‘Ode’ by Arthur O’Shaughnessy was written and published in 1873. Written in the high Victorian era, it is a poem about English nationhood. The Victorian spirit is what makes the poem more rejoicing and rejuvenating to read. Certain poems have been disseminated into public consciousness and the fabric of pop culture – poems such as, for example, Dante’s ‘La Divina Commedia’ and William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130. Arthur O’Shaughnessy’s ‘Ode’ is one of them apart from the landmark poem of the era, ‘Ulysses’ by Alfred Lord Tennyson.
Summary of Ode
‘Ode’ by Arthur O’Shaughnessy celebrates the underlying energy of the English race. It is a poetry to praise, to enjoy, to bring to the attention of the viewers, and no subject is as closely tied to the celebrated poet’s pen than that of poetry and art itself. In this poem, Arthur O’Shaughnessy dedicates his work to the artists, the writers, the painters, the people who have lived in fantasy, and built worlds outside the mundane world. It is one of the most uplifting and hopeful poems about art that has been written, which makes it no surprise, then, that it is so often quoted in other works of art along with Tennyson. Tennyson in his critical works had denigrated him though.
‘Ode’ by Arthur O’Shaughnessy consists of nine stanzas. Each stanza of the poem has eight rhyming lines. The rhyme scheme of the poem is “abab abab”. It means that the poem is written in the regular rhyme scheme. As an example, in the first stanza, “makers”, “sea-breakers”, “world-forsakers”, and “shakers” rhyme together. In the rest of the lines, “dreams”, “streams”, “gleams”, and “seems” rhyme altogether.
There is a regularity in the metrical pattern of the poem too. The poem mostly consists of the iambic meter. There is an irregularity in the syllable count of each line. However, the first four lines have an evenness of syllable count and metrical pattern. The variation is for suiting the sense invested in the lines of the poem. In the alternative lines of the poem, the poet uses trochaic feet at the beginning to imitate the effect of rowing through the sea. The poet also uses hypermetrical variations in the poem.
‘Ode’ by Arthur O’Shaughnessy showcases several important literary devices to make poetic words more appealing and forceful. Likewise in the phrase, “the dreamers of the dreams”, the poet uses a metaphor for creative imagination. The poet presents personal metaphors in the phrases, “lone sea-breakers” and “desolate streams”. There is an antithesis in the line, “World-losers and world-forsakers”. The poet uses an important metaphor in the phrase “pale moon”. It is also a symbol of pessimism. That’s why it is also a metonymy. The poet uses some alliterations in the poem like, “deathless ditties” and “therefore to-day”. There is hyperbole in the line, “Can trample a kingdom down”. The poet uses an important epigram in the following lines of the poem, “For each age is a dream that is dying,/ Or one that is coming to birth”. It also sounds a little paradoxical. There is an anticlimax to heighten the effect of the following line, “The soldier, the king, and the peasant”. The poet uses onomatopoeia in the line, “Our souls with high music ringing”. However, there are also some other literary devices in the poem like synecdoche and hyperbaton.
Analysis, Stanza by Stanza
We are the music makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
And sitting by desolate streams; —
World-losers and world-forsakers,
On whom the pale moon gleams:
Yet we are the movers and shakers
Of the world for ever, it seems.
‘Ode’ by Arthur O’Shaughnessy presents the famous phrase “movers and shakers” in the first two lines of the poem. This stanza is very straightforward: it is written to the artists, to the “music-makers” and the “dreamers of dreams”, and the fact that no one artist is mentioned, no one art-form, is what helps this poem to gain such a widespread appeal. Art, in this poem, has a fluid definition. Everything can be art, so long as there is creation involved, and beauty, and desolation of the spirit.
Being an artist is difficult. The phrase “world losers and world-forsakers” implies the difficulty of sustaining life on art alone. Here, the poet wants to make it clear that to be an artist requires sacrifice – and, very often, that sacrifice is to live external to society. It is almost necessary to be external to human error and strife to see the beauty in human nature. Even though most artists are beyond the reach of society, he wants to make it clear that this in no way means that they are forgotten, or easily replaced.
