Jordan Kistler, Arthur O’Shaughnessy, A Pre-Raphaelite Poet in the British Museum (Oxford: Routledge 2016) 199pp. £110.00 Hb. ISBN: 9781472467355
I approached this book (as I suspect many readers will) with a keen interest in interactions between Victorian science and literature, but little knowledge of Arthur O’Shaughnessy (1844-81). As such, I was at first intrigued by the opening lines, which quote Edmund Gosse wondering whether the poetry of the British Museum’s ‘official ichthyologist’ would be ‘about fishes’ (1), and was then disappointed to discover that this was a joke on Gosse’s part. Sadly, no poems ‘about fishes’ are discussed during the course of the book; instead, much of it is concerned with O’Shaughnessy’s boredom and dissatisfaction with his position as a professional naturalist.
Despite the lack of fish, Arthur O’Shaughnessy, A Pre-Raphaelite Poet in the British Museum quickly develops into an absorbing introduction to a minor Victorian poet who had (unlike many of his literary peers) to work for a living. Jordan Kistler offers a well-researched explanation of how every aspect of O’Shaughnessy’s poetry – from his choice of form, content, and source materials, to his decadent and aesthetic leanings – was a response to the frustrations of his working life, and the conflict between his scientific career and his aspirations as a poet.
O’Shaughnessy’s ‘unhappiness at the museum’ was due to a combination of ‘office politics and unpleasant co-workers’ (60), and the fact that he found his taxonomical work dull and unfulfilling. The theoretical underpinnings of the book are ‘Henri Lefebvre’s Marxist notions of the atomization and alienation of the petty bourgeois in capitalist societies’ (4). Kistler presents O’Shaughnessy as an alienated office worker at the time of ‘the creation of the pencil-pusher, where a man could go to an office every day and create nothing, change nothing, affect nothing’ (85).
Kistler approaches O’Shaughnessy’s poetry thematically rather than chronologically, contextualising it within his biography and wider nineteenth-century scientific and cultural developments. The first chapter covers O’Shaughnessy’s work at the British Museum and how his ‘scientific career seeped into his verse’ (22). The first part of the chapter deal with the minor scandals, humorous accounts of his (supposed) incompetence, and clashes with authority that punctuated the tedium of O’Shaughnessy’s day-to-day work. There are also several glimpses into the life of a working naturalist, including evocative descriptions of O’Shaughnessy surrounded by rotting specimens (38) in the ‘dark, damp, cold and unpleasant work environment’ of the ‘spirit room’ (35). This offers a rare insight into ‘the work of the low-level scientific practitioner’ (178) and also shows why O’Shaughnessy associates science, and the Museum itself, with ‘a lack of intellectual curiosity’ (35), and likens them to a ‘tomb’ in his poetry (35, 37).
The second part of the chapter demonstrates how, while O’Shaughnessy disliked the mundanity of taxonomy, he was inspired by the most influential scientific theories of the era. Kistler convincingly shows how ‘Bisclavaret’ (1870), which has often been ‘seen as his most confusing’ poem, becomes intelligible when read as a post-Darwinian articulation of concerns about ‘the potential for moral degeneration in the face of evolutionary theory’ (50). ‘Eden’ (1881), contrastingly, is a remarkable ‘celebration of nature overthrowing man’ (56). O’Shaughnessy himself tried to maintain a strict ‘divide between his art and his work’ (34), but Kistler demonstrates how ‘reading his poetry through the lens of his scientific career offers new insight into works that have often been dismissed as 'obscure' or 'unintelligible' (35).
The second chapter argues that O’Shaughnessy initially ‘allied himself with what he perceived as the "non-work" culture of the anti-bourgeois aesthetic movement as a reaction to his dissatisfaction with his daily working life’ (61). Kistler insists, however, that O’Shaughnessy was never comfortable with the uselessness of art that was promoted in the ethos of 'art for art’s sake', because he was sensitive to Victorian middle-class conceptions of the value of work and productivity. Nevertheless, the ‘language of aestheticism’ allowed O’Shaughnessy to articulate a rejection of work in favour of art in order to ‘downplay his own inability to participate successfully in the productive system’ (67). Kistler paints a remarkable portrait of masculine insecurities and frustrations, prompted not only by O’Shaughnessy’s unproductive job (in which he was ‘constantly reminded […] of his shortcomings’ (65)), but by his small stature (including tiny hands (75)), and his affair with a married woman who addressed him with the diminutive ‘pretty’ (76). Kistler’s solid and thorough biographical research (much of it introducing not readily accessible material), alongside analyses of O’Shaughnessy’s poems, reveals the poet’s desire to reassert his ‘male dominance’, including some explicitly ‘misogynistic fantasies’ in the unpublished ‘Pagan’ (1867) (76-77). The close readings of later poems suggest that O’Shaughnessy managed to find some comfort by reconfiguring his conception of what it meant to create poetry, and what it meant to work. Ceasing to think of art as 'leisure', and instead seeing it as a notable form of productivity, allowed him to do ‘more “work” as a poet than as a naturalist’ and so to ‘privilege his art as his career’ (85).
The next three chapters concern O’Shaughnessy’s form, influences and innovations. The British Museum fades into the background somewhat, as does his position as a Pre-Raphaelite. Instead the focus is on his status as a forerunner of the ‘aesthetic and decadent movements that would flower in the 1880s and 1890s in England’ (118), as a follower of the French Parnassian school, and as an innovative contributor to the medieval revival in English poetry. This includes fascinating readings of some intriguing poems that challenge the moral conventions of the Victorian era (not to mention our own in several cases). Those who approach the book looking for a monograph centring on Pre-Raphaelitism and science may feel the title is a touch misleading at this point. However, these chapters just add further support to Kistler’s point that a focus on O’Shaughnessy and his poetry helps us to broaden our conception of what it means to be a professional scientist, suggests new ways of thinking about how ‘the practices of art and science overlap and intersect’ (178), and ‘challenges traditional definitions of Pre-Raphaelitism, revealing it to be less of an insular, Rossetti-centred movement than it is customarily perceived to be’ (177).
As an individual who chafed under his subjection to social necessities and cultural expectations, and who wanted to be something more than he was, O’Shaughnessy was not unusual; yet his creative outputs meant that we have been left with a valuable record of these frustrations and desires, which provide an interesting means of reflection upon how daily life impacts upon artistic productivity. Kistler does a great job of showing not only that O’Shaughnessy’s poetry is worth further exploration (and appreciation), but also why O’Shaughnessy is significant because he was a minor poet, in a boring job, insecure in his masculinity, who experienced personal and professional disappointments and failures during his lifetime.
Helena Ifill, University of Sheffield