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Featured Poem: Ode by Arthur O’Shaughnessy

Written by Lisa Spurgin, 10th May 2010

So… after a month of wall-to-wall election coverage, opinion polls popping up at every turn, televised leadership debates and cross country campaigning, the boxes have been crossed, decisions have been made and it’s all over. Or is it? At the time of writing, things appear to be as clear as proverbial mud and that’s not to mention all the controversy over the queuing crowds being turned away from polling booths across the country and an apparent lack of ballot papers in stock here in Liverpool. Given the discrepancies involved simply in casting a vote it all seems just a little disheartening, which is a shame given the added fuel and fire that accompanied this election campaign, livening things up after the initial prospect of general apathy.

I have to admit that in the past my own personal political interest wasn’t that high. Perspectives changed during my time at university, as I dabbled with certain political issues as part of my course and though I don’t profess now to be always super-interested, I’ve made it a mission to become more knowledgeable in order to make my vote that bit better informed rather than standing in a polling booth confronted with a voting slip and pencil and being so confused that I end up making an ‘eeny-meeny-miney-mo’ choice. Faced with the task of getting myself clued up, I went with my natural instinct – and that is to read. Read, read, read until my eyes close and my brain is swirling with words, phrases and sentences. And as is always the way, reading helped immensely. If anything was to hinder, it was not the act of reading but the act of trying to always comprehend what was being said. Another one of my instincts is to look at how words are used, pick them apart and consider in depth their connotations. When certain words are repeated continually in manifestos and speeches, you can’t help feeling somehow that they’ve become emptied of their meaning, much like when you say a word out loud so many times that it no longer sounds part of the English language but instead like some made-up, alien invention. Add in the seemingly inevitable rhetoric and polish, and simple words like ‘change’, ‘fairness’ and ‘equality’ are transformed into point scoring weapons.

Considering this, it’s easy to get back to a feeling of disillusionment surrounding the whole political she-bang. But it’s vital that we cling onto a few fundamental ideals amidst everything. On the political side of things, the fact that every vote does indeed count and is greatly important. In terms of linguistics, words and the power they have, it is undeniable that they do possess a great deal of it. Words aren’t just empty vessels or colourless building blocks to be picked up and rearranged carelessly; when used with consideration, or even with little of it and more sheer abandon, they can move, inspire and describe the most complex of matters concisely and compellingly. This poem by Arthur O’ Shaughnessy brings all of these factors together, I feel. Those wonderful opening lines ‘We are the music-makers/And we are the dreamers of dreams’ give such an optimistic glow and indicate in a brilliant way the significance of not just individuals but of us all together; no matter how much we may do ourselves down and sometimes feel unheard of or unrepresented, it is reassuring to know that ‘we are the movers and shakers of the world for ever, it seems’. And while it does acknowledge the negatives as well as the positives – vastly unlike the collective political manifestos – it’s hard not to be buoyed by the stirring and deeply inspiring collection of words on offer here. However this all turns out, whatever allegiance you have, I think we all want to hope for the best and so should take heart from the poem’s closing lines: ‘For each age is a dream that is dying/Or one that is coming to birth’.


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.

Arthur O’Shaughnessy (1844-1881)

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