Artists have a role to fulfill in the world, and that is to be the “movers and shakers / Of the world for ever, it seems.” By “movers and shakers”, it is implied rebellion, it is implied a changing of the status quo; art, for the most part, has been outside of what was considered the norm.
With wonderful deathless ditties
We build up the world’s great cities,
And out of a fabulous story
We fashion an empire’s glory:
One man with a dream, at pleasure,
Shall go forth and conquer a crown;
And three with a new song’s measure
Can trample a kingdom down.
In the second stanza of ‘Ode’, O’Shaughnessy goes into detail about the boon that is artistry, about what artists have done for society. He states the majesty of what artists manage to do – “with wonderful deathless ditties / we built up the world’s great cities/ and out of a fabulous story/ we fashion an empire’s glory”.
Thus the poem celebrates something innate to creation: fantasy, and the wielding of stories to push society forward. Above all, this poem wants to make it very clear that artists have been the cause of society moving forward. It almost seems to imply that the myth-makers of the modern world are to be considered as the leaders of that world, for it is myth, story, fantasy, and legend that survives after all civilization has been eaten up by tragedy. The lasting effect of poetry outlives most societies, and it is this, therefore, that must be celebrated and enjoyed, this that is the true wonder of poetry: the fact that art is man’s greatest achievement yet.
We, in the ages lying,
In the buried past of the earth,
Built Nineveh with our sighing,
And Babel itself in our mirth;
And o’erthrew them with prophesying
To the old of the new world’s worth;
For each age is a dream that is dying,
Or one that is coming to birth.
In the third stanza, O’Shaughnessy lauds once more the power of artists. He references the city of Babel and Nineveh, lending the idea of art as an almost divine creation, that in itself creates divinity. The importance of the artist to O’Shaughnessy’s ‘Ode’ cannot be overstated. He attributes an almost Godly manner to the idea of the artist, and through the final stanza, shows that it is ultimately the artist himself who creates and kills his mythology, but there will always be other artists, and there will always be other myths. Art is, therefore, imperishable. Art is what is left of the world – dreams, and music.
A breath of our inspiration
Is the life of each generation;
A wondrous thing of our dreaming
Unearthly, impossible seeming —
The soldier, the king, and the peasant
Are working together in one,
Till our dream shall become their present,
And their work in the world be done.
In the fourth stanza of the poem, the poet talks about the creative inspiration of the artists. It infuses life into age and brings new possibilities or mankind. At first, an artist’s imagination seems to be “Unearthly” and “impossible”. People from every sphere of society don’t believe it all. But, soon, an artist’s imagination becomes the reality of society. Here, the poet expresses his belief in the “poet-prophet”. A famous concept used by the second-generation Romantic poets namely, P.B. Shelley, John Keats, and Lord Byron.
They had no vision amazing
Of the goodly house they are raising;
They had no divine foreshowing
Of the land to which they are going:
But on one man’s soul it hath broken,
A light that doth not depart;
And his look, or a word he hath spoken,
Wrought flame in another man’s heart.
In the fifth stanza of the poem, the poet talks about the creative energy inside poets and artists. It is a kind of power of which artists are unaware of. When it comes out in the form of art, it can change the views of the world. The poet says, “They had no divine foreshadowing/ Of the land to which they are going”. But, a simple thought of a poet can incite a flame in all men. It can bring the west wind of change in no time. And the poet adores this quality in the artists of all ages.
And therefore to-day is thrilling
With a past day’s late fulfilling;
And the multitudes are enlisted
In the faith that their fathers resisted,
And, scorning the dream of to-morrow,
Are bringing to pass, as they may,
In the world, for its joy or its sorrow,
The dream that was scorned yesterday.
In the sixth stanza, there is a reference to the prejudices and superstitions of the old generation. They fear the imaginary abilities of their young. Shutting their mental doors, they block their future. Later, it proves to be an unfruitful initiative as a budding artist knows well how to spread his creative energy into the world. Then the world accepts “The dream that was scorned yesterday” and enjoys the change their creative minds have wrought for them. In this way, the poet refers to the ability to change and the inherent revolutionary spirit of the poets as well as other artists.
