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Whose Wednesday: Arthur O’Shaughnessy

by Piter Kehoma Boll

On today’s Wednesday, we celebrate the birthday of Arthur William Edgar O’Shaughnessy, a figure more known for his work in literature than his work in science, but we are not here only to talk about the most notable scientists, right?

Arthur O’Shaughnessy was born in London on March 14, 1844, being the son of Oscar William O’Shaughnessy, an Irish painter of animal pictures, and Louisa Anne Deacon, a schoolteacher. His father died of “consumption” (most likely tuberculosis) when he was still very young, about 4 years old.

In 1861, aged 17, O’Shaughnessy started to work as a transcriber in the library of the British Museum, apparently through the influence of the writer Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803–1873). At this time, he also started to study reptiles, becoming a herpetologist in the museum’s zoological department two years later.

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Portrait of Arthur O’Shaughnessy in 1875

Although working with herpetology, O’Shaughnessy was really interested in poetry, publishing three collections of poetry in 1870, 1872 and 1874. In 1873, he married Eleanor Marston, the daughter of the author John Westland Marston and sister of the poet Philip Bourke Marston. However, after his marriage, he did not produce any additional volumes of poetry, only writing a book of children’s stories, Toy-Land, with his wife, which was published in 1875.

It was after getting married that O’Shaughnessy  produced his more valuable contributions to herpetology, describing six new species of reptiles. He and his wife had two children but both died in infancy and Eleanor herself died in 1879.

O’Shaughnessy also did not survive long. Only two years after the death of his wife, he died of a “chill” after walking home in the rain during a cold night. He was only 36 years old.

O’Shaughnessy is most notably known as the author of a poem entitled “Ode” from his book Music and Moonlight, published in 1874. The poem was set to music in 1912 by the English composer Sir Edward Elgar.

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.

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