The poem, an ode in form, admires the creative artists of the world as ‘dreamers of dreams’. They give up all comforts of the world as they give shape to their dreams. Their ideas inspire men of action who change the status quo and push the society forward. In this sense they are ‘the movers and shakers’ of the world.
About the Poet
Arthur William Edgar O’Shaughnessy (1844-1881) is still remembered for his much-acclaimed ‘Ode’ also known as ‘We are the Music Makers’. He was a British poet of Irish descent. By profession he was a herpetologist, but by interest he was a writer. His true passion for literature became known with his first collection of poems, Epic of Women, which was published in 1870, and brought him fame as a poet.
In 1861, he became a transcriber in the library of the British Museums. Two years later, he became a herpetologist in the Zoological Department of the British Museum. From 1874 to 1881, he described new species of reptiles. His real interest was in literature. His first collection of poems was published in 1870. His other volumes of poetry are Lays of France (1872), Music and Moonlight (1874) and Songs of a Worker (published posthumously in 1881).
His poetry is mostly lyrical . Francis Turner Palgrave in his work The Golden Treasury compares O’Shaughnessy to Tennyson, despite his limited output.
He remained active throughout his life. He died at the age of 36 from a ‘chill’ he caught on a rainy night.
About the Poem
‘We are the Music Makers’ by O’Shaughnessy is included in his book Music and Moonlight (1874) as ‘Ode’ . The poem became very popular because of its first two lines and the phrase ‘the movers and shakers’ -a phrase which is used even in non-literary contexts these days. The poem has nine stanzas in all, but only the first three are taken for serious study. The other remaining stanzas are generally ignored.
The poem is written in praise of all artists who are associated with creativity, dreaming and beauty. The may be poets, musicians, painters, sculptors, and the like. According to the poet, artists have a great role to play in the world. According to the poet, artists have a great role to paly in the world. They can bring about social changes by challenging the status quo. It is in this sense that they are the real ‘movers and shakers’. It is of course, true that they remain outside the world of reality but their dreams shape our reality. Dreams and fantasies of artists are not meaningless. They push the society forward. They should be considered as the leaders of the world. Their creators outlive all civilizations. What they create in almost divine.
The poet underlines the fact that art is eternal. It is the artist who himself creates a myth and destroys it. But there will be other artists and there will be other myths. In other words, art is what is left of the world – music and dreams which continue to live.
Dreamers of Dreams : The poet visualizes all creative artists – poets, musicians, painters, sculptors, etc. – as the music makers. They are the music makers in the sense that they create harmony and sweetness. They are dreamers of dreams. Their dreams are those which we all dream. Whereas our dreams vanish, their dreams get powerful expressions in the shapes of stories, poems, paintings, sculptures, etc. No doubt , they live a lonely life, away from the hustle and bustle of life. They are seen wandering by the stormy sea or sitting by forlorn streams, lost in their dreams. They find it difficult to make money out of their art. They make a sacrifice and leave all comforts of the world. This sacrifice is essential for them to live in dreams in order to discover beauty in human nature and elsewhere. They remain away from real life, and yet they have a powerful role as ‘movers and shakes’ of the world.
They push the society on the path of progress and growth in the realm of ideas by shaking it from its stagnation and slumber. In other words, artists, remaining outside, bring about desirable changes in our world.
Power of Artists : Artists manage to do even the unthinkable. With their eternal songs and fantasies they inspire and help people to ‘build up the world’s great cities’ and shape up ‘an empire’s glory’. In other words, their vision in their creative works can help raise great empires. At the same time it can help tumble an empire down. In this sense, they are the leaders of the world. Their art needs to be celebrated.
Divine Creations : The power of artists is almost divine. When they suffer, a ‘Nineveh’ is built – a society in which people stood down and do sinful deeds and invite God’s wrath, such as people did in the ancient city of Nineveh. And when they rejoice, a ‘Babel’ rises up – something that needs great creativity, mutual coordination and unity such as the people showed when they embarked on the project of building the Tower of Babel to reach the heavens. Artists, according to the poet, demolish the old decadent world by predicting about the new desirable one. Thus they themselves create myths and kill them, but there will always be new artists and new myths. Art, thus, is continuous, for myths and dreams never die.
Stanza by Stanza Explanation
‘We are ……….. it seems.’
We are the makers of music and dreamers of dreams. We wander by sea beaches where large sea waves break and sit by forlorn streams (thinking and dreaming). No doubt, we are losers. We have forsaken all the comforts of the world. Only the pale moon shines over us, that is, we remain unsuccessful in material terms. Yet, it seems that we are the movers and shakers of the world (the harbingers of change).
‘With wonderful ……….. empire down.’
By our immortal songs (creations) we help in building the world’s great cities – centres of activity. With our fantasies (fabulous stories) we shape the glory of an empire. With our ideas, one can go, inspire others and become a king, and a few revolutionaries can bring down a whole powerful empire.
