Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul! / the Chambered Nautilus / Spira Mirabilis, the Logarithmic Spiral
Logarithmic spiral tiling by Steven Dutch, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay (USA)
Photo of nautilus shell by John Lienhard, University of Houston (Texas USA)
Graph by Wolfram MathWorld
The e in the equation is Euler's constant
e = 2.71828 18284 59045 23536 02874
......71352 66249 77572 47093 69995
......95749 66967 62772 40766 30353
......54759 45713 82178 52516 64274
......27466 39193 20030 59921 81741 ...
Time has not been kind to Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Time is right.
There's not much that he wrote that deserves a ticket to Immortality. He let himself be trapped by every embarrassing cliche and convention of the Worst Moment of English-Language Literature, the 19th century.
Not all his contemporaries ended up in the trap. Holmes' fellow Civil War soldier -- actually a Union Army field medic -- Walt Whitman made of himself a volcano of originality, and singlehandedly prepared American poetry for the far more interesting and important 20th Century. He pioneered tools and perceptions for poets that endure to this day in the best American and English-language poetry. The best English poets are all intimate with Whitman. But nobody needs to feel embarrassed that he or she forgot to read the collected works of Oliver Wendell Holmes.
This is either an exception to his typical long-winded Victorian claptrap, or it isn't. You decide. Or skip it entirely and wait for Vleeptron to post something, anything, more interesting than this poem. Perhaps tomorrow would be a good time to post my new pimento cream-cheese sandwich recipe.
Eugene O'Neil liked one phrase -- maybe the whole poem -- and titled one of his last plays, finally produced posthumously, "More Stately Mansions." It is possible, even through the Victorian claptrap, to like this poem not for its clumsy verbosity, but for its sentiment. A not very great (though, in his day, immensely popular) poet is sincerely yearning for something many would recognize as important, and does the best Victorian job he can to express his yearning.
He wishes to celebrate a simple, pretty marble, and reaches for a garishly colored 12-pound Spalding bowling ball. Simplicity and directness, not to mention brevity, were not centerpieces of Victorian poetry.
The chambered nautilus itself (Nautilus pompilius) is a unique and impressive ocean cephalopod (the same group as octopus and squid). It rises and sinks in the ocean because of its hard-shell air chambers; as it grows larger, it grows new, larger, watertight chambers. The squishy, living, many-tentacled creature lives safely inside the most recent and largest chamber of the remarkable shell.
The shell is nacre, or mother-of-pearl, made from calcium carbonite extracted from seawater.
The illustration above shows the geometric pattern of the chambered nautilus, which mathematicians have noted and admired for centuries. The math alone -- a logarithmic spiral first described by Descartes -- is sweepingly elegant and simple. Jakob Bernoulli called it spira mirabilis, the marvelous spiral.
It grows larger and larger -- but its shape is always the same, chamber after chamber, year after year. An infant nautilus has exactly the same shape as a full-grown nautilus; near Indonesia and the Great Barrier Reef of Australia, shell diameters can reach 268 millimeters = 10.6 inches.
Hawks and flying insects, tropical cyclones, brocolli florets and spiral galaxies also obey the plan of the spira mirabilis.
And yet no marine biologist has ever suggested the chambered nautilus has the slightest realization of what a clever, even wonderful mathematician and physicist it is. Alan Turing spent a lot of time late in his life studying and writing about these built-in, automatic mathematics skills of living things, and how computers might be programmed to mimic this phenomenon. DNA itself has astonishing computational skill and power, used chiefly to correct the tiniest errors in its endless replications. Without this superfast, superpowerful, constant digital computation, our kids would look a lot less like Mom and Dad, if they survived conception, pregnancy and birth at all.
I don't know how tasty Nautilus pompilius is. If it tastes anything like squid or octopus, it might be delicious. If I got my hands on some, I'd start with fresh-ground black pepper, but lightly, not to smother what's probably a very subtle taste.
I have no idea how two chambered nautiluses have sex and reproduce. I don't think Holmes had any idea, either, which is why so much of his poetry found a welcome home in high-school textbooks -- our shrines for Literature Certified to Be 100% Sex-Free. There's a lot less Whitman in high-school textbooks.
The Chambered Nautilus
Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-1894)
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!
text: Yale Book of American Verse (1912)