â€œI Carve the Marble of Pure Thoughtâ€: Work and Production in the Poetry of Arthur Oâ€™Shaughnessy
AbstractIn this article I consider the concepts of â€œworkâ€ and â€œproductionâ€ in the life and poetry of Arthur Oâ€™Shaughnessy, viewed in terms of the conflicting aesthetic theories of Socialist art-for-society and Aesthetic art-for-art. In order to express his discontent with his â€œday jobâ€ as a naturalist at the British Museum, Oâ€™Shaughnessy embraced the revolution of non-work offered by the Aesthetes, as they affected an aloof aristocracy of art, removed from the bourgeois concerns of the consumerist public. Adopting this self-aggrandising language, Oâ€™Shaughnessy undermined the importance of the ordinary world, and with it the significance of his own failures in his work at the museum.
However, his most famous poem, which begins â€˜we are the music makersâ€™, evinces a commitment to socially engaged literature, a desire rebuked by the Aestheteâ€™s emphasis on â€œuselessâ€ art. In his support of â€œart for humanityâ€ Oâ€™Shaughnessy aligned himself with the aesthetic theories of men such as William Morris. The tension between these two conflicting aesthetic theories is expressed in moments of surprising violence in Oâ€™Shaughnessyâ€™s verse, in which the Aesthetic figure of the solitary artist is persecuted for his difference. It is only in his final volume of poetry that Oâ€™Shaughnessy was able to reconcile these theories and resolve this tension by redefining art as â€˜workâ€™, with an emphasis on the act of production. In this act of redefinition he finally accepts himself as a worker: not a mere cog in the bureaucratic system, but a producer of beauty. It is in the act of production that Oâ€™Shaughnessy found use, and in the redefinition of art as his career, he was able to come to a middle ground between art for humanity and art for artâ€™s sake.