But we, with our dreaming and singing,
Ceaseless and sorrowless we!
The glory about us clinging
Of the glorious futures we see,
Our souls with high music ringing:
O men! it must ever be
That we dwell, in our dreaming and singing,
A little apart from ye.
In this stanza, the poet directly converses with the contemporary artists as his fellow soulmates. They are together in the sea of change, rowing relentlessly, and fighting all the odds. Their imagining is “ceaseless” and hear is without any sorrow. Optimism blows her clarion inside their excited mind. In their imaginary world, there is always hope for a better future, in the poet’s words, “glorious future”.
In the last few lines, the poet contrasts their world with the humdrum world of the commoners. Their soul is always ringing with the essence of creation. Life seems to be a musical journey, like the lyrical movement of an ode. The major difference lies in their way of living. The poet says, “we dwell, in our dreaming and singing,/ A little apart from ye.” The irony used here is directed towards pragmatic minds.
For we are afar with the dawning
And the suns that are not yet high,
And out of the infinite morning
Intrepid you hear us cry —
How, spite of your human scorning,
Once more God’s future draws nigh,
And already goes forth the warning
That ye of the past must die.
In the eighth stanza of the poem, Arthur O’Shaughnessy uses the metaphor of a sun yet not appeared in the sky. The stock symbol of the dawn points at hope and a new beginning. The poet says artists are always sure of change. They can visualize the dawn of a new beginning long before the normal men can see it. Normal men sleep cozily in their bed of ignorance while the creative minds thrive to keep the wheel of progress moving. For this reason, they can see the change long before it appears in the world.
In the end, the poet uses the popular epigram of the age, “That ye of the past must die.” It means that the old orders and past beliefs are prone to decay when the new comes. Like the “second coming” of Christ removes all the traces of old to make way for the young and energetic. The poet refers to it ironically and strikes a blow for change.
Great hail! we cry to the comers
From the dazzling unknown shore;
Bring us hither your sun and your summers;
And renew our world as of yore;
You shall teach us your song’s new numbers,
And things that we dreamed not before:
Yea, in spite of a dreamer who slumbers,
And a singer who sings no more.
In the last stanza of the poem, the poet beautifully presents the change and his view on what artists must do in the future. When the change the artists longed for in the past comes, it is a reward for the men who thrived for it. They must celebrate it with the spirit of the new.
However, the creative minds of the present must be the old of the future. Then they must accept it with a brave heart and page the way for their next generation. There should be no frowning or disdain in their minds. Learning is the essence of creativity. Being artists, they should learn from their young one’s thoughts and creative pursuits.
Artists of the past have to accept the innovation of the present. The poet says, “You shall teach us your song’s new numbers,/ And things that we dreamed not before.” He happily welcomes the oblivion and ends the poem on a calm note. There should be no remorse in his mind as he has devoted his full energy to something that is the basis of the future. There will be nothing to worry about if he can’t sing his lays in the future. He is satisfied as he has brought a change to society.
Arthur O’Shaughnessy was an Irish poet who was born in London in 1844. He worked at the British Museum as an entomologist and herpetologist, though his true love was poetry, and he spent countless nights bent over thick volumes, translating French literature and writing poetry. The poem Ode came from his 1874 publication, ‘Music and Moonlight’, although it has been placed in several other anthologies besides. He also published translations of French poetry in his volumes ‘Lays of France’, and ‘Songs of a Worker’.
However, Arthur O’Shaughnessy was considered to be the second rate, by several of his contemporaries, and especially critics. Wrote Buchanan, “When we take up the poems of Mr. O’Shaughnessy,** we are face to face with a second-hand Mr. Swinburne;”, and even his friend, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, wrote a cruel limerick mocking his literary aspirations: ‘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.”
O’Shaughnessy died young, of a cold that developed into pneumonia. He was survived by no-one, as both his children and his wife, preceded him to the grave.