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A Musical Instrument(1860)

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

What was he doing, the great god Pan,
MeterWhat was he doing, the great god Pan,

Note on line 1: It won’t become apparent until halfway through the first stanza that an anapestic triple meter dominates this free-handed poem. Even in the opening three lines that meter is repeatedly forecast by trochee-iamb juxtapositions that let adjacent slacks start skipping like anapests waiting to happen. Once the meter takes charge, it underscores the abrupt tribute – also, before long, the ironic appraisal – given to “the great god Pan” in many a terminal spondee.

Down in the reeds by the river?
MeterDown in the reeds by the river?
Spreading ruin and scattering ban,
MeterSpreading ruin and scattering ban,
Splashing and paddling with hoofs of a goat,
MeterSplashing and paddling with hoofs of a goat,
And breaking the golden lilies afloat
MeterAnd breaking the golden lilies afloat
With the dragon-fly on the river.
MeterWith the dragon-fly on the river.

He tore out a reed, the great god Pan,
MeterHe tore out a reed, the great god Pan,
From the deep cool bed of the river.
MeterFrom the deep cool bed of the river.
The limpid water turbidly ran,
MeterThe limpid water turbidly ran,
And the broken lilies a-dying lay,
MeterAnd the broken lilies a-dying lay,
And the dragon-fly had fled away,
MeterAnd the dragon-fly had fled away,
Ere he brought it out of the river.
MeterEre he brought it out of the river.

High on the shore sate the great god Pan,
MeterHigh on the shore sate the great god Pan,
While turbidly flowed the river;
MeterWhile turbidly flowed the river;
And hacked and hewed as a great god can,
MeterAnd hacked and hewed as a great god can,
With his hard bleak steel at the patient reed,
MeterWith his hard bleak steel at the patient reed,
Till there was not a sign of a leaf indeed
MeterTill there was not a sign of a leaf indeed
To prove it fresh from the river.
MeterTo prove it fresh from the river.

He cut it short, did the great god Pan,
MeterHe cut it short, did the great god Pan,
(How tall it stood in the river!)
Meter(How tall it stood in the river!)
Then drew the pith, like the heart of a man,
MeterThen drew the pith, like the heart of a man,
Steadily from the outside ring,
MeterSteadily from the outside ring,

Note on line 22: Pan is a god, but here he is also a craftsman. There’s something meta-instrumental about the careful labor with which he fashions the reed pipe named for him – and about the balance of options the poet put into the line describing that labor. Just where should stress(es) fall on “Steadily” and “outside”? Should “from” be stress or slack? Makers of art objects make choices; so do poets, and sometimes they contrive that we must too.

And notched the poor dry empty thing
MeterAnd notched the poor dry empty thing
In holes, as he sate by the river.
MeterIn holes, as he sate by the river.

“This is the way,” laughed the great god Pan,
Meter“This is the way,” laughed the great god Pan,
(Laughed while he sate by the river,)
Meter(Laughed while he sate by the river,)
“The only way since gods began
Meter“The only way since gods began
To make sweet music, they could succeed.”
MeterTo make sweet music, they could succeed.”
Then, dropping his mouth to a hole in the reed,
MeterThen, dropping his mouth to a hole in the reed,
He blew in power by the river.
MeterHe blew in power by the river.

Sweet, sweet, sweet, O Pan!
MeterSweet, sweet, sweet, O Pan!

Note on line 31: The fable’s pivotal line is prosodically the showiest in the poem. It won’t quite do to scan the repeated word “sweet” as an iambic disyllable (su-weet), although the word’s onomatopoeia, and the way its articulation by lips and tongue and teeth mimics a flutist’s embouchure, make that possibility very tempting. Instead 4B4V gives each iteration of “sweet” a foot of its own and a caesura’s buffering catch-breath rest, in hopes that, if the gods of prosody sigh at us, it’s not strictly with disapproval.

Piercing sweet by the river!
MeterPiercing sweet by the river!
Blinding sweet, O great god Pan!
MeterBlinding sweet, O great god Pan!
The sun on the hill forgot to die,
MeterThe sun on the hill forgot to die,
And the lilies revived, and the dragon-fly
MeterAnd the lilies revived, and the dragon-fly
Came back to dream on the river.
MeterCame back to dream on the river.

Yet half a beast is the great god Pan,
MeterYet half a beast is the great god Pan,
To laugh as he sits by the river,
MeterTo laugh as he sits by the river,
Making a Poet out of a man:
MeterMaking a Poet out of a man:
The true gods sigh for the cost and pain—
MeterThe true gods sigh for the cost and pain—
For the reed which grows nevermore again
MeterFor the reed which grows nevermore again
As a reed with the reeds in the river.
MeterAs a reed with the reeds in the river.

Rhyme
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