The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.

V. The Rossettis, William Morris, Swinburne, and Others

§ 13. Arthur O’Shaughnessy

To the group of poets treated in this chapter may be added Arthur William Edgar O’Shaughnessy, who was born in 1844 and died in 1881. His working life, from 1861 to his death, was spent as an assistant in the British museum, chiefly amid surroundings far removed from the themes of his verse. He was a friend of Rossetti and of Ford Madox Brown and married the sister of another poet, Philip Bourke Marston. French poetry, however, was the prevailing influence which guided his sensitive and highly uncertain talent, and the English verse to which his own is most nearly related, though at a considerable distance, is that of Swinburne. In the three volumes which contain his best, as well as his weakest, work, An Epic of Women, Lays of France, founded on the lays of Marie de France, and Music and Moonlight, he frequently adopted lyric forms which Swinburne had used in Poems and Ballads. Sometimes, as in the were-wolf story, Bisclavaret, which is in the stanza of The Leper, this justifies itself; but The Fair Maid and the Sun, in the stanza of Laus Veneris, is merely pretty, and the obvious following of Dolores in The Disease of the Soul is a signal failure. O’Shaughnessy, with a temperament which included him to overload with sensuous imagery the verse of An Epic of Women, a series of lyric episodes with a too ambitious title, had little of the gift of self-criticism. The easy and graceful stanzas, “We are the music-makers” and the echoing melodies, with their reminiscence of Edgar Allan Poe, of The Fountain of Tears are worthy of their place in most of the modern anthologies. Occasional pieces, too, have the sudden magic effect of which Beddoes’s lyrics hold the secret. The story of Chaitivel in Lays of France contains a song in the pleasant and effortless stanza of which Samuel Daniel’s Ulisses and the Screen is the best English model. All these pieces, if they do not belong to the highest class of poetry, have their own charm and furnish abundant proof of their author’s keen appreciation of musical sound. On the other hand, his ear in the poem called Love’s Eternity was hopelessly at fault and the versification is positively slovenly. A lover of verse, with a somewhat restricted range of theme and without strikingly original methods of treatment, O’Shaughnessy’s “heaven-sent moments” were few. His higher flights, as in An Epic of Women, were restricted by excess of heavy ornament; on lower planes, he moved more easily, but his tripping measures were hampered by faults of harmony and little affectations of phrase. The substance of his best pieces is immaterial, and their value is their mellifluous sweetness of sound. As such, they are casual triumphs in a field of which he never obtained perfect command.