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How "A Musical Instrument" Embodies Divinity and Morality

Leah Rifkin and Sarah Cooper

Ryerson University

For our exhibit we have selected a Victorian poem written by Elizabeth Barrett Browning called "A Musical Instrument". Our associated visual object is the wood engraving of "The Great God Pan" done by Frederick Leighton.
Both of these were published in The Cornhill Magazine@ in July 1860. Our associated visual object is a digital image of Browning's poem in The Musical World@ also published in July 1860. We are interested in poetry as a device used by women to express their opinions and feelings about women's rights in the 19th century. Our research question is what the correlation is between the written and visual portrayal of Pan in Browning’s poem and Leighton’s carving. Furthermore, how do they regard music as a divine art and poetry as a form of feminism. While I will analyze the relationship between Gods and the portrayal of music’s divinity in the poem and Leighton’s wood engraving, Sarah will examine the physical and moral traits of Pan as described in the poem and shown in the engraving as well as their connection to gender roles and women’s suffrage in the late 19th century. We will also look at how the interpretations of the texts are altered depending on the publication in which one reads the poem, the placement of the poem on the page, and the varying reading practices that different publications attested to.
A Musical Instrument
by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
 An article written in 1882 titled Sir Frederick Leighton on Art and Ethics presents Lord Leighton's views on music as a divine art. For Leighton, all forms of art depend on religious sense and moral sense.@ Elizabeth Barrett Browning was one of many Christian poets to have Judaic scripture and tradition provide inspiration for her poetry.@ Her religious sense is evident in the style and tone of her poem as the rhythmic pattern and the gospel-style discourse are present throughout. The repetition of the word ‘sweet’ in the phrase that reads “Sweet, sweet, sweet, O Pan!” is indicative of the phrase ‘sweet lord’ that is commonly used in sermons. The general placement of commas in the third and fourth lines of the fifth stanza also pays homage to the pauses and stresses made by pastors in their sermons. Browning’s poem exemplifies Leighton’s belief of music as a divine art and made her art form, which is poetry in this case, exude a sort of religious or divine musical style.
Leighton’s art piece is the visual representation of the divine elements that Browning’s poem possesses. A close reading of “A Musical Instrument” uncovers many similarities between Leighton’s image of the poem and the message that the poem portrays. First, one can assume that the wood engraving of "The Great God Pan" is a static depiction of the actions described in the last two lines of the fifth stanza. Pan is “dropping his mouth to a hole in the reed” and is blowing air into it to make music. Leighton’s image of Pan is part man and part beast, with “hooves of a goat”, as mentioned in the poem, and is sitting on the shore of the river. Pan has physical elements of both the typical image of ‘god’ (Jesus Christ) as well as features of a mythological creature. This makes the magical powers of his music or its divinity seem more legitimate because a reader associates gods and mythology with magical or miraculous occurrences.
It could be that Leighton’s engraving is simply an aesthetic feature created to enhance the poem visually and doesn’t necessarily overtly portray any morals that are implicit in the poem. Another interpretation is that the image portrays the divinity of music because the upper half of Pan’s body resembles that of Christ. One can therefore assume that he may be some sort of messenger from God (in God’s image) brought down to play this divine music as a means of communicating a moral lesson to nature and mankind. One can dispute Pan’s position as a sort of ‘god’ because in the last stanza of the poem Browning writes that the “true gods” must deal with the destruction of nature, even in its minute sense. One can then question the moral sense of Pan as depicted in the poem since he is “spreading ruin and scattering ban” and “breaking the golden lilies” at the beginning. According to mythology, Pan was a god of the Greeks who tended to instill fear which was the influence on the word panic.@ This panic can be associated with the 19th century anxiety that women would have a rise in power.