Arthur O'Shaughnessy, A Pre-Raphaelite Poet in the British Museum
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Arthur O'Shaughnessy, A Pre-Raphaelite Poet in the British Museum

Jordan Kistler

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eBook - ePub

Arthur O'Shaughnessy, A Pre-Raphaelite Poet in the British Museum

Jordan Kistler

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About This Book

Arthur O'Shaughnessy's career as a natural historian in the British Museum, and his consequent preoccupation with the role of work in his life, provides the context with which to reexamine his contributions to Victorian poetry. O'Shaughnessy's engagement with aestheticism, socialism, and Darwinian theory can be traced to his career as a Junior Assistant at the British Museum, and his perception of the burden of having to earn a living outside of art. Making use of extensive archival research, Jordan Kistler demonstrates that far from being merely a minor poet, O'Shaughnessy was at the forefront of later Victorian avant-garde poetry. Her analyses of published and unpublished writings, including correspondence, poetic manuscripts, and scientific notebooks, demonstrate O'Shaughnessy's importance to the cultural milieu of the 1870s, particularly his contributions to English aestheticism, his role in the importation of decadence from France, and his unique position within contemporary debates on science and literature.

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Information

Publisher
Routledge
Year
2016
ISBN
9781317178293
Edition
1

Chapter 1
‘Dreary Creeds’ and ‘Sham Wits’: O’Shaughnessy’s Poetic Representations of Nature and Science

Arthur O'Shaughnessy's professional life as a naturalist in the British Museum had an undeniable effect on his poetry, yet throughout his life he attempted to maintain a strict divide between his professional career and his artistic ambitions. This self-inflicted divide stemmed largely from the dissatisfaction he felt in his job at the British Museum – he faced conflict with colleagues and superiors, and often found himself caught up in the bureaucracy of the inner workings of the Museum. These were difficulties he could have faced in any office environment, but they caused O'Shaughnessy to attempt to reject 'science' in general – as a blanket term for the naturalism practised at the Museum, and the taxonomy he particularly performed. O'Shaughnessy saw his artistic career as fulfilling and creative where his work as a naturalist was unproductive and stultifying, and he thus sought to assert the one by denigrating the other. Despite the divide between science and art that he fervently proclaimed in his poetry, however, we can see many instances in which his scientific career seeped into his verse, in setting and subject matter, as well as evidence of an engagement with broader nineteenth-century science –specifically Darwinian theory.

I.

