An unidentified third-person speaker begins the poem with a question about the actions of the poem’s subject. The speaker immediately draws the listener in by recounting the myth of Pan, a half-god (part man, part goat) known as the god of hunting, rustic music, and shepherds. The speaker uses a reverent tone in the first two lines by describing Pan as a “great” god.
However, the tone shifts suddenly by the third line when the speaker describes a scene of chaos and destruction. Pan goes down by the river—his natural domain—but he disrupts everything there. His animalistic demeanor causes him to splash about and harm everything close by, such as the peacefully-floating lily pads and the dragonfly resting upon them.
The speaker continues the narrative of the myth by describing the next scene. Pan tears a single reed out of the riverbed. As he does this, the natural world surrounding him changes suddenly. The speaker describes an image of decay and death. The once-clear water turns muddy, and the once-perfect lilies now lay broken and dying. The dragonfly first mentioned in stanza one is startled to the point that it flees the river. All of this happens just before Pan pulls the reed out of the river.
The speaker’s narrative continues with Pan now sitting on the shore of the river. The murky river still flows: a victim of his sudden act of tearing out the reed. The tone is somber and thrilling, as the reader anticipates what will come next. The next scene describes the violent behavior which ensues. Pan does not leave the reed alone. Rather, it becomes clear that he wishes to create something out of it. Pan proceeds to mangle the reed by hacking it with a steel tool. Throughout the process, the reed is depicted as patient and calm. Eventually, the reed loses all its leaves and becomes virtually unidentifiable. The speaker says that one can no longer tell that it has just come out of the river.
The speaker explains how Pan begins to cut the reed shorter. Once again, the speaker repeats the “great god Pan” to continue the rhythm of the poem and its narrative structure. In the second line of the stanza, the speaker takes a sudden break from the narrative to express his/her sentiment. The speaker seems to lament the fact that the reed no longer stands tall in the river, as Pan has torn it out and cut it short.
Pan is then described as hollowing out the reed by removing its inside. His actions are still depicted as rough and methodical, as he seems to have planned this act all along. The hollowing of the reed is compared to removing the heart of a person, giving the scene a truly violent tone. Eventually, Pan cuts notches into the reed.
In stanza one, the speaker’s direct question to the reader makes the poem intimate from the start. The speaker wants the reader to listen closely to the story he/she has to tell, suggesting that it is an important one. The term “great god” initially suggests that the speaker reveres Pan. However, by line three, the tone makes a sudden shift. The speaker begins to describe a scene of destruction through the use of powerful verbs. Pan was “spreading ruin” and “scattering ban,” upsetting a peaceful setting. While Pan's actions are ambiguous, the speaker sets a foreboding tone by suggesting that destruction is to come. Pan will somehow cause the “ruin” of someone or something—nature, or (as the full myth from which the poem is drawn describes) the nymph Syrinx. He has cast a type of “ban”—or curse—as well.
Pan may be a half-god, but his animalistic nature is described clearly in this stanza. He splashes and paddles through the river with the “hoofs of a goat.” Here, the speaker makes a direct reference to the fact that Pan is half-animal. The beautiful, “golden” lilies—a delicate image of nature in its most pristine state—are harshly disturbed and “broken” by the half-god's recklessness. An innocent dragonfly symbolizes the fragility of nature as well, as it is disturbed while resting on the lily pads. The spell of nature's beauty is suddenly broken by a creature that is at once human, god, and animal. The godly part of Pan gives him power and makes the speaker refer to him as “great.” However, his animalistic nature—including his human aspect—makes him less than holy and perfect in his demeanor. Just as animals can disrupt nature, so can he. And just as humans can cause deliberate harm, the speaker is suggesting that he will do so as well.
By repeating “the great god Pan,” the speaker continues the musical, rhythmic tone of the poem and clearly establishes that he/she is telling a story with a central protagonist. The word “river” also ends the second and last line of the stanza and does so throughout the poem. This also adds to the rhythmic flow of the poem. However, the savagery of Pan’s behavior continues as well, as Pan is depicted as tearing the reed out of the riverbed. The description of the riverbed as “deep cool” gives it a peaceful feeling, suggesting that the reed was yanked violently out of a place where it was calm and it belonged. The once “limpid,” or clear water, begins to run “turbidly.” The speaker uses an oxymoron to contrast the idea of clear and pure water with water that has now turned muddy and dirty. It is clear that Pan’s actions are causing harm not just to the reed itself, but to the nature that surrounds it.
