Pan and the dual nature of artistic creation in elizabeth barrett browning’s “a musical instrument”

In her 1862 poem “ A Musical Instrument,” Elizabeth Barrett Browning returns to the mythical figure of Pan, a favorite topic of hers as well as a popular and traditional metaphor for poets since classical times. Barrett Browning had already written about Pan and even the Pan and Syrinx myth in her earlier poems “ The Dead Pan,” “ A Reed,” and “ Mountaineer and Poet,” but in “ A Musical Instrument” she employs the goat-god as a vehicle for a new message. Pan’s hybrid nature makes him an ideal character through which to comment on the Janus face of art and its creation. Correspondingly, there are many dualities found throughout the poem. In “ A Musical Instrument,” Barrett Browning uses the figure of Pan and his dual nature as both beast and god to question the meaning and virtuosity of art, poetry, and the creative method. The classical myth of Pan and Syrinx itself, even before it is filtered through the pen of a modern poet, touches on the idea of the destruction inherent in creation. In the myth, the nymph Syrinx is transformed into a reed. In effect, her humanity is destroyed in order to create a beautiful element of nature. Next the reed is destroyed in order to create the man-made beauty of a pipe and music. “ A Musical Instrument” begins half-way into the story, with Syrinx already having been transformed into a reed. Therefore, we can focus on the artistic creation of a musical instrument from a reed rather than the (more disturbing and worrisome) transformation of a humanoid into a plant. By beginning half-way into the story, Barrett Browning prevents the distracting themes of the first part from intruding upon the ideas brought up in the second half. Thus we can ignore ideas about lust, pursuit, and divine intervention. When the poem begins, Pan is wreaking havoc upon pristine nature. However, his actions are couched in Barrett Browning’s beautiful, lyrical poetry. Already the dichotomy between destruction and beauty is set up. In the first two stanzas Pan is destroying natural splendor, and not creating anything at all. He is “[s]preading ruin and scattering ban” (3), and “ breaking the golden lilies” (5). However, the poetic, artistic elements of the poem rival the destruction, almost overshadowing it. The auditor is immediately immersed in Barrett Browning’s evocative imagery, rife with adjectives describing the scene. The river has a “ deep cool bed” (8), in which the once “ limpid water” now runs “ turbidly” (9). In addition to the imagery, the musical elements of the poem and the sounds of the words are captivating as well. Barrett Browning sets up a classical, idyllic scene. Nature is portrayed as utopian, as existing in a time before modern intrusions (intrusions perhaps symbolized by Pan’s arrival on the scene – Morlier suggests that Barrett Browning’s Pan “ typifies a whole cluster of moral problems… in British culture” [261]). Reinforcing the classical setting is the poem’s loose but generally dactylic meter, a favorite of classical poets, which compliments the already classical subject matter. Barrett Browning borrows even more from the classical poets like Ovid, who told this myth in his Metamorphoses, in her method of narration. There is no clear audience or designated speaker, but rather a semi-omniscient narrator who tells the story without worrying about a specific purpose for telling it. Barrett Browning’s diction also adds to the classical feel of her poem as she uses archaic words like the frequent “ sate” for “ sat” and constructions often found in translations of Greek and Latin, like “ nevermore again” (41) and the repeated phrase “ the great god Pan.” The enjoyable, artistic elements of the poem sharply contrast with its content. Merivale states it well when she says that Barrett Browning’s idea and the melodious “ simple lyric which transmits the idea… are to some extent at odds, for the cruelty she imputes to Pan is muffled by the honey of her verses” (84). Barrett Browning carefully creates the musical feeling which thinly veils the destruction inherent in the action of the poem. Repetition and rhyme are major elements in the formation of this melodic quality. Each stanza follows an abaccb rhyme scheme, in which the second and sixth lines always end in the word “ river,” and the first line always ends in the phrase “ the great god Pan.” This phrase is emphasized both by its repetition and by the fact that it is made up of two iambs, whereas much of the rest of the poem is composed of dactyls. The repetition of this phrase and the evolution of its tone from conveying the traditional and straightforward idea of Pan at the beginning to bearing a troublingly ironic message at the end traces and helps to communicate the growing question about the purity and virtuosity of art and the method by which it is created. Another dichotomy found in the poem is that between the male and the female. Many critics read Barrett Browning’s depiction of the bestial side of Pan as thinly veiled resentment of the male poet and the superior position of the male to the female in Victorian society. Diehl claims that Barrett Browning’s “ resentment of the brute, masculine, destructive force Pan embodies suggests a hidden resentment of the male poet” (585), and that the poem “ demonstrates the fusion in [Barrett Browning’s] mind of the destructive, the bestial, and the masculine with the muse/poet, an image she describes with antagonistic bitterness” (585). However, too much importance is placed on Barrett Browning’s gender, and the feminist reading of the poem as primarily expressing resentment of the