Monday, March 9, 2015

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 a lead 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 sate 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.

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.

In Greek mythology, Pan is the god of the wilds, of shepherds, of all things pastoral in nature.  He is half goat, having the legs of a goat, similar to a satyr.  In this enchanting poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, we follow Pan as he creates a musical instrument out of a reed in a river.  Indeed, the name for an instrument made of reeds lined up, blown on, we call a panflute.  The imagery throughout the poem is a lovely, detailed account of the process of making the instrument.  Where the poem takes a turn is in the last two stanzas, when Pan begins to play his flute.

In the 6th stanza, the lines become rapturous.  "Sweet, sweet, sweet, O Pan!" the narrator exclaims.  There's a sense of rapture, almost sexual ecstasy at hearing Pan play.  The music is "piercing sweet" and "blinding sweet."  It's so nice that the sun itself forgets to set, and the whole scene is suspended in time.  Then, in the 7th stanza, we move back from the human, sense-oriented point of view.

Pan is no true god, but a half-god, and at his actions "the true gods sigh."  To make his music, Pan has uprooted the reed from the river.  The "cost and pain" of Pan's actions is how the reed, now a flute, which "grows nevermore again as a reed with the reeds in the river."  Despite that beautiful music, the gods see only the destruction of nature.

Personally, I cannot sympathize entirely with the environmentalist and naturalist sentiment of the gods in the 7th stanza.  Partly, it is because I am a human and a musician, and I crave the rapturous, sensuous beauty of the music described in the 6th stanza.  I cannot understand the gods' point of view about the reed which will never grow again, because more reeds may be planted.  Still, I think we're meant to understand that beauty has consequences which we often overlook.


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