History of the Poet
Poetic Structure
Poetic Devices
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 goat,
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 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.

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.


History of the poet:
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, of the Romantic Movement, was born in 1806. She was an English poet, and the oldest of 12 children.The first publishing, in 1826, of her collection “An Essay on Mind and Other Poems” was anonymous. Many people were outraged by her work. She had to spend much time at home, where her father ruled with an iron fist. She began a correspondence with a poet named Robert Browning, but her father opposed the relationship. She eloped with him in 1846. She lived with him in Florence until her death in 1861, and since the poem “A Musical Instrument” was published in a collection known as Poems Before Congress in 1860, it was one of her last works. It is important to think about that, and keep in mind that this was one of the final things that Browning had to say.

In “A Musical Instrument” Elizabeth Barrett Browning uses the story of Pan to show the dual nature of art. She shows that while art is beautiful it also is destruction. The use of Pan is important because he’s a god but he’s also half goat. Because he’s a god, this poem implies that the consequences of beauty are universal and not limited to humans. Gods are not excluded from the idea. Pan is also a goat, an animal, which explains his willingness to do something good while not caring about the consequences. This is showing the animal within all of us.

Lines three and four illustrate the destruction that ensues from Pan’s search for a reed. Line four also points out that Pan’s goat feet are making a mess. In line eight Browning uses words like “deep” and “cool” to emphasize that the place the reed was coming from was safe and calm. In line nine Browning uses the words “turbidly” and “limpid” to describe the water. These are contradictory terms. The author is using these to reinforce that the art has a beautiful part and a destructive part, which are also contradictory. Lines ten and eleven use the images of the dead lilies and the flight of the dragonfly to show the destructive side of art.

The third stanza uses descriptive words like “hacked” and “hewed” to emphasize the destruction and damage Pan is doing to the reed. This stanza also creates sympathy for the reed because Browning describes it as patient, meaning enduring pain with calmness. There is nothing the reed can do that will overpower Pan. The fourth stanza is very powerful because of its relation of the reed to a human. First it tells of how Pan cuts the reed short and then it contrasts that with the height it was in the river. This is just another example of Pan’s destruction. The next line goes “[Pan] then drew the pith, like the heart of a man”. Pith means the sponge like stuff in the middle of plant stems, but it can also mean something’s soul. In using a double meaning of the word pith and likening it to a person’s heart, Browning implies that the reed has more significance than just being a plant.

In the fifth stanza Pan laughs, remarking that “this is the way…the only way, since the gods began / to make sweet music, they could succeed”. Perhaps in this line Pan is referring to all the destruction that needed to happen before beautiful music could be made. He is also saying that there is no other way, that beautiful art will, and always has, required destruction. The sixth stanza says that the music was so beautiful that the lilies grew back, the dragonfly returned, and the sun didn’t set. This stanza serves to show that the beauty of the music can make up for the destruction caused by the creation of the art (the music). However, in the next stanza it says that the true gods sigh for the cost and pain of the reed. It also mentions Pan’s half animal body. This further describes the animal in us all because we still make art even though there are consequences, whereas the true gods can only think of the destruction of the reed, which can also be a symbol for life.

What did the god Pan do when he went down to the river? He splashed and spread destruction in it. With his goat feet he crushed the beautiful water lilies and forced the dragonfly to leave. Then he tore out a reed from the muddy bank of the river. While he sat on the bank of the river he sawed on the reed using his steel knife. When he was done there was no sign of life on the reed. He cut the reed short and hollowed out the center. then he cut holes in the reed to make a flute. He said that what he did was the only successful way for Gods to make sweet music. He laughed as he sat on the bank of the river and proceeded to play the flute. The music was so sweet and beautiful that the sun didn't set, the water lilies were revived and the dragonfly came back. But Pan was half animal and the true gods sighed and were sad for the loss of the reed from the river, because that reed will never come back.

Poetic Structure:
This poem is made up of five stanzas, with six lines each.
The first line of each stanza has nine syllables and ends with the word "pan".
The second and last line of each stanza ends with the word "river".
The third line of each stanza ends with a word that rhymes with "pan".
The fourth and fifth lines rhyme with each other, but the rhymes are different in each stanza.

Poetic Devices:
The use of a phrase or word again and again to emphasize an idea or create continuity in a literary work.
The repetition in the poem puts emphasis on "the great god pan" and on "the river", creating an image that builds through the poem.

What was he doing, the great god Pan
He tore out a reed, the great god Pan
High on the shore sat the great god Pan
Ere he brought it out of the river
To prove it fresh from the river

An oxymoron is two contradictory terms to describe something.
The limpid water turbidly ran
Limpid means clear and calm, whereas turbid means muddy and tumultuous. In the poem this contradiction serves to show that while the river is a serene calm place, when Pan picks the reed from the river that all changes and the river becomes muddy and the current becomes stronger.

A simile is a literary device that compares two things using like or as.
Then drew the pith like the heart of a man
Pith is the sponge like center of most plant stems. When the poet uses the simile of comparing it to the heart of man she is implying that Pan has killed the reed by taking out its "heart".

“Animal Symbolism of the Dragonfly.” What’s Your Sign. 2008. 18 Nov. 2008 http://www.whats-your-sign.com/animal-symbolism-dragonfly.html.
Atsma, Aaron. “Pan.” Theoi. 2008. Theoi Project Copyright. 17 Nov. 2008 <http://www.theoi.com/Georgikos/Pan.html>.
”Elizabeth Barrett Browning." Poets.org. 17 Nov. 2008 <http://poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/152>.
“Pan.” Thalia Took. 2008. 17 Nov. 2008 <http://www.thaliatook.com/pix/pan.jpg>.
PICTURE: <http://en.easyart.com/art-prints/artists/Claude-Joseph-Vernet-7129.html>