male artist undercuts the more important idea about the dual nature of artistic creation. Whatever Barrett Browning may be saying about gender, it is secondary to her main theme and best viewed as yet another example of alternative natures that reflect the double-sided qualities of art. It is hard not to dwell on Pan’s grotesque, clearly masculine qualities, exemplified by the “ hard bleak steel” (16) that he uses to conquer the natural reed (a woman). Though the steel can surely be seen as a phallic symbol of power with which Pan rapes the reed, it is important to note that Pan’s purpose is not solely to “ defile… the female reality,” as Morlier claims (272), but rather to create art. Thus a commentary on the masculine versus the feminine is not a major concern of Barrett Browning in “ A Musical Instrument,” and the omitted beginning of the myth allows the reed to simply be a symbol of beauty and nature. In fact, at the end of the poem the “ true gods” (40) lament that the reed will never again grow as a beautiful reed in the river – they do not even mention that the nymph will never again be a woman! Further de-emphasizing the reed’s gender is the language when Pan hollows out the reed. He draws out the pith “ like the heart of a man,” (21) representing humanity, not woman-kind. Finally, if Barrett Browning had wanted to empower the feminine, she might have given to the female reed the power that she strips from Pan. Rather, in the end, she gives power to the infinite and androgynous “ true gods” (Morlier 272). Pan’s masculinity is only important insofar as it creates an ideal character through whom Barrett Browning can express her main idea. What is important to Barrett Browning is not Pan’s masculinity, but the combination of creation and destruction in the name of art that he personifies. After Pan destroys the natural beauty of the Arcadian scene in the first two stanzas, he begins the artistic process of transforming material. His actions are violent, he “ hack[s] and hew[s]” (15), but this is necessary for the creation of the musical instrument. Pan himself states that the initial destruction is necessary for the creation of music, “‘ This is the way,’ laughed the great god Pan, / …’The only way, since gods began / To make sweet music’” (25-28). It is important to note that this is Pan’s statement, not the narrator’s or Barrett Browning’s (Diehl 585), and that it is tinged with evil laughter. Because it is Pan’s voice the validity of the statement is drawn into question, and Pan’s sinister laughter is immediately repugnant. Though the process of the pipe’s creation is violent and distasteful, once it is completed it is wondrous. Pan animates the pipe by “[blowing] in power” (30), and all of nature’s beauty is instantly restored: 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-flyCame back to dream on the river.(31-36)If the poem closed here, it would seem that Barrett Browning was concurring with Pan’s notion that the creation of art is well worth whatever violence and destruction comes before it. However, Pan does not have the last word. The “ true gods” lament Pan’s actions in the final stanza, closing the poem on a different note. These “ true gods,” not demigods like Pan, and thus free from base, cruel and beastly grounding, recognize the cost at which Pan’s creation of the musical instrument has come. They express the notion that it might be better if the reed was still “ a reed with the reeds in the river” (42). The “ true gods” seem to acknowledge that suffering is necessary for art, but at the same time question whether art justifies suffering (the veracity of which Pan takes for granted). Another dichotomy is now set up, this time between Pan (now the irony in the phrase “ the great god Pan” is most apparent) and the real gods. As Merivale notes, “ Pan is countered by the ‘ true gods’ who hold the ethical balance, who judge that ‘ the cost and pain’ of artistic creativity are too great” (84). Barrett Browning herself does not seem to come to a conclusion about creation’s virtue or lack thereof. Though she seems to condemn Pan as the “ goat-god come to ravage” nature with his “ astounding arrogance” (Diehl 584), she does not clearly disregard the view he symbolizes. After all, he is only “ half a beast… To laugh as he sits by the river, / Making a poet out of a man” (37-39) as he revels in his artistic creation born of destruction. Perhaps the bestial side is necessary, and creation is not possible without a cruel, dark and destructive underbelly. In the final stanza the gods sigh and recall the reed as it was, acknowledging the human sacrifice (Diehl 585), but they do not explicitly wish that it was still a reed (or, metaphorically, a person). By the end of “ A Musical Instrument,” the nature of art and creation has not changed. It still embodies a duality of beauty and cruelty, just as Pan is both god and beast. The question as to whether or not art is worth the sacrifice necessary for its creation has not been answered, but only elucidated. Barrett Browning seems to sigh with her “ true gods,” wishing it was not so – but in the end, despite her qualms, she still takes up her pen and creates her art. Works CitedDiehl, Joanne Feit. “‘ Come Slowly: Eden’: An Exploration of Women Poets and Their Muse”. Signs, Vol. 3, No. 3 (Spring 1978): 572-87. Merivale, Patricia. Pan the Goat-God: His Myth in Modern Times. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1969. Morlier, Margaret M. “ The Death of Pan: Elizabeth Barrett Browning and the Romantic Ego.” Critical Essays on Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Ed. Sandra Donaldson. New York: G. K. Hall & Co., 1999. 258-74.