O'Shaughnessy was born on May 14, 1844 in London, England. At the age of seventeen he received the post of transcriber in the library of the British Museum. Two years later at the age of nineteen he was appointed to be an assistant in the natural history department, where he specialized in icthyology. However, his true passion was for literature. He published his Epic of Women in 1870, his first collection. He printed three collections of poetry between 1870 and 1874. When he was thirty he married and did not print any more volumes of poetry for the last seven years of his life. His last volume, Songs of a worker was published after his death the same year.
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.
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.
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.
The line "We are the music makers / and we are the dreamers of the 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 Living Legends song "Nothing Less (ft. Slug)".
included in motivation speech by Herb Brooks before the U.S. Hockey Team beat the Russian team in the 1980 Winter Olympics.
used in the Aphex Twin song, "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"
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.
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 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.
"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).