Arthur O’Shaughnessy was born in London of Irish parents. His father died when he was four years old, after which his mother was befriended by the novelist and politician Edward Lytton Bulmer who may have been instrumental in securing Arthur a position at the British Museum in 1861. He initially worked in the library as a transcriber, later becoming a herpetologist in the museum’s zoological department, where he was credited with identifying and describing several new species of reptiles and lizards.
His first love was for literature, however, and he published his first collection of poetry, Epic of Women, at the age of 26, followed two years later by Lays of France, then Music and Moonlight in 1874. This contained his most famous poem Ode, which has been set to music by Edward Elgar and several other composers.
He got married at the age of 30 to Eleanor Marston, daughter of the author, John Westland Marston and they had two children, both of whom died in infancy. Before their birth Arthur and his wife had co-authored Toyland, a volume of children’s stories. O’Shaughnessy and his wife moved in elite cultural circles, numbering among his associates the artists Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Ford Madox Brown.
O’Shaughnessy’s early poetry was influenced by Algernon Swinburne and exhibits a melancholy strain. His later poems, published posthumously in 1881 in the collection, Songs of a Worker, were strongly influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite group and the French Symbolist and Parnassian poets. He died in January 1881 of pneumonia.