To Sing, Or To Grow: The Role of the Reed in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s ‘A Musical Instrument’

I keep thinking about the twin images of the river-reed and the flute that Elizabeth Barrett Browning used in her poem ‘A Musical Instrument’.  In the poem the Great God Pan plucks a living Reed from the banks of a river river and cuts its heart out so that it will sing when He fills its hollows with His breath.

He cut it short, did the great god Pan, 

(How tall it stood in the river!) 

Then drew the pith, like the heart of a man, 

Steadily from the outside ring, 

And notched the poor dry empty thing 

In holes, as he sat by the river.

Pan throws the flute away when He’s done.

For me, this was one of those mirror-poems, one of those clusters of numinous words that somehow reflect a sliver of self that you might never have noticed before. In my case, it revealed both the paradoxically purposefully-arbitrary nature of pain and the fact that the very same pain can be transformed into something meaningful — even if that meaning begins and ends in the notes that sound in the span of a breath. The Reed cannot make music if it remains a whole, functioning, living Reed doing the things that reeds are meant to do. A poet cannot make poetry with an unbroken mind, or an unwounded heart. When I was raped, when I was cast from my family, I lost the things I might have been. I died (a little) and I became something else. I have noticed similar wounds in the lives of poets I respect.

Yet half a beast is the great god Pan, 

To laugh as he sits by the river, 

Making a poet out of a man: 

The true gods sigh for the cost and pain – 

For the reed which grows nevermore again 

As a reed with the reeds in the river.

The question EBB seems to be asking is: is it worth it? I can’t answer for her (and God knows she suffered grievously) but for me (most of the time) the answer is yes. Maybe the music is the meaning, brief as it is. Maybe feeling the lips and breath of a God, even a savage metaphorical half-god, even for a moment, is enough.

Of course, in the poem, the God of Nature (the God the Reed served) is the one that made the injury. He did it to suit his purposes, arbitrary as they were. I don’t think that Browning’s assessment was either too bleak, or very inaccurate.


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