An unidentified third person speaker recounts the myth of the half-god Pan—the god of the shepherds, hunting, and rustic music. Through the repetition of key words and a regular rhyme scheme, the speaker creates a musical rhythm and appears to tell a moral story. The tone of the speaker shifts as the action unfolds, ranging from reverent to remorseful. The speaker describes a serene, pastoral scene where a dragonfly is resting and nature is at peace. Suddenly, Pan appears by the river, splashing about with his goat hoofs and making much commotion. The speaker’s use of foreboding language suggests that Pan’s sudden appearance is destructive and that he will cause harm to the nature he has just disturbed.
Pan proceeds to tear a single reed out of the riverbed. When he does so, the nature surrounding him suddenly begins to suffer: the once-clear water turns muddy, the lilies begin to die, and the dragonfly flees from the chaos. While the muddy water continues to flow, Pan begins to hack away at the reed, reshaping it beyond recognition. He violently removes its insides until it no longer resembles a reed. Finally, he cuts it short and cuts notches in it, fashioning the reed into a flute (also known as a panpipe).
Pan laughs out loud and proclaims to an unknown listener that his action was necessary—it is the only way for gods to create beautiful music. With that proclamation, he begins to play his new musical instrument. The speaker then narrates how nature comes to life around him: the sun does not die but seems to shine even brighter, the lilies come back to life, and the dragonfly returns and enjoys a peaceful reverie. Nature appears to live in harmony again.
However, the last stanza casts doubt on Pan’s actions. The true gods have been watching from above, and they lament the fact that Pan caused so much destruction to nature to create the beautiful music. They sigh over the pain he caused nature, and they mourn the fact that the innocent reed will never grow again.