Arthur O’Shaughnessy’s name is largely forgotten, but his work continues to be a part of our cultural imagination.
Though Arthur William Edgar O’Shaughnessy’s name has faded from the collective memory, phrases from his most famous poem, ‘Ode’ linger in our cultural consciousness.
As an earlier blog post noted, the poem’s haunting first two lines, ‘We are the music makers, / And we are the dreamers of dreams’ are memorably recited by Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971). This eccentric performance is sampled in turn by Aphex Twin on the song, ‘We Are the Music Makers’ from his Selected Ambient Works 85-92 album.
The poem’s seventh line: ‘…we are the movers and shakers’ provides another modern resonance. Though ‘movers and shakers’ has since come to be associated with perma-tanned socialites and bullish politicians, when he coined the term, O’Shaughnessy originally imagined the world’s ‘movers and shakers’ would be poets.
Originally appearing in the 1874 collection Music and Moonlight, the poem is frequently anthologised. Yeats was one of its earliest admirers. Some critics have suggested that the poem is a celebration of Irish identity in general and Irish verse in particular. Certainly, lines which predict that a ‘new song’s measure / can trample an empire down’ support this reading. In 1912, Elgar set the entire poem to music in his ‘The Music Makers’, composed for contralto or mezzo soprano with orchestra and chorus.
Like many ‘world-dreamers’ and ‘world-forsakers’ O’Shaughnessy died young; a cold caught on a night out in 1881 developed into fatal pneumonia. His two children had died in infancy, and his wife Eleanor (sister of poet Philip Bourke Marston) preceded him to the grave. The events of his life certainly contributed to the melancholy strain in his poetry.
O’Shaughnessy was born to Irish parents in London in 1844. His father died in 1848 when he was four years old. His mother was befriended by Edward Bulwer Lytton, who took such an interest in young Arthur’s welfare that the boy was rumoured to be Lytton’s ‘natural’ son. O’Shaughnessy’s appointment to the British Museum in 1861 and his 1863 promotion to its Zoological Department on Lytton’s recommendation did little to staunch the gossip.
An entomologist and herpetologist by day, O’Shaughnessy was a poet by night, losing himself in translating French literature. His second volume of poems, Lays Of France (1872) reinterprets the twelfth century Lais of Marie de France, while his posthumously published collection, Songs of a Worker (1881), includes translations from Paul Verlaine and Sully Prudhomme. He also corresponded with Mallarmé.
Biographer Thomas Wright tells us that O’Shaughnessy was a delicate, ‘Dresden-china looking figure’, who, ‘like other brilliant young men of the period indulged in long hair.’ His social circle included other aspiring young artists such as the poet John Payne and the painter JT Nettleship. Modelling their group on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, they christened themselves ‘The Triumvirate’. With a jokey nod toward the PRB, the programmes for their literary gatherings at the Fetherstone Hotel in Southampton Row were emblazoned with the letters ‘PBYOB’, which stood for ‘Please Bring Your Own Bloater.’
These ‘movers and shakers’ networked among the established Pre-Raphaelites, regularly attending parties at Ford Madox Brown and Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s London houses, where they hob-nobbed with cowboy-boot-wearing American poet Joaquin Miller, the Rossettis, Algernon Charles Swinburne and William and Jane Morris. The Pre-Raphaelite old guard took him under their wing, to the extent that Buchanan skewered O’Shaughnessy along with the rest of the Pre-Raphaelite poets in his infamous 1871 essay, ‘The Fleshly School of Poetry’. He dismissed O’Shaughnessy as ‘a second-hand Swinburne.’
Even O’Shaughnessy’s friends seem to have regarded him as less than first-rate. Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s limerick poked fun at his literary ambitions:
There’s the Irishman Arthur O’Shaughnessy –
On the chessboard of poets a pawn is he:
Though a bishop or king
Would be rather the thing,
To the fancy of Arthur O’Shaughnessy.
William Rossetti tells an apocryphal anecdote about O’Shaughnessy upsetting a drawer of insect specimens. The poet glued them back together in a panic, mismatching heads and bodies, and astonished his unsuspecting boss with a collection of new species. O’Shaughnessy never really warmed to his day job, and most regarded him as a square peg in a round hole, with the exception of Richard Garnett, who noted that ‘lizards and serpents’ are ‘always fascinating to persons of poetic temperament.’
There is something unpleasant, and possibly hostile, about these assessments from O’Shaughnessy’s friends. Tragic, as well as comic strains can be detected in Wright’s tales of an aspiring poet spending his days ‘among beetles stuck on pins and things in bottles’. Did O’Shaughnessy, labeled a misfit by his friends and a poor imitator by his enemies, sometimes feel an uncomfortable fellowship with his pinned and pickled specimens? His poems seem to suggest so. They idealise the figure of the dreamer, anticipating a time when the world order will be reversed, and the meek shall inherit the earth through the immortal power of art. ‘The Line of Beauty’, for instance, asks: ‘What is eternal? What escapes decay?’ And answers: ‘A certain, faultless, matchless, deathless line, / Curving consummate …’.
Despite his status as a minor poet, O’Shaughnessy did manage to create such a ‘deathless line’ in his ‘Ode’. Even if we can no longer quite recall ‘the singer who sings no more’, we remember his song. ■
Dinah Roe is the author of The Rossettis in Wonderland (Haus) and is the editor of Christina Rossetti: Selected Poems (Penguin) and The Pre-Raphaelites: From Rossetti to Ruskin (Penguin). Follow her on Twitter @preraphsrule and keep up to date with all her work over at Pre-Rafaelites in the City.