Arthur O'Shaughnessy worked at the British Museum from the age of 17 until his death in 1881. Both his initial appointment to the Museum and his subsequent promotion to the Natural History Departments were tainted by hints of scandal. O'Shaughnessy came to the museum on the recommendation of Edward Bulwer-Lytton, the popular novelist and member of the peerage. Nomination by a trustee was the only way to secure a coveted civil service position at that time, so Lord Lytton asked his friend, the Rt. Hon. John Evelyn Denison, Speaker of the House of Commons, and trustee to the British Museum, to nominate O'Shaughnessy. Although this was the normal way of obtaining this kind of position, rumours of unfair partiality began to swirl almost immediately. Gossip in the museum declared Lord Lytton O'Shaughnessy's natural father. In 1925 Clement Shorter reported:
For him now and again, when the office hours had ended, there called a veiled lady in a well-appointed carriage with liveried servants. This veiled lady was always believed at the time to be O'Shaughnessy's mother. Certainly there was no doubt whatever in the minds of his fellow clerks at the Museum that Edward Bulwer Lytton, the novelist, was his father. The name "O'Shaughnessy" the poet owed to the old Irishwoman who brought him up. His mother may have been an Irishwoman, but her nationality has never been revealed.1
Edmund Gosse believed O'Shaughnessy confirmed the nature of his kinship to Lytton in 1873; he reported witnessing O'Shaughnessy's grief at the death of Lytton, and recounts his tearful exclamation of, 'No one will ever know what he was to me!'2
In fact, O' Shaughnessy was correct; his contemporaries never guessed his true connection to Lytton. It was not O'Shaughnessy's mother, but rather his aunt –Laura Deacon, the 'veiled lady' of Shorter's report – who was Lytton's mistress. Following Lytton's separation from his wife, Rosina, in 1835, he began a long-term affair with Laura that, according to his son the second earl Lytton, was 'not a mere passing flirtation but a relationship in all respects equivalent to marriage except the legality of the tie'.3 Laura bore Bulwer-Lytton four children, and the family was established in fashionable accommodations in Grosvenor Square under the name Grant.
Nevertheless, Gosse remained convinced all his life that O'Shaughnessy was Lytton's illegitimate child, despite protests from the poet's cousin, Alfred Deacon. Following O'Shaughnessy's death, Deacon wrote to Gosse, asking him to clear any rumours of O'Shaughnessy's parentage by including O'Shaughnessy's father, Oscar, in any biographical accounts of the poet:
My reason for this request is that several persons have written to me & asked if it was not true that my cousin O'Shaughnessy was an illegitimate son of the late Lord Lytton!! I need hardly say that the statement is a pure fabrication, but it is never the less widely spread, by many, as a truth, hence my anxiety that his father's name & profession should have been stated. Lord Lytton was always kind to him having been an old friend of our family & for a reason which until I see his son's (the Earl of Lytton's) memoir I am unable to state – as it was a matter of interest in Lord Lytton's life. When we meet I may perhaps be able to mention it – It is known but to two or three persons, besides myself.4
In an effort to preserve the reputations of everyone involved – in print, at least –Gosse's official obituary for O'Shaughnessy suggested that Lytton helped the poet secure his position at the Museum because he had been' struck by the boy's talent'. 5 This fallacy was repeated as late as 1953, with one critic asserting that 'Lord Lytton, a friend of his mother, had liked the boy's early verses and in 1861 had brought about his appointment as a junior assistant in the Department of Printed Books'.6 Despite his current rather tarnished reputation, at the time Bulwer-Lytton was one of the bestselling novelists in England; it was a flattering suggestion, then, that O'Shaughnessy might have been his literary protégée. Although Lytton was supportive of O'Shaughnessy's poetic career – writing enthusiastically that his poetry inspired 'unmistakable delight' – it is quite clear that Lytton's true interest in O'Shaughnessy was familial, rather than literary.7
In Miss Brown, Vernon Lee suggests that O'Shaughnessy may not have discouraged the gossip as firmly as Deacon did. Cosmo Chough, Lee's caricature of O'Shaughnessy, is depicted as being ridiculous in his pretensions, established early on with a reference to his parentage. Walter Hamlin says of Chough:
"His only weakness is that he is a great republican and democrat, but would like to be thought the son of a duke."
"Oh, the natural son, of course – forgive me, my dear," said Mrs. Macgregor. "People nowadays like anything illegitimate – it's a distinction. It wasn't in my day, but things have changed; and Mr Cosmo Chough would dearly like to be thought a bastard, especially a duke's."8
Here Lee suggests that O'Shaughnessy embraced the rumours of his relationship to Lytton in order to make himself seem more at home in the bohemian poetic circles in which he moved. In Volume 2 of the novel, it is revealed that Chough's father, far from being a duke, was 'an apothecary at Limerick'.9
The minor scandal of O'Shaughnessy's appointment to the Department of Printed Books in 1861 was soon to be overshadowed by his promotion to the Departments of Natural History, a sector of the museum which was rapidly expanding thanks to the Victorian rage for specimen collection.10 Hundreds of thousands of specimens arrived from the far reaches of the British Empire, waiting to be identified and catalogued. Nicolaas Rupke describes the influx:
All too soon, however, a stream of new objects, antiquities, ethnographic items, dried plants, stuffed animals and fossils, from private collectors, from Near Eastern excavations, African expeditions and colonial surveys had congested the Bloomsbury temple, even its basement, stairs and portico.11
All of these specimens needed to be catalogued, but as Dr Edward Gray came to the keepership of the department of Zoology, he had only four assistants and eight attendants. Thus, expansion was called for. As the Keeper of Printed Books, John W. Jones, asserted:
Either this great national establishment must become a gigantic warehouse of unpacked goods, or it must be enormously enlarged, or there must be some division of its multifarious contents, and a single building be no longer made the receptacle for almost even-thing which man has executed and nature produced from generation to generation and from one end of the earth to the other.12
It was assertions like these which paved the way for the future Natural History Museum at South Kensington.
O'Shaughnessy's appointment as a Junior Assistant in the Departments raised hackles because a far more qualified candidate was passed over for the position –the explorer and naturalist Walter Henry Bates, recently returned from a voyage up the Amazon with Alfred Russell Wallace, co-discoverer of the theory of natural selection.13 Bates's application was unusual, as the Museum was predisposed to promote from within,14 but the recent publication of the account of his travels, A Naturalist on the River Amazons (1863), had gained him the support of such prominent men as Joseph Hooker, the botanist, and Charles Darwin.15
The disparity in qualifications between the two candidates is almost laughable. O'Shaughnessy was a 19-year-old boy who had worked in the Department of Printed Books for two years as a transcriber and had never before expressed an interest in natural history. Bates had just returned from 11 years in the remotest parts of South America, during which he had collected large numbers of specimens for the British Museum.16 Bates came to the Museum with the backing of the most renowned naturalists of the day; in fact The Entomological Society was so outraged by the slight to Bates that it filed a complaint, with the backing of the Royal Society. The dispute between the Museum and the Entomological Society lasted for over a year, and was partially carried out in the popular press.17 Nevertheless, O'Shaughnessy retained the position.
It is doubtful that the rejection of such a qualified applicant was based solely on nepotism, despite Lytton's support of O'Shaughnessy. For such a subordinate position – Junior Assistant Second Class – the Museum simply didn't require someone as qualified as Bates. O'Shaughnessy characterized the nature of his own employment at the Museum, saying, 'The conditions of Mr. O'Shaughnessy's employment in the Spirit Room as stated to him by Professor Owen were: That Dr. Günther had need of a person sufficiently educated & qualified to write for him, his own hands being engaged in the dissection or manipulation of specimens in spirit & not in a fit state to do so conveniently' (emphasis his).18 O'Shaughnessy's workload primarily included clerical duties and catering to the needs of visiting researchers, and therefore his experience as a transcriber was enough to qualify him. The skills Bates possessed were unnecessary for such menial work.
However, it is also quite likely that the Departments, headed by Richard Owen and J.E. Gray, did not want such a staunch Darwinist in their midst. This is the conclusio...

Table of contents

  1. Cover
  2. Title
  3. Copyright
  4. Contents
  5. Acknowledgements
  6. List of Abbreviations
  7. Introduction
  8. 1 'Dreary Creeds' and 'Sham Wits': O'Shaughnessy's Poetic Representations of Nature and Science
  9. 2 'I Carve the Marble of Pure Thought': Work and Art in the Poetry of Arthur O'Shaughnessy
  10. 3 'The Purest Parian': The Formalism of Arthur O'Shaughnessy
  11. 4 'Those too sanguine singers': Arthur O'Shaughnessy's French Influences
  12. 5 'Love's Splendid Lures': Arthur O'Shaughnessy's Medievalism
  13. Conclusion
  14. Bibliography
  15. Index