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A Musical Instrument -- Elizabeth Barrett Browning

       
(Poem #839) A Musical Instrument
        I.

 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.

        II.

 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.

        III.

 High on the shore sate 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 leaf indeed
   To prove it fresh from the river.

        IV.

 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.

        V.

 '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.

        VI.

 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.

        VII.

 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.
-- Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Note:
  Publication Date: 1862.

Elizabeth Browning is, sadly enough, another poet whom I've avoided due to
my dislike of a single poem (in this case, the ubiquitous "How Do I Love
Thee?"). I was surprised, when I finally read some more of her work, to see
how - well, not 'good', since I do admit 'How Do I Love Thee' is a good poem
- but how much more to my taste a lot of it was.

Today's wonderfully musical poem is definitely one of my favourite pieces of
Browning. The sound and rhythm of the lines and the adjective-laden imagery
evoke the scene beautifully, with just that touch of languid sun-stippled
mistiness that gives it a wonderfully Arcadian riverside feel. The
repetition of 'river' in the second and last lines of each verse also helps
with the musical effect, tying the poem together and providing a constant
strain without the inclusion of an actual chorus[1].

The abaccb rhyme scheme does break the flow somewhat - I keep expecting it
to be abaaab (influenced, no doubt, by poems like Horatius and the
aforementioned Rimini), or even abccab, and the fourth line comes as a
subconscious surprise. The problem is mostly that the metre strongly
suggests that the third and fourth lines rhyme; on the other hand, the 1-3
rhyme is not emphasised much, so that at some level I have to keep mentally
regrouping lines when I read the poem.

And finally, there's the unexpected last verse, which, with a little
rewriting could have made an excellent poem in its own right, and which
provides a haunting and satisfying conclusion to the tale of Pan.

[1] Kipling's 'Rimini' uses the same effect, though it has a chorus too. (It
also has a very similar rhythm)

Links:

Other poems by EBB on Minstrels:
  Poem #269, "How do I love thee?" (Complete with biography)
  Poem #591, "Sonnet XIV" ('If thou must love me, let it be for nought')

Kipling's 'Rimini':
  http://www.poetryloverspage.com/poets/kipling/rimini.html

Another beautiful piece about Pan[2] is Kenneth Grahame's 'The Piper at the
Gates of Dawn', from his masterpiece 'The Wind in the Willows'
  http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/GraWind.html

[2] and one of my favourite titles ever

-martin

27 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

assiniboine said...

This poem is put to extensive use in Timothy Findlay's 1995 novel "The Piano
Man's Daughter." Anyone who enjoys the poem may find the novel interesting
if for no other reason, though the latter has much else to commend it. ("The
Piano Man's Daughter" has also been staged at Stratford, Ontario and made
into a movie, though I have not heard of it receiving any foreign
distribution.)

Richard Hartnup said...

How can a limpid river run turbidly?

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Acoustic Guitar said...

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Acoustic Guitar said...

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Anonymous said...

nice poem, but nothing is ever referred to how the poet felt about her own poem, and how she felt about the greak myth, Pan and Syrinx
and Syrinx actually not being mentioned but referred to when speaking of the reeds

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