ODE by Arthur O'Shaughnessy

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 for ever, 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 a kingdom down.
We, in the ages lying
  In the buried past of the earth,
Built Nineveh with our sighing,
  And Babel itself in 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.
A breath of our inspiration    
Is the life of each generation;
A wondrous thing of our dreaming
Unearthly, impossible seeming—
The soldier, the king, and the peasant
  Are working together in one,  
Till our dream shall become their present,
  And their work in the world be done.
They had no vision amazing
Of the goodly house they are raising;
They had no divine foreshowing    
Of the land to which they are going:
But on one man's soul it hath broken,
  A light that doth not depart;
And his look, or a word he hath spoken,
  Wrought flame in another man's heart.
And therefore to-day is thrilling
With a past day's late fulfilling;
And the multitudes are enlisted
In the faith that their fathers resisted,
And, scorning the dream of to-morrow,    
  Are bringing to pass, as they may,
In the world, for its joy or its sorrow,
  The dream that was scorned yesterday.
But we, with our dreaming and singing,
  Ceaseless and sorrowless we!    
The glory about us clinging
  Of the glorious futures we see,
Our souls with high music ringing:
  O men! it must ever be
That we dwell, in our dreaming and singing,  
  A little apart from ye.
For we are afar with the dawning
  And the suns that are not yet high,
And out of the infinite morning
  Intrepid you hear us cry—    
How, spite of your human scorning,
  Once more God's future draws nigh,
And already goes forth the warning
  That ye of the past must die.
Great hail! we cry to the comers  
  From the dazzling unknown shore;
Bring us hither your sun and your summers;
  And renew our world as of yore;
You shall teach us your song's new numbers,
  And things that we dreamed not before:    
Yea, in spite of a dreamer who slumbers,
  And a singer who sings no more.


The work is a setting of Arthur O'Shaughnessy's 1874 poem 'Ode', from his Music and Moonlight collection. In that poem, which singles out poets and musicians as the bards that guide lay thinking, O'Shaughnessy coined the phrase 'movers and shakers', people of energetic demeanour, who initiate change and influence events:

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 for ever, it seems.


By 'shakers', O'Shaughnessy didn't mean the Shakers that are an offshoot of the Quaker religion, more fully known as the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, but simply those who shake the foundations of conventional thinking by the strength of their imagination and vision.

The poem is by far O'Shaughnessy's best known work and it had a profound effect on Sir Edward Elgar, who set the complete poem without alteration. The two men were admirers of each other's work and, judging from from their photographs, would have made a strong joint entry in a 'Spot the Victorian Gentleman' competition.

Nevertheless, although the first two lines of the poem became well known, the phrase 'movers and shakers' didn't begin to be used more widely until well into the 20th century, when it was taken up in the USA. It was hardly used at all until the American socialite and patron of the arts Mabel Dodge Luhan used it as the title of a volume of her autobiography, published in 1934.

'Movers and shakers', along with the alternative 'shakers and movers', which was clearly coined in ignorance of the poetic original, began to be used commonly in the USA in the 1960s and 70s and later in other countries. It was then exclusively applied to people in business and other positions of power; for example, from the magazine Ebony, July 1962:

The fabulous Rollins sisters were operating a Paris-style salon for movers and shakers

The expression 'movers and shakers' is now most often applied to the rich and powerful in politics and business. In a year (2009) in which the movers and shakers of the financial world brought us to the brink of ruin, it is worth a thought as to who the original movers and shakers were.

A plausible guess is that it refers in board games like Snakes and Ladders; those have shaken dice, moves and winners and losers. However, as I've often had cause to mention, plausibility is the enemy of truth when it comes to explaining the origins of phrases.

There's no documentary evidence at all to link this expression to the playing of board games.