‘A Musical Instrument’ by Elizabeth Barrett Browning is a seven stanza poem that is separated into sets of six lines, or sestets. Each of these sestets confirms to a consistent and structured rhyme scheme, following the pattern of abaccb. From stanza to stanza only the fourth and fifth lines change end sounds. That means there is a significant amount of repetition with the use of the words “Pan” and “river” and those with the same endings. Browning has done this deliberately to make the text as musical as possible. It is meant to reference the music inherent to the subject matter.
A reader should also take note of the fact that Browning numbered the stanzas herself with Roman numerals. This is a classical technique that has largely fallen out of style.
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Summary of A Musical Instrument
The poem begins with the speaker describing how the god Pan is in the river, searching for something. He is destroying the lilies and scaring off the dragonflies. His actions are violent and show complete disregard for anything other than himself. In the story on which this piece is based, the god is seeking out a reed that was once a woman he attempted to rape.
He finds the reed, cuts it to the right size, and crafts it into a flute that makes the most beautiful music. The speaker concludes the poem by condemning Pan for his violence.
Additionally, some background information is necessary for one to complete a full and accurate reading of ‘A Musical Instrument’. In the first line, the speaker references the “great god Pan.” He is said to be “Down in the reeds.” This character is the main subject of Browning’s poem. He is the god of the wild, flocks, and rustic music. He is often depicted with a seven-part flute which features prominently in this text.
In the mythological record, it is said that Pan fell in love with and pursued a wood-nymph Syrinx. She attempted to escape his advances and in order to save her from him, her sisters turned her into a reed. Pan was troubled by this as he could not figure out which reed, of which there were many, she had become. Rather than searching, he cut out seven pieces and fashioned them into the flute that now carries his name.
Analysis of A Musical Instrument
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 goat,
And breaking the golden lilies afloat
With the dragon-fly on the river.
In the first stanza of ‘A Musical Instrument’ the speaker is seen to be observing, and wondering over, the actions of the “great god Pan.” Pan is known as the god of rustic music, shepherds, and flocks of sheep. For more information on his background, and the mythological context of this piece, see the Mythological Background section. He is in the reeds “by the river,” searching for something. As the story goes, it is the reed into which Syrinx the wood-nymph was transformed he is seeking.
The speaker is not aware of this context and is only able at this point to speculate about what is occurring. The god is described as being desperate. His searching is wild and out of control. The reeds are being ruined and he is “scattering ban.” This word is used to mean “curses.” He is outraged by the transformation of Syrinx and determined to figure out which reed she has become.
The next lines give detail to the god himself. Browning conforms to the traditional image of Pan. He is usually depicted with the “hoofs of a goat” and the upper torso of a man. In this form, he is able to do more damage to the plant life in the water. In particular, he is breaking apart of the “golden lilies” and scaring off the “dragon-fly.”
He tore out a reed, the great god Pan,
From the deep cool 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.
In the second stanza, the story progresses further. Here the speaker witnesses the “great god” tearing out “a reed from the “deep cool bed of the river.” He is disrupting the peace of the ecosystem in a very violent way. It references the violence with which he meant to assault Syrinx in the original text. The metaphor continues with the water being described as “limpid,” or clear, it cannot do anything to stop the god from taking what he wants expect continue to run.
Around the feet of the god, there are “broken lilies,” now dying. He has destroyed them in his chaotic search for the reed he wants. Despite the damage done, Pan has managed to pull out a reed from the water. He brought it from the safety of the “deep cool bed,” into his own ill-meaning hand.
High on the shore sate 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 a leaf indeed
To prove it fresh from the river.
In the third stanza of ‘A Musical Instrument’, the speaker describes how Pan has moved from the water to the “shore. He sits there and the river flows below him. It is “turbid” or cloudy now. His splashing and searching have done away with its clear surface mentioned in the second stanza.
The god, having retrieved that which he was so desperate for, is now “hack[ing]” and “hew[ing]” it with his knife. He is cutting off all the leaves from its edges until it is a simpler shape. This process removes all traces of the reed’s previous location. It no longer looks like it came from the river at all, even less than it is “fresh.”
As expected, the god has transformed through his will alone, the reed that he believes was once Syrinx. If he could not have her as a woman, he will have her now as a reed.
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 sate by the river.
Continuing on, the speaker describes how Pan cuts the reed “short.” He trims it down to a more pleasing size. This is a fact that disturbs the speaker who exclaims, “How tall it stood in the river!” It used to be grand and beautiful, now it has been taken down to a remnant of its former self.
Pan’s intentions for the reed are becoming clear as he draws “the pith” from it. This refers to its central tissue. He pulls out the center of the reed so it is hollow. This is a traumatic thing for the speaker to witness. It is described as being similar to pulling “the heart of a man.”
The next thing Pan does is to “notch” holes into the “poor dry empty thing.” With this, he is able to make it into the first part of his flute. He does this nonchalantly while sitting “by the river.”
This is the way,’ laughed the great god Pan,
Laughed while he sate 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.
In the fifth stanza, the god laughs over the work he has done. He is pleased with himself and thinks that this is “The only way” to “make sweet music.”
At this point, he lowers his “mouth to a hole” and blows into it. It has been crafted into the desired form and is now being used as he pleases.
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.
In the second to last stanza of ‘A Musical Instrument’, the impact of the music is felt throughout the river and its surrounding banks. The speaker now refers to the Pan as “Sweet, sweet, sweet.” It is impossible not to compare this description to the previous moments of destruction and defilement. Through repetition, the speaker is ironically acknowledging a general change in his perception. Now that he is able to produce something beautiful he is regarded as being “sweet.”
He is “Piercing” the river with his sweetness and “Blinding” those who hear his music with joy.
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.
In the final stanza of ‘A Musical Instrument’, the speaker returns fully to describing Pan as something closer to a beast than man. In fact, the speaker immediately notes that he is “half a beast.” This is evident through the way he is able to “sit by the river” and laugh. Other gods, those the speaker respects more and sees as being “true” would “sigh” at the sight of “pain.” They are not as cruel as Pan is.
The final two lines mourn for the loss of the reed. It will never “grow…again” alongside its “reeds in the river.” It is important to remember that this entire piece is taken from a story in which in an attempt to escape rape, a woman is transformed into that same reed. This fact can transform the entire poem from being a message on the care for all living things, to the brutalization and domination of women.