“The Paper Nautilus” by Marianne Moore


The Paper Nautilus

“For authorities whose hopes
are shaped by mercenaries?
Writers entrapped by
teatime fame and by
commuters’ comforts? Not for these
the paper nautilus
constructs her thin glass shell.

Giving her perishable
souvenir of hope, a dull
white outside and smooth-
edged inner surface
glossy as the sea, the watchful
maker of it guards it
day and night; she scarcely

eats until the eggs are hatched.
Buried eight-fold in her eight
arms, for she is in
a sense a devil-
fish, her glass ram’shorn-cradled freight
is hid but is not crushed;
as Hercules, bitten

by a crab loyal to the hydra,
was hindered to succeed,
the intensively
watched eggs coming from
the shell free it when they are freed,–
leaving its wasp-nest flaws
of white on white, and close-

laid Ionic chiton-folds
like the lines in the mane of
a Parthenon horse,
round which the arms had
wound themselves as if they knew love
is the only fortress
strong enough to trust to.”

-Marianne Moore

This poem describes the dedication of a nautilus to protecting her young. A nautilus is an archaic, ancient sea creature that is something like a squid with a spiraled, chambered shell. They were originally named by Aristotle as “Argonauta”, or paper nautiluses, because people used to think they could use their two legs as sails. They have not changed in over 500 million years.

There are many classical references in this poem. The nautilus guards her eggs until they hatch, much like many stories of ancient beasts and monsters, with its either arms and “ram’shorn”. It references the story of Cancer the crab (as in the horiscope) who was sent by Hydra to take out Hercules. Hercules stepped on Cancer, but Hydra was so endebted she gave him a place in the sky. It says that the nautilus’ pattern looks just like the mane of a sculpture of a horse at the Parthenon, an ancient greek ruin.

The combination of these ancient allusions and other descriptions make the nautilus out to be a warrior/protector of sorts. The term Ionic seems to be a combination of both of these two ideas. It could be referring to the strength of the nautilus’ “chiton-fold” armor, or it could also be referring to the Ionian people of ancient Greece, one of the subdivisions of the Greek empire.

I think in the end it really makes a statement about the permanance of humanity versus the permanance of the natural world. The Greek empire and its culture were so strong, and yet they fell. Power structures rise and fall. Great writers who do not take a risk vanish into the woodwork. Throughout the poem the nautilus and the ancient references are inversely proportional. In the beginning the nautilus shell is “thin glass” and by the end she is elevated to the status of a hero. The references start out as the legends of heroes and gods and gradually devolve into a reference to the Parthenon, a ruin left from the glory days of the empire. It shows that nature can outlast and outlive any attempts of humanity at immortality.

It definately reminds me of the song “Scythian Empires” by Andrew Bird. Check out the lyrics:

“Five day forecast bring black tar rains and hellfire
while handpicked handpicked handler’s kid gloves tear at the inseams
their Halliburton attach cases are useless
while scotch guard Macintoshes shall be carbonized
now they’re offering views of exiting empire
such breathtaking views of Scythian empires

Scythian empire, horsemen of the Russia steppe
Scythian empire, archers of an afterthought
Routed by Sarmations, thwarted by the Thracians
Scythian empire

Scythian empire, exiting empire
Scythian empire, exiting empire
Routed by Sarmations, thwarted by the Thracians
Scythian empire
Kings of Macedonia, Scythian empire”

The song discusses how the Scythian Empire was, indeed, an empire, but it still vanished in the passage of time.


4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by yellowsun2117 on April 8, 2009 at 1:27 pm

    I’m glad that you were able to use your knowledge about oceanography (and/or reseach) to help you with this poem. When I read it, I associated the paper nautilus with Captain Nemo’s giant submarine in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. I thought it was interesting that something considered very strong and impenetrable would be described as paper. I think you talked about that contradiction too – the image of the classic gods and guardianship and the vulnerability of paper and the impermanance you mentioned.


  2. Posted by Brenden on May 20, 2010 at 3:42 pm

    Certainly gives one something to think about. Nice!

    I feel I ought to point out, though, that the creature you have pictured is a chambered nautilus, not a paper nautilus or argonaut. While they are both cephalopods, there is a big difference. Just superficially, the chambered nautilus has a genuine, hard shell, and around 90 sucker-less tentacles. The argonaut is really a type of pelagic octopus that constructs a fragile ‘paper’ shell for many uses, but it is not sturdy enough to be much of a deterrence to any sort of predator.


  3. argonauta or paper nautili are a completely different species to the chambered nautilus. the photo at the top is of nautilus pompilnius i believe whearas the paper nautilus is actually a from of pelageic octopus that has a thin paper like “shell” they may look similar but have been evolutionarily seperate since not long after the ammonites


  4. Posted by Sophie on March 22, 2011 at 2:07 am

    Great article, would like to point out however that they have not been around for 500 million years, but more likely around 250 to 300 million years old.


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