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We are the music makers

In the film Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971), after Willy Wonka (Gene Wilder) proudly describes that in his lickable wallpaper “The snozberries taste like snozberries!”, an exasperated Veruca Salt snidely objects, “Snozberries? Who ever heard of a snozberry?” Willy Wonka grabs her mouth and explains “We are the music makers, and We are the dreamers of dreams.”

Wonka’s oblique answer references the first stanza of a poem by Arthur O’Shaughnessy, the “Ode” featured in his collection of poems from 1874, Music and Moonlight. I didn’t understand Wonka’s response to Veruca Salt until I read the entire poem. The meaning provided me a key to understanding the story, who the mysterious character Wonka represents, what his motivations are in finding a child to give his factory to, and what Charlie Bucket really means for him. Read the poem below, and I think you might understand too.

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 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 premise of Roald Dahl’s novel, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964) asks: what would an industrial factory engaged in mass production look like if it was built by a fantasist, dreamer, and romantic in a world dominated by pragmatists, realists, and materialists. In this lonely island, Wonka wonders who will inherit his life’s work and hopes that in the next generation of children there might still be a romantic dreamer. His sampling of youth via the lottery tickets provides a referendum on Charlie’s generation. The selected tourists to Wonka’s candyland are a fools gallery of technocrats, capitalists, hedonists… and opportunists. The latter is what Wonka makes of Charlie Bucket.

Poverty does not make Charlie a finer candidate than any of the others or even more sympathetic to Wonka. But the moral challenge that Charlie meets in the face of his family’s dire poverty does affect Wonka. For Charlie to give back the stolen everlasting gobstopper means returning to Wonka’s competitor Oscar Slugworth empty handed and to his family with only tales of Oompa-Loompas. Wonka is so resigned to the absence of new romantics in the world that he is willing to give up everything to Slugworth by letting Charlie walk out with the gobstopper. By returning the gobstopper Wonka is enlightened to Charlie’s enduring romantic virtue. Charlie’s elevation of an abstract moral good over an immediate material good justifies his embrace of the young lad as the rightful recipient of his vast empire of imagination.

If these insights were intriguing, note that they don’t apply to either Roald Dahl’s book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964) nor the screenplay he wrote for the film. Rather, credit is due to David Seltzer, an uncredited Jewish screenwriter who wrote at least 30% of the final script. Seltzer was responsible for all of Wonka’s literary references throughout the film including Wonka’s quotation from O’Shaughnessy’s “Ode” and his quote of Portia from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice at the end of the film, “So shines a good deed in a naughty world.” (Seltzer later directed another film representing the tribulations of an alienated romantic youth, Lucas (1986).)

Dahl, furious with the casting of Gene Wilder over Spike Milligan and Seltzer’s focus on Wonka rather than Charlie Bucket, later forbid a film adaptation of his Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator (1972). Focus on Dahl’s anti-Semitism often focuses on his 1983 outburst: “There’s a trait in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity … I mean there is always a reason why anti-anything crops up anywhere; even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason.” It’s intriguing to speculate that a decade earlier Dahl’s animus might have been expressed in his frustration with Gene Wilder and David Seltzer’s reinvention of Wonka, the romantic industrialist, as a Magical Jew.

If you enjoyed this essay, you might enjoy a paper I wrote for a graduate class comparing different models of pedagogy, “So Shines a Good Deed in a Naughty World: The Moral Education of Charlie Bucket.”

About Aharon N. Varady


Aharon’s Omphalos is the hobbit hole of Aharon Varady, founding director of the Open Siddur Project. He is a community planner and environmental educator working to improve stewardship of the Public Domain, be it the physical and natural commons of urban park systems or the creative and cultural commons of libraries and museums. His advocacy for open-source strategies in the Jewish community has been written about in the Atlantic Magazine, Tablet, and Haaretz. He is particularly interested in pedagogies for advancing ecological wisdom, developing creative and emotional intelligence, and realizing effective theurgical praxes . He welcomes your comments, personal messages, and kind words.

8 comments to We are the music makers

  • Joanna D.

    This is such a great comment…I feel like we understood the importance of the moment even as young children, even if we didn’t know the true context. Maybe I should read this poem with my students.
    Gene Wilder makes me feel scared in a good way.

  • Isaac Selya

    Excellent, rigorous anaylsis.

    Another bit of trivia from the film: When Gene Wilder first appears, he pretends to be a cripple and then fakes a fall in order to somersault. This was not in the script, but Wilder insisted on this machination as a way of prepping viewers for his presentation of Wonka: they can never discern if he is lying.

  • Anonymous

    Did you ever realize that you look like Willie Wonka? It’s a bit eerie.

  • Oh, I know it… and someone reminds me at least once a week. I’d love to meet Gene Wilder someday.

  • Romi Shamai likes this!

  • Sheryl

    Thank you for your insight into the poem and film. Very enlightening about one of my favourite films.
    I didn’t know about Dahl’s anti-semitism – how sad that someone of his imagination and such a wonderful author of some
    of the best children’s books ever could be so ignorant.
    I love Spike Milligan, and I’m sure he would have been great, but I cannot imagine anyone bettering Gene Wilder as Wonka.
    I met Gene many years ago when he was in England filming ‘The Smarter Brother of Sherlock Holmes’ (not a great movie!).
    I was a film extra and he was so sweet and friendly to everyone. A real gentleman.
    Aharon – you really do look like him – and that’s a compliment.

  • Kim

    The gobstopper wasn’t stolen. It was given to all of the children, minus Augustus, by Willy Wonka. He made them promise to keep it a secret, but Veruca Salt had her fingers crossed behind her back when they promised. I don’t know who Spike Milligan is, but I can’t imagine anyone else in the role of Willy Wonka. I have not seen the remake by Tim Burton and never will unless I’m forced to.

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