A Musical Instrument

A Musical Instrument Symbols, Allegory and Motifs

Pan and Syrinx (allegory)

The allegory of Pan and Syrinx lies at the heart of the poem. Though the poem recounts only part of the original Greek myth, this larger context is important for understanding Browning's poem. In the original myth, when the nymph Syrinx rejects the half-god Pan, she runs away and is turned into a reed in order to escape him. Pan consoles himself by fashioning a flute, or pan pipe, from this reed. To create the musical instrument that ultimately plays beautiful music, Pan destroys nature—most notably, the reed itself. The allegory alludes to many themes: man’s ability to both destroy and create, the pain and joy derived from the creation of art, and the exploitation of women by men for the purpose of pleasure.

dragonfly (symbol)

As Pan creates the reed, the dragonfly appears to be the only earthly witness to his act. When Pan arrives and causes great noise and destruction, the dragonfly initially flees. Once the commotion has settled down and Pan proceeds to play the pipe, the dragonfly returns and feels peaceful again. The dragonfly may symbolize nature as a whole—it is disturbed and unable to live peacefully when Pan arrives. However, it may also represent humans and their contradictory nature—we are quick to reject commotion and pain, but we can just as easily overlook it if the final result is a pleasant one (the beautiful music).

harmony and destruction (motif)

The peaceful pastoral image depicted at both the beginning and the conclusion of the poem shows the harmony that may be found in nature. When nature is left undisturbed, its creatures live happily. However, both humans and animals—both of which Pan embodies—are capable of disturbing nature. While animals can harm one another, one might say that their destruction is a natural part of the life cycle. But humans, because they have self-awareness, are responsible for the destruction they cause: they know what they are doing. As intelligent thinkers, humans are therefore capable of creating beautiful and advanced things while also bearing responsibility for the havoc they wreak.