuss how knowing the biological mechanism involved in the nautilus and understanding how it corresponds to the Golden Ratio enhances understanding of the poem. Suggested discussion questions:
    1. Look at the first two lines: "This is the ship of pearl, which, poets feign/Sail the unshadowed main." What does Holmes mean "poets feign"? (Holmes was a doctor, and he would be well aware of the fact that the nautilus does not sail. Lead students to this conclusion.)
    2. What does Holmes mean in stanza two? Why is the "ship" "wrecked"?
    3. Re-read the third stanza and explain to students that Holmes is demonstrating he knows how the nautilus constructs its shell. Why is this knowledge important to the poem? Could it work as well if Holmes didn't realize this about the nautilus? Why/why not?
    4. Holmes alludes to a message in stanzas four and five. What is the message? What does he think about as he is looking at the nautilus?
    5. Knowing that the nautilus is a representation of the Golden Ratio, how does that change your reading of those stanzas? (Lead students to see that the "stately mansions" mean gradual perfection of one's self, as phi gradually approaches the Golden Ratio, which was worshipped as divine, a message from God in nature -- students should see, with prompting, that approaching perfection or approaching divinity could be the result of wanting to be like the nautilus).


I think Brown describes the mathematical concept of phi, or the Golden Ratio much better and in a much more interesting way than I can do, so I share this particular section of the novel with students. You could also photocopy it, provided it doesn't violate copyright law. I usually just read it aloud; students tend to find it fascinating, and wandering attention honestly hasn't ever been a problem with this lesson. One of my students found an interesting website you may want to share with your own students -- GoldenNumber.net.

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