Arthur O'Shaughnessy

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Arthur O'Shaughnessy, ca 1875.

Arthur William Edgar O'Shaughnessy (14 March 1844 – 30 January 1881) was a British poet and herpetologist[1] of Irish descent, born in London.[2] He is most remembered for his ode beginning with the words "We are the music makers, /And we are the dreamers of dreams" which has been set to music several times.


At the age of seventeen, in June 1861, Arthur O'Shaughnessy received the post of transcriber in the library of the British Museum, reportedly through the influence of Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton. Two years later, at the age of nineteen, he became a herpetologist in the museum's zoological department. From 1874 until his premature death in 1881 he described six new species of reptiles, and after his death he was honored in the specific name, oshaughnessyi, of four new species of lizards described by Albert Günther and George Albert Boulenger.[1]

However, O'Shaughnessy's true passion was for literature. He published his first collection of poetry, Epic of Women, in 1870, followed two years later by Lays of France in 1872, and then Music and Moonlight in 1874. When he was thirty, he married and did not produce any more volumes of poetry for the last seven years of his life. He died at age 36 from a "chill" after walking home from the theatre on a rainy night.[3] His last volume, Songs of a Worker, was published posthumously in 1881.

The artists Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Ford Madox Brown were among O'Shaughnessy's circle of friends, and in 1873 he married Eleanor Marston, the daughter of author John Westland Marston and sister of the poet Philip Bourke Marston. Together, he and his wife wrote a book of children's stories titled Toy-land (1875). They had two children together, both of whom died in infancy. Eleanor died in 1879, and O'Shaughnessy himself died in London two years later from the effects of a "chill." He is buried in Kensal Green Cemetery.

The anthologist Francis Turner Palgrave in his work The Golden Treasury declared that of the modern poets, despite his limited output, O'Shaughnessy had a gift in some ways second only to Tennyson, and "a haunting music all his own." He was also alluded to by Neil Gaiman in his extremely popular series The Sandman in the guise of the envoy of the Endless, Eblis O'Shaughnessy.


By far the most noted of any his works are the initial lines of the Ode from his book Music and Moonlight (1874):

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.

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.

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.

Sir Edward Elgar set the ode to music in 1912 in his work entitled The Music Makers, Op 69. The work was dedicated to Elgar's old friend Nicholas Kilburn and the first performance took place at the Birmingham Triennial Music Festival in 1912. Performances available include: The Music Makers, with Sir Adrian Boult conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra in 1975 (reissued 1999), paired with Elgar's Dream of Gerontius; and the 2006 album Sea Pictures paired with The Music Makers, Simon Wright conducting the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. Zoltán Kodály (1882–1967) also set the ode to music in his work Music Makers, dedicated to Merton College, Oxford on the occasion of its 700th anniversary in 1964.

Cultural usage[edit]

J. T. Nettleship's illustration to O'Shaughnessy's poem "A Neglected Harp" in Epic of Women (1870)

The line "We are the music makers / and we are the dreamers of dreams" has been quoted or used in many different media. A few examples include:

  • spoken by Willy Wonka (Gene Wilder) in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.
  • used as the opening line of Mod Sun's song "Birds and Bikes" from the album "I'll Buy Myself".
  • used as the opening line of Living Legends song "Nothing Less (ft. Slug)".
  • included in motivation speech by Herb Brooks before the US Hockey Team beat the Russian team in the 1980 Winter Olympics.
  • line from Willy Wonka sampled in the Aphex Twin track, "We are the Music Makers" from the album Selected Ambient Works 85–92.
  • the first two lines were used by Kuffdam & Plant as lyrics on their single "We are the Dream Makers"
  • the first stanza is quoted by Viveca Lindfors's character at the end of the 1995 Henry Jaglom film Last Summer in the Hamptons.
  • used in the 2003 High Contrast remix of "Barcelona," originally produced by D.Kay & Epsilon.
  • quoted by the character Roger in season 5, episode 6 of the television series American Dad!
  • used in the Buckethead song "Seaside" from "Blueprints", the first line is a quote of Gene Wilder's line.
  • often quoted in the Church of Scientology's Celebrity Centre's Celebrity Magazine.[citation needed]
  • spoken by King Unique in "Tyrane – King of the Invisible Land (Henry Saiz's We Are The Music Makers 303 Remix)" in the 2011 CD Balance 019 Mixed by Henry Saiz
  • the first two lines are used in the intro to D-Block & S-Te-fan's "Dreamers of Dreamz" (2009)
  • the first two lines are used in the intro of the Bassnectar album Motions of Mutation – sampled from Gene Wilder's character in Willy Wonka
  • used in Bryan Kearney's mashup John O'Callaghan & Heatbeat vs. Nenes & Pascal Feliz – Plas Lilas
  • Used in Lange's 2013 track Imagineer
  • The first two lines are used in the track "Lonely Soul" by Direct
  • Most recently used in 2015 in Bliss n Eso x FKA Twigs - Two Weeks
  • line from Willy Wonka sampled and used in 808 State's song, "Nephatiti" on the album Ex:el.

The entire ode is quoted in the opening of "Dreamers of Dreams: An Anthology of Webfiction" (2011), an ebook anthology series of online fiction, as well as inspiring the name of the series.

  • used the line "We are the music makers / and we are the dreamers of dreams" in the spoken words of Gene Wilder (Willy Wonka) at the beginning of the original song written by Rob Bach "Dream" on YouTube. The full poem quote was also included in the description of the song "Dream".
  • the first two lines are used in the intro to Bastille's "Dreams" (Fleetwood Mac cover) from Other People's Heartache, Pt.2 album (2012)
  • First verse used in BBC TV advert for its own programming, 2013.

"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" was used by Mack Reynolds as the opening dedication (and title to) his novel "Trample an Empire Down" (1978).

The line "Each age is a dream that is dying,or one that is coming to birth." is quoted in Franklin D.Roosevelt's second Inaugural Address (1937).


  • An Epic of Women (1870)
  • Lays of France (1872)
  • Music and Moonlight: Poems and Songs (1874)
  • Toy-land (with Eleanor W. O'Shaughnessy) (1875)
  • Songs of a Worker (1881) (published posthumously)
  • Arthur O'Shaughnessy: Music Maker by Molly Whittington-Egan (2013) Bluecoat Press
  • Arthur O'Shaughnessy: His Life and Works by Jordan Kistler (forthcoming from Rivendale Press)


  1. ^ a b Beolens, Bo; Watkins, Michael; Grayson, Michael. 2011. The Eponym Dictionary of Reptiles. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. xiii + 296 pp. ISBN 978-1-4214-0135-5. ("O'Shaughnessy", p. 197).
  2. ^ Moulton, Louise (1894), Arthur O'Shaughnessy: his life and his work, with selections from his poems, Stone & Kimball, retrieved 9 August 2011 
  3. ^ Poetry Foundation.

External links[edit]