A Musical Instrument "What Was He Doing, The Great God Pan"
by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

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"What Was He Doing, The Great God Pan"

(Magill's Quotations in Context)

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Context: During her confinement as a result of paralysis, the poet turned to classical literature in order to escape the monotony of her restricted life; this love of the classics led her to use Greek and Latin myths in a strangely personal manner. According to the ancients, Pan, the Greek god of flocks and pastures, created the aulos or shepherd's flute. In this poem, the god is described as he selects a reed and carefully cuts it to size, draws the pith out and drills holes, thus making the first aulos. The poet, however, has so associated the reed to a man that her description is also an account of the making of a poet: the god selects an individual, draws out his heart, and turns him into a musical instrument. Furthermore, the god is part man and part goat, yet he can still enchant nature with his music; in like manner, the handicapped poet cannot match her flawless contemporaries, yet she can entrance them with her poetry.

What was he doing, the great god Pan,Down in the reeds by the river?Spreading ruin, and scattering ban,Splashing and paddling with hoofs of a goat,And breaking the golden lilies afloatWith the dragon-fly on the river.