“The Paper Nautilus” is a short, personal, and evocative poem. It was written in 1940 for Moore’s friend and mentee Elizabeth Bishop after the younger poet gifted Moore an actual nautilus shell. It may have been the same nautilus shell Bishop’s lover and companion Louise Crane sent to Moore in 1937 from Florida where they were staying at the time. Moore’s note in return said, “A nautilus has always seemed to me something supernatural. The more i look at it the less I can credit it, —this large yet weightless thing, with a glaze like ivory on the entrance and even on the sides. How curious the sudden change in direction in the corrugations, and the transparent oyster white dullness of the ‘paper.’ The wings are so symmetrical i should not know any part had been broken if you had not said so.”
Moore had also studied zoology and was familiar with Frederick McCoy’s Natural History of Victoria (1885-1890) in which he discusses nautili in detail. She also would have been aware of Edward Weston’s 1920s photographs of nautilus shells.
The poem was first published in 1941’s What are Years? and is frequently anthologized.