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Analyzing the Duality of Creation "A Musical Instrument" by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

In her 1862 poem “A Musical Instrument,” Elizabeth Barrett Browning returns to the mythical figure of Pan, a favourite topic of hers as nicely as a popular and classic metaphor for poets considering that classical occasions. Barrett Browning had currently 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 car for a new message. Pan’s hybrid nature makes him an perfect character via which to comment on the Janus face of art and its creation. Correspondingly, there are several dualities discovered throughout the poem. In “A Musical Instrument,” Barrett Browning utilizes the figure of Pan and his dual nature as each beast and god to query the meaning and virtuosity of art, poetry, and the inventive strategy.

The classical myth of Pan and Syrinx itself, even just before it is filtered by way of the pen of a contemporary poet, touches on the idea of the destruction inherent in creation. In the myth, the nymph Syrinx is transformed into a reed. In impact, her humanity is destroyed in order to generate a beautiful element of nature. Subsequent the reed is destroyed in order to develop the man-created beauty of a pipe and music. “A Musical Instrument” starts half-way into the story, with Syrinx already getting been transformed into a reed. Therefore, we can concentrate 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 1st element from intruding upon the suggestions brought up in the second half. Hence we can ignore concepts about lust, pursuit, and divine intervention.

When the poem begins, Pan is wreaking havoc upon pristine nature. Nevertheless, his actions are couched in Barrett Browning’s beautiful, lyrical poetry. Already the dichotomy in between destruction and beauty is set up. In the first two stanzas Pan is destroying all-natural splendor, and not generating something at all. He is “[s]preading ruin and scattering ban” (three), and “breaking the golden lilies” (5). Nonetheless, the poetic, artistic components of the poem rival the destruction, virtually overshadowing it. The auditor is quickly 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 effectively.

Barrett Browning sets up a classical, idyllic scene. Nature is portrayed as utopian, as current in a time ahead of modern intrusions (intrusions probably 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 usually dactylic meter, a favorite of classical poets, which compliments the already classical subject matter. Barrett Browning borrows even a lot 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 having worrying about a certain purpose for telling it. Barrett Browning’s diction also adds to the classical really feel of her poem as she utilizes 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 fantastic god Pan.”

The enjoyable, artistic elements of the poem sharply contrast with its content material. Merivale states it well when she says that Barrett Browning’s thought 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 main elements in the formation of this melodic top quality. Every stanza follows an abaccb rhyme scheme, in which the second and sixth lines usually end in the word “river,” and the first line often ends in the phrase “the excellent god Pan.” This phrase is emphasized each by its repetition and by the truth 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 standard and simple notion of Pan at the beginning to bearing a troublingly ironic message at the finish traces and helps to communicate the expanding query about the purity and virtuosity of art and the technique by which it is developed.

Yet another dichotomy discovered in the poem is that amongst the male and the female. Several 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] thoughts of the destructive, the bestial, and the masculine with the muse/poet, an image she describes with antagonistic bitterness” (585). Nonetheless, as well significantly significance is placed on Barrett Browning’s gender, and the feminist reading of the poem as mostly expressing resentment of the male artist undercuts the much more critical thought about the dual nature of artistic creation. What ever Barrett Browning may be saying about gender, it is secondary to her principal theme and greatest viewed as however another instance of alternative natures that reflect the double-sided qualities of art.

It is tough not to dwell on Pan’s grotesque, clearly masculine qualities, exemplified by the “hard bleak steel” (16) that he utilizes to conquer the all-natural reed (a woman). Although the steel can surely be noticed as a phallic symbol of energy with which Pan rapes the reed, it is important to note that Pan’s objective is not solely to “defile… the female reality,” as Morlier claims (272), but rather to create art. Hence a commentary on the masculine versus the feminine is not a major concern of Barrett Browning in “A Musical Instrument,” and the omitted starting of the myth enables the reed to basically be a symbol of beauty and nature. In truth, at the finish of the poem the “true gods” (40) lament that the reed will never ever again develop as a gorgeous reed in the river – they do not even mention that the nymph will by no means 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 lady-type. Lastly, if Barrett Browning had wanted to empower the feminine, she may possibly have offered to the female reed the power that she strips from Pan. Rather, in the finish, she gives energy to the infinite and androgynous “true gods” (Morlier 272). Pan’s masculinity is only essential insofar as it creates an excellent character by way of whom Barrett Browning can express her primary thought.

What is important to Barrett Browning is not Pan’s masculinity, but the mixture of creation and destruction in the name of art that he personifies. After Pan destroys the all-natural beauty of the Arcadian scene in the first two stanzas, he begins the artistic procedure of transforming material. His actions are violent, he “hack[s] and hew[s]” (15), but this is needed for the creation of the musical instrument. Pan himself states that the initial destruction is required for the creation of music, “‘This is the way,’ laughed the wonderful god Pan, / …’The only way, given that 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. Simply because it is Pan’s voice the validity of the statement is drawn into question, and Pan’s sinister laughter is quickly repugnant.

Though the procedure of the pipe’s creation is violent and distasteful, after 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 fantastic 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.


If the poem closed right here, it would appear that Barrett Browning was concurring with Pan’s notion that the creation of art is nicely worth whatever violence and destruction comes ahead of it. Nonetheless, 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 as a result cost-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 may well be much better if the reed was still “a reed with the reeds in the river” (42). The “true gods” seem to acknowledge that suffering is essential for art, but at the very same time question no matter whether art justifies suffering (the veracity of which Pan requires for granted). One more dichotomy is now set up, this time amongst Pan (now the irony in the phrase “the excellent 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 expense and pain’ of artistic creativity are too great” (84).

Barrett Browning herself does not appear to come to a conclusion about creation’s virtue or lack thereof. Although she appears 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, / Producing a poet out of a man” (37-39) as he revels in his artistic creation born of destruction. Probably the bestial side is necessary, and creation is not possible with out 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 nevertheless a reed (or, metaphorically, a person).

By the end of “A Musical Instrument,” the nature of art and creation has not changed. It nonetheless embodies a duality of beauty and cruelty, just as Pan is both god and beast. The query as to regardless of whether or not art is worth the sacrifice needed for its creation has not been answered, but only elucidated. Barrett Browning appears to sigh with her “true gods,” wishing it was not so – but in the finish, in spite of her qualms, she still takes up her pen and creates her art.

Operates Cited

Diehl, Joanne Feit. “‘Come Slowly: Eden’: An Exploration of Women Poets and Their Muse”. Signs, Vol. 3, No. three (Spring 1978): 572-87.

Merivale, Patricia. Pan the Goat-God: His Myth in Modern Instances. 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.
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