A Musical Instrument

A Musical Instrument Study Guide

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “A Musical Instrument” is a poem first published in Browning's volume Poems Before Congress. The collection was published in 1860, just one year before her death. Unlike the love sonnets of Browning’s earlier works, this volume features themes ranging from politics to criticism of the artistic process to feminism.

"A Musical Instrument" revolves around the half-god Pan, a character in Greek mythology as well as the Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses. On the surface, the poet appears simply to retell a story in which Pan—god of the shepherds, hunting, and rustic music—makes his musical instrument, the panpipe. The poem initially evokes a peaceful pastoral image. However, in the process of creating this instrument that ultimately makes beautiful music, Pan also disturbs and destroys nature. The creation of art involves destruction, just as a poet has to dig deep into the soul and destroy some thoughts in favor of others while composing a work.

The poem thus focuses on the duality of art—and more broadly, mankind's tendency to both create and destroy. However, the poem never mentions the first part of the Pan myth, which includes the nymph Syrinx. Initially, Pan courts Syrinx, who then refuses his advances. To save herself, she runs to the river’s edge and asks the river nymphs for help. These nymphs then turn her into a reed. While the poem does not include the origin of the reed story, understanding the greater context of the myth allows the reader to analyze the poem on a whole different level. As Browning was well aware of the myth’s complete story and frequently wrote feminist works, her poem may also be considered a sharp criticism of men objectifying and exploiting women for their own pleasure. As the reed represents a beautiful nymph, Pan’s creation of his instrument—which is made using a reed—may be viewed as a violent act: taking advantage of a female while consoling himself over her rejection.

After living in Italy for many years, Elizabeth Barrett Browning became increasingly interested in politics and feminism. She wrote Casa Guidi Windows to highlight the Italian struggle to end Austrian domination. Her poem “A Curse for a Nation”—also included in Poems Before Congress—was initially criticized as it was mistakenly interpreted as a denunciation of England. In fact, the poem was written as a criticism of slavery in America. While Browning is perhaps best known today as a great romantic poet of the Victorian era, her passion for human rights and equality shines through in her later works.