“A Musical Instrument” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning was published in 1860 with a collection of works called Poems Before Congress. This is among some of her last published works because she died in 1861. This poem uses the story of Pan, god of shepherds, hunting and rustic music, to emphasize the duality of art. While art is beautiful there can also be destruction as a result of that art. The use of Pan is significant because he is commonly depicted as being a man with horns, legs, a beard, pointed ears and the tail of a goat. He is most commonly associated with other rustic gods and the origins of his name come from an old Arkadian word for “rustic”. In this poem, Pan symbolizes the dual nature of the arts. He is beauty and destruction combined. The fact that he is part god, part human and part animal shows that this duality of art is not limited to anyone or anything.
Summary and Analysis of Musical Instrument by E.B.Browning
The story within the poem is fairly straight-forward. Pan goes down to the river and causes much destruction with his hoofs. He tears out a reed from the river and “hacked” away at it until there was no sign of life any longer. He cuts the reed and hollows it out and makes a flute with it. He claims that this is the only way that gods can make sweet music and begins to play beautifully. Although the music is beautiful and causes many wonderful things to happen, the gods were still melancholy because the reed suffered and no longer exists. When Browning is referring to the destructiveness, the words she chooses are abrupt and strong. For example, line 3 uses “Spreading ruin” and line 15 uses “hacked” and “hewed”. She strongly emphasizes the destruction that Pan is causing. Similarly, when Pan is finished with the flute, the words she chooses to describe the beauty of the music are somewhat contradictory. Lines 32 and 33 state that the music is “Piercing sweet” and “Blinding sweet”. It seems as if she is saying that the music is beautiful, yet not completely so.
This piece feels more like a story with a lesson or a song. The structure of the poem is full of patterns and repletion. The poem is made up of seven stanzas with six lines in each stanza. The first line of every stanza has nine syllables and ends with the word “Pan”. The pattern of syllables and repetition of “Pan” in this way create a song-like tone to the poem. The second and last lines of every stanza ends with the word “river”. This repetition of “river” creates a constant flow of ups and downs throughout the piece. The third lines all end with a word that rhymes with “pan” and the fourth and fifth lines of each stanza rhyme with each other (independently from stanza to stanza). The consistent patterns and repetition throughout “A Musical Instrument” make it feel like just as the title states: a musical instrument.