The lilies are now broken, and the speaker personifies them by saying that they "lay...a-dying." The use of the word “lay” conjures the image of a person on his deathbed—giving the image of the lily even greater power. In all the confusion, the dragonfly—an innocent bystander—flees from the danger and chaos. In a single brief action of pulling the reed out of the riverbed, Pan manages to cause great destruction to several natural creatures around him. The duality of human nature is shown, as humans are capable of causing harm, while also being rational enough to be conscious of what they are doing. Pan may think himself above other beings of nature by choosing to commit an act for his own gratification, but he also exposes his own guilt in knowingly destroying other creatures.
While the poem does not make any direct references to the myth of Pan and Syrinx, the poem's narrative implies this larger context. In the context of the myth, the stanza takes on a violent tone. Syrinx asked to be turned into a reed to escape Pan, who has been pursuing her despite her rejections of him. But even as a reed, she is found and taken violently from her place of calm. Pan’s behavior may therefore be viewed as the deliberate and violent act of possessing a woman against her will.
The somber tone in stanza three is created through the description of the muddy waters, polluted from the sudden, violent act of Pan removing the reed. At the same time, the poem's narrative begins to reach a climax, as the reader will soon find out the purpose behind Pan taking the reed. With the description of Pan sitting “high on the shore,” the reader is given the impression that Pan is sitting on some type of throne, high above the rest of the creatures around him. The diction conjures an image of someone who feels better and more powerful than others and is in complete control—such as a king or a god. Once again, the speaker reminds the reader that Pan is a “great god,” both highlighting his power and adding irony, given the fact that this god has just caused destruction.
As the river flows in its muddy state, Pan begins to take apart the reed. The speaker uses very harsh verbs to describe the process. Pan hacks and hews at the reed, suggesting violence and power. He is completely lacking in gentleness or respect for nature. Once again, he is described as “a great god,” able to commit such an act with power. He uses “hard bleak steel,” suggesting that he must be powerful and strong to hack at the reed so thoroughly. The use of the word “bleak” is an interesting choice, as the steel is personified and actually embodies the sentiment of the scene that is unfolding. The steel is not bleak in and of itself—but it is aiding Pan in creating a bleak situation. Meanwhile, the reed is depicted as “patient," highlighting its calm innocence and complete lack of power over its fate. Pan violently hacks away until no sign of a leaf—a symbol of life—can be found. The reed no longer looks “fresh” from the river; it is now a lifeless creature with no witnesses to its former vitality. If one considers the myth, this powerful scene is reminiscent of a man torturing, taking advantage of, or even killing a woman. Pan is harming Syrinx and robbing her of all her power while she quietly and patiently succumbs to him. On a greater level, one may read this scene as a criticism of Victorian ideals about women. Women at the time were considered objects of beauty to be admired by men. In this scene, the woman is overpowered by a god who found her beautiful and stopped at nothing to possess her.
The speaker embraces an increasingly sympathetic tone in stanza four. After stating that Pan cut the reed short, the speaker makes an unexpected exclamation in the second line, recalling how tall the reed was before Pan cut it down. By placing this thought in parentheses, the speaker is conveying to the reader that this is a personal thought and not an element of the narrative. The speaker clearly laments the state of the reed, wailing that it once stood tall in the river and has now been reduced to so little. Like a human being who once stood tall and confident, the reed has now been belittled by the god Pan.
In the following scene, Pan continues to tear apart the reed. The description is chilling, evoking an image of a surgeon at work. By likening the removal of the pith, or inner part, of the reed to the removal of the heart of a man, the speaker gives the impression that the reed has been killed. It is now lifeless and helpless. In the context of the myth, one could read this scene as Syrinx losing her very lifeblood and soul. Pan has overtaken her and killed her, robbing her of all the joys that were once contained in her heart. Pan’s surgical precision is on display, carefully cleaning out the middle of the reed before cutting notches into it. Once again, the speaker expresses compassion for the reed, referring to it as a “poor dry empty thing.” The reed is devoid of life—no water, no heart. Like a woman who has been battered, the reed’s holes represent a disfiguration while the perpetrator calmly sits by the river. In addition, the speaker emphasizes once again the power of man to cause deliberate destruction.