A Musical Instrument by Elizabeth Barrett Browning: Summary and Analysis

A Musical Instrument, the poem written by Elizabeth Barrett Browning begins with a question as the great god Pan, the god of Pastures is seen by the riverside in the rising violent mood. The answer lies in the title of the poem itself as it contains a symbolic meaning of the whole poem which holds the myth behind.

Elizabeth B. Browning (1806-1861)

An unfortunate nymph disapproves Pan’s proposal, however, cannot escape him even when she is no more a nymph but a mere reed of the river. Reed turned nymph is destroyed savagely so that the musical instrument can be made in its sacrifice. Here, Browning has focused upon the nature of the then patriarchal society where the sweetness of the music voiced the exploitation of the women.

The great god Pan seems to be utterly superior as he disdains the peace and harmony, love and order of the nature. The tendency to see a woman as a possession has applied here. His concern does not lie whether she is alive or no more, he just wants to achieve her at any cost. Due to this very reason, at this point, he appears to be the king of chaos and spreads disorder in such a savage manner that the once limpid water turns confused and muddy and flows turbidly. Once blooming lilies turn limp and lifeless while the dragonfly flees in search of safer place, but the savage nature of Pan is more alive and distinct when he attacks the innocent reed with no mercy. He tears it until the last leaf parts and, takes the heart out, making it hollow so that the holes can be notched into it. Thus the musical instrument is made at last.

Life was abnormal when Pan was tearing the reed. However, the melody had turned all the abnormalities into fine, normal state as the sweetness is coming out of the sacrificed life of the reed. The spark of life has revived again for everyone excluding the only life which made this normality possible. The once living reed would never be whole again. It has been sacrificed to revive others and to spread happiness in others life through the sweet music.

Browning here emphasized on the cruel nature of the Victorian society where women were considered as a mere property of men. Women are exploited and that becomes a part of the culture. If finds music, pleasure, in the cry of the females. Women are just like a sad, empty musical instrument made forcefully out of the poor reed, which surely can be the source of pleasure and comfort. They are like a flute, can’t even listen or either play on their own to their own sad, melancholic music, but the agent is required to make their sacrifice complete. The cost and the pain suffered by the women are forgotten in the patriarchal culture. Men seem to have found the music and pleasure when the female suffers and being tortured. The same way Pan in the poem does. He laughs when he produces a music in an exchange of the life of the reed, thinking that he has achieved his love finally. The rest of the other lives revived as the music beings to play.

The woman is a musical instrument whom others play and derive the pleasure. They are just a flute, player is the other. They just suffer and the pleasure is achieved by the other. The female is always a target of suffering or death and source of beautiful and yet sad melody for others. Torturing women have been a part of culture as indicated by the normal source of life.

Related Topic

Elizabeth Barrett Browning: Biography