Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “A Musical Instrument”


Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861) was a leading Victorian poet and also the wife of Robert Browning, another famous poet of the era. “A Musical Instrument” is her last work and was published after her death from a lung ailment that she had suffered from most of her life. 
The rhyme scheme is ABACCB, with the B line always being “river”
and the first line of every stanza repeating “the great god Pan” all but
one time and just “Pan” the other time. Pan is the ancient Greek god of the wild, rustic music, shepherds, and companion to the nymphs; he is associated with fertility. As with the satyrs, his bottom half is like that of a goat and his top half is like that of a human.
The poem tells the story of how Pan came to make his flute-like wind instrument called the Syrinx. According to the myth, Syrinx was a lovely water-nymph. Pan fell in love with her, but she did not want him, so she ran away to her sisters. To hide her, they turned her into a reed in the water. Pan did not know which of the reeds was her, so he cut them all and fashioned them into a 7-9 piece instrument of gradually decreasing lengths and carried it by his side thereafter.
This story is one of both creation and destruction. With his instrument, Pan breathed life into the world, giving men music and poetry. However, it came at a heavy cost, for Pan is a great god, but also half a beast: he crushed the lilies as he trampled the forest, cut out the reeds, and Syrinx disappeared forever because she would not accommodate his desire. This idea runs parallel to the long-running balance between the magnificent creations of man, in terms of the arts, science, wealth, etc., and the great destruction, in terms of wars, the environment, etc.

A Musical Instrument

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

What was he doing, the great god Pan,
Down in the reeds by the river?
Spreading ruin and scattering ban,
Splashing and paddling with hoofs of a goats
And breaking the golden lilies afloat
With the dragon-fly on the river.
He tore out a reed, the great god Pan
From the deep bed of the river:
The limpid water turbidly ran
And the broken lilies a-dying lay,
And the dragon-fly had fled away,
Ere he brought it out of the river.
High on the shore sat the great god Pan
While turbidly flowed the river;
And hacked and hewed as a great god can
With his hard bleak steel at the patient reed,
Till there was not a sign of the leaf indeed
To prove it fresh from the river.
He cut it short, did the great god Pan,
(How tall it stood in the river!)
Then drew the pith, like the heart of a man,
Steadily from the outside ring,
And notched the poor dry empty thing
In holes, as he sat by the river.
‘This is the way,’ laughed the great god Pan
(Laughed while he sat by the river),
‘The only way, since gods began
To make sweet music, they could succeed’
Then, dropping his mouth to a hole in the reed,
He blew in power by the river.
Sweet, sweet, sweet, O Pan!
Piercing sweet by the river!
Blinding sweet, O great god Pan!
The sun on the hill forgot to die,
And the lilies revived, and the dragon-fly
Came back to dream on the river.
Yet half a beast is the great god Pan,
To laugh as he sits by the river,
Making a poet out of a man:
The true gods sigh for the cost and pain,—
For the reed which grows nevermore again
As a reed with the reeds in the river.


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