Ode by Arthur O’Shaughnessy

Certain poems, in their infamy, have been disseminated into public consciousness and the fabric of pop culture – poems such as, for example, Dante’s La Divina Commedia, William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130, and Arthur O’Shaughnessy’s Ode. Ode was written in published in 1873, and it has nine full stanzas, though it is the first three which are the most commonly quoted, so it is the first three stanzas that this analysis will focus on. Perhaps due to Ode‘s pop culture leanings, there is very little analysis written on Arthur O’Shaughnessy’s magnum opus.

 

Ode Summary

Poetry as a celebratory expression is one of the oldest forms of poetry; poetry to praise, to enjoy, to bring to the attention of the viewers, and no subject is as closely tied to the celebration poet’s pen than that of poetry and art itself. In Ode, 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 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.

It Is made up of three stanzas of eight lines each. The rhyme scheme for the first stanza is ABABABAB, the rhyme scheme for the second stanza is AABBCDCD, and the rhyme scheme for the third stanza is ABABABAB.

 

Ode Breakdown Analysis

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.

This is where the infamous phrase ‘movers and shakers’ originated. That aside, 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, according to the poem, is difficult. The phrase ‘world losers and world forsakers’ implies the difficulty of sustaining a life on art alone – an issue that is striking with many contemporary artists, let alone those in the Romantic era, who could hypothetically find a patron for their work, or who might manage to scrape by on an inheritance, such as John Keats, or who relied on good fortune and a staggering amount of wealth, such as Lord Byron. Here, Arthur O’Shaughnessy 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. Despite the fact that most artists are beyond the reach of society, Arthur O’Shaughnessy wants to make it clear that this in no way means that they are forgotten, or easily replaced.

Artists have a role to fulfil in the world, and that is to be the ‘overs 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 an empire down.

In the second stanza, 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 that is 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 modern world are to be considered as the leaders of that world, for it is myth and story and 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 with 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 own mythology, but there will always be other artists, and there will always be other myths. Art is, therefore, unkillable. Art is what is left of the world – dreams and music.

 

Historical Background

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 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.

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