Elizabeth Barrett Browning: Poems

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...

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