Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/O'Shaughnessy, Arthur William Edgar
O'SHAUGHNESSY, ARTHUR WILLIAM EDGAR (1814–1881), poet, was born in London on 14 March 1814. He was educated privately. In June 1861 he was appointed a junior assistant in the library of the British Museum, and in August 1863 was promoted to an assistantship in the zoological department. This transfer gave great offence to naturalists, and was condemned by a resolution passed at a meeting of the Zoological Society. O'Shaughnessy's acquaintance with natural history must indeed have been exceedingly limited at the time; but, by devoting himself with perseverance to the single branch of herpetology, he came to be so good an authority upon this department of zoology as to be entrusted with the preparation of the portion of the annual zoological record devoted to it, and his death was deplored as a loss to science by Dr. Gunther, the head of the museum department to which O'Shaughnessy belonged. His attention, nevertheless, had been even more decidedly given to poetry and general literature. In 1870, without having afforded much preliminary evidence of his gifts, he astonished the readers of poetry by his 'Epic of Women and other Poems,' illustrated with designs by his friend Mr. J. T. Nettleship. This volume deservedly attracted great admiration by the spontaneous melody of its lyrical verse, as well as by the dramatic force and passion of some of the more elaborate pieces. The expectations thus created were not fulfilled by his 'Lays of France' (1872), chiefly adapted from the poems of Marie de France; and although 'Music and Moonlight' (1874) would have commanded attention if it had been his first work, it resembled a weaker repetition of 'An Epic of Women,' except for traces of a new vein in 'Europe' and some other poems charged with political allusions. In 1873 he had married Eleanor, daughter of Westland Marston [q. v.], a lady of considerable literary accomplishments, with whom he wrote a book of tales for children, entitled 'Toyland' (1875). She died in January 1879, and he deplored her death in an elegy of great beauty. On 30 Jan. 1881, just as he was beginning to take an important place in general literature as the English correspondent of 'Le Livre,' and when he was about to contract a second marriage, he succumbed to the effects of a chill contracted on leaving the theatre on a bitterly cold night. His posthumous poems were published in the same year under the title of 'Songs of a Worker.' They do not in general indicate any advance upon his earlier compositions, but include some fine poems on sculpture, a subject to which he had latterly given much attention.
O'Shaughnessy's temperament was that of a genuine poet. His slender frame and spiritual expression recalled Chopin, and his best poetry has the characteristics of Chopin's music—dreamy and sometimes weird, with an original, delicious, and inexhaustible melody. Some pieces, such as 'Palm Flowers,' display, in addition, a remarkable faculty of gorgeous word-painting; others, such as the 'Daughter of Herodias,' possess much dramatic intensity, others fascinate by a semi-sensuous mysticism, and 'Chaitivel' and 'Bisclavaret' are wildly imaginative. All these gifts, however, except that of verbal music, seemed to dwindle as the poet advanced in years, and their decay was not compensated by growth in intellectual power. The range of O'Shaughnessy's ideas and sympathies was narrow, and when the original lyrical impulse had subsided, or degenerated into a merely mechanical fluency, he found himself condemned, for the most part, to sterile repetition. He might not improbably have forsaken poetry for criticism, in which he could have performed an important part. Enthusiastically devoted to modern French belles-lettres, and writing French with the elegance and accuracy of an accomplished native, he possessed unusual qualifications for interpreting the literature of either country to the other, and might have come to exert more influence as a critic than he could have obtained as a poet. His premature death restricts his claims to remembrance mainly to his first volume, which will always hold a place in English literature from its wealth of fancy and melody, and its marked individuality of style.
[Arthur O'Shaughnessy, his Life and his Work by L. C. Moulton, 1894; Athenæum, 5 Feb. 1881; Miles's Poets of the Century; Stedman's Victorian Poets; personal knowledge.]