‘We, in …………. to birth.’
Long long ago in the buried remains of the past when we artists suffered we built Nineveh (a city in which people indulge in sinful activity and perished), and when we flourished we built Babel (something that needs creativity and unity). It is we who demolished them by making prophesies about the worth of the new world. For each age a dream dies to give birth to a new one (and this is possible because of us, the ‘dreamers’).
To most of us, poets, musicians, painters, sculptors and the others of their ilk are idle, unsuccessful, worthless escapists. We think that what they do or create may provide some mirth or pleasure for some time, but their works have no bearing upon the events of the world. We feel convinced that they have no role in shaping the destiny of a nation. However, the reality is that creative artists give us new ideas and dreams through their creations – poems, symphonies, paintings, etc. Many among us are affected by their ideas and dreams. When their ideas or dreams are turned into reality by these inspired men new societies and new nations are born. The artists wield power indirectly to shape the destiny of a nation.
This view is projected in the poem ‘We are the Music Makers’ by O’Shaughnessy. The poem is about the power and effect of arts – poetry, music, painting, etc. Though artists remain cut off from the real, world, its useless and meaningless strife and struggle, they dream of those things which we dream of and desire to possess. In this sense, they are the ‘dreamers of dreams’. They are also the music-makers. They create harmony and sweetness – this is what music is . Though they are beyond the reach of society , they are real rebels. They challenge the status quo and push the society move forward :
World-losers and world-forsake,
Upon whom the pale moon gleams:
Yet we are the movers and shakers,
Of the world for ever, it seems.
No doubt, they create myths and fantasies, stories and legends which many a times become the cause of revolutionary changes in the society. Great empire rise up and crumble down as a result of what they create. Their creations are everlasting. Art, the poet asserts, is unkillable. The dreams they dream are also deathless. A dream dies to give birth to a new one :
For each age is a dream that is dying,
Or one that is coming to birth.
Literary Devices used in the poem
- music-makers, a symbol for creative artists who create sweet harmonies and rhythms
- dreamers of dreams, a symbol of the artists who dream what we aspire in life
- Nineveh : the biblical reference to the flourish capital of the Assyrian empire, founded by Nimrod.
- Babel : the allusion is to the Tower of Babel build by people at first is complete harmony, later abandoned when they began to speak different languages and were divided and confused.
- We are the music-makers (‘m’ and ‘k’ sounds)
- One man with a dream …… (‘m’ sound)
- Wandering by lone sea-breakers (‘r’ sound)
Form and Structure : ‘We are the Music Makers’ is a sort or ode as it is serious in subject matter and elevated in style. It is written in honour of the creative artists who are the real ‘movers and shakers’ of the world. It has nine stanzas in all, but only three are considered for serious study. It has varied rhyme scheme. In the first and the third stanzas the rhyme scheme is the same : ababcdcd, while the second stanza has two couplets, aabb, and a quatrain, cdcd. Most of the rhyming words are connected with the main theme of the poem. The changing rhythm conveys the change in the tone of the poetic voice.
Poetic Persona : The speaker is not to be identified with the poet. It is obvious that the narrative is in the first person ‘we’ – the collective voice of the artists. Thus, the speaker represents all the creative artists – poet, musicians, painters, etc. who are connected with creativity, beauty and harmony.
Title : The title ‘We are the Music Makers’ is apt and suggestive. ‘We are the music-makers’ is the opening line of the poems. It makes it clear that the artists are those who are makers of music. We associate sweetness and harmony with music. So, to the poet, the artists create sweetness and harmony. They are also the dreamers of dreams. If dreams are the things for which we have a great desire and want, it is the artists who dream of these things for us. Some of us realize them by our toil and dedication. This idea about the artists is further elaborated in the poem. The poet who is aware of the artists being external to the society is also aware of their powerful role in the society.
Romantic Conception about Artists : It must be kept in mind that the poet while referring to artists of all sorts in this poem is actually having poets in his mind. It is the poets who are the creators of myths, fantasies and legends, which have powerful impact in shaping the world. Their world of imagination is conceived to be ‘Infinite and Eternal’ by William Blake, P.B. Shelley, John Keats, and in fact, all the Romantic poets in one way or the others.
There are many who do not share the view that the artists or the poets could be ‘the movers and shakers’ of the world. They believe that the artists are fit only for the world of fancy , and not for the real world.
Though O’Shughnessy’s admiration of the artists is romantic, it has some authentication too. There have been creative men who with their new ideas impacted the minds of millions, and were, thus, responsible for many revolutionary changes in the human world.
The poem is, on the whole, quiet appealing for its subject matter, felicity of phrase, symbols and allusions. No wonder, it has been one of the most popular English poems for years together.