Sunday, June 15, 2008

Favorite Poems: Ode


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 forever, 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 William Edgar O'Shaughnessy, 1844-1881
Probably some of you will recognize a part of this poem from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. I love this poem because it discusses a fact I find fascinating: the ability of dreams, imagination, and ideas to impact the reality of the world. A lot of people will tell you we have to deal with things the way they are, as if they were immutable, when much of what cheeses us off is that way because people make it that way. I connect this poem with a small clump of quotes. One is from Peter Gabriel's Mercy Street: "All of the buildings, all of the cars,/ Were once just a dream in somebody's head." Another is from Shakespeare: "Nothing is good or bad but thinking makes it so," which I associate not so much with moral relativism as that attitude towards facts can be formed by the terms we apply to them. In ancient Ireland bards could bring down a chieftain simply by writing such biting satirical songs that no-one, not even his warriors, would ever take him seriously again. Language is a potent tool; if you don't have the words or terms to express what you mean your very ability to think about something is diminished. But each new word you learn broadens your ability to speculate and add new shades of thought. So it is not the hard-headed realists who change the world in the most profound ways, though they can be masters of manipulating the system as it stands. It is the poets and dreamers who are "the movers and shakers", to use the phrase misappropriated by the money people in the 80's.

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