ELIZABETH BARRETT BROWNING
ON THE GREAT GOD PAN
Robert felt Elizabeth's poetic gift had ended, saying to her brother George from Asolo, 22 October, 1889, 'the publication of "Aurora Leigh" preceded by five years the death of its writer - who was never likely to produce such another work'. But one of those last disparaged works was illustrated by Frederic Leighton for the Cornhill Magazine and is of interest as a kind of meta-poem, a statement about her poetic craft and life. It is also a poem in which Elizabeth takes up a theme she has often used before, drawing on her classical and Christian learning, on the 'Great God Pan'. Pan, we recall, is that chimaera, part beast, part man, related to others such as satyrs and fauns, EBB speaking of Flush as 'Faunus', and the Hawthornes noting that Robert is Donatello of the Marble Faun.
This is Lord Leighton's fine illustration from the July 1860 Cornhill Magazine:
This is Frederic, Lord Leighton's tomb to Elizabeth
Barrett Browning, he designed following his Cornhill
Magazine illustration to her poem 'A Musical Instrument'
and following her death so soon after.
And this is Elizabeth's poem, "A Musical Instrument"
What was he doing, the great god Pan,When Lord Leighton in the following year designs Elizabeth's tomb he seemingly does not refer to Pan or the other chimaera, but instead has it abound with harps. However, Pan is there, on the harp representing the classical world, where the two faces, that I first thought were of Tragedy and Comedy, are, in reality, the two sides of the god Pan's face in the statue in the Torrigiani Gardens in Florence that Elizabeth, Isa and Leighton all knew well.
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 afloat
With the dragon-fly on the river.
He tore out a reed, the great god Pan,
From the deep cool bed of the river:
The limpid water turbidly ran,
And the broken lilies a-dying lay,
And the dragon-fly had fled away,
Ere he brought it out from the river.
High on the shore sat the great god Pan
While turbidly flowed the river;
And hacked and hewed as a great god can,
With his hard bleak steel at the patient reed,
Till there was not a sign of the leaf indeed
To prove it fresh from the river.
He cut it short, did the great god Pan,"This is the way," laughed the great god Pan
(How tall it stood in the river!)
Then drew the pith, like the heart of man
Steadily from the outside ring,
And notched the poor dry empty thing
In holes, as he sat by the river.
(Laughed while he sat by the river),
"The only way, since gods began
To make sweet music, they could succeed."
Then dropping his mouth to a hole in the reed,
He blew in power by the river.
Sweet, sweet, sweet, O Pan!
Piercing sweet by the river!
Blinding sweet, O great god Pan!
The sun on the hill forgot to die,
And the lilies revived, and the dragon-fly
Came back to dream on the river.
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 verse about cutting the reed evokes The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim Point and the slashing at the sugar cane by slaves with their machetes. In Pythagorean teaching there are two kinds of musical instruments, the harp, which is Reason, and the wind instrument, which is Nature, about the world of procreation and sexuality. Yet in this poem Elizabeth seems to be summing up her life and its thwarted sexuality as a sacrifice - which is killing her - for the sake of her art. The poem is very close indeed in its verbal echoes to her magnificent translation of Apuleius' Cupid and Psyche, this section where Pan rescues Psyche from her suicidal despair, telling her to love innocently
She leaves further clues about this poem's meaning, which we can see Lord Leighton, friend to both Elizabeth and Robert, has brilliantly understood. Thomas Adolphus Trollope in What I Remember (II. 175-179), his gossipy book about the Anglo-Florentines, describes finding enclosed amongst Isa Blagden's letters,one from Mrs Browning which is of the highest interest. The history and genesis of it is as follows. Shortly after the publication of the well-known and exquisite little poem on the god Pan in the Cornhill Magazine, my brother Anthony wrote me a letter venturing to criticise it, in which he says: 'The lines are very beautiful, and the working out the idea is delicious. But I am inclined to think that she is illustrating an allegory by a thought, rather than a thought by an allegory. The idea of the god destroying the reed in making the instrument has, I imagine, given her occasion to declare that in the sublimation of the poet the man is lost for the ordinary purposes of man's life. It has been thus instead of being the reverse; and I can hardly believe that she herself believes in the doctrine which her fancy has led her to illustrate. A man that can be a poet is so much the more a man in becoming such, and is the more fitted for a man's best work. Nothing is destroyed, and in preparing the instrument for the touch of the musician the gods do nothing for which they need weep. The idea however is beautiful, and it is beautifully worked.
. . .
I showed the letter to Isa Blagden, and at her request left it with her. A day or two later, she writes to me: 'Dear friend, - I send you back your criticism and Mrs. B.'s rejoinder. She made me show it to her, and she wishes you to see her answer.'
. . .
'Dearest Isa, - Very gentle my critic is; I am glad I got him out of you. But tell dear Mr Trollope he is wrong nevertheless . . . and that my 'thought' was really and decidedly anterior to my 'allegory.' Moreover, it is my thought still. I mean to say that the poetic organisation implies certain disadvantages; for instance an exaggerated general susceptibility . . .which may be shut up, kept out of the way in everyday life, and must be (or the man is 'marred', indeed, made a Rousseau or a Byron of), but which is necessarily, for all that, cultivated in the very cultivation of art itself. There is an inward reflection and refraction of the heats of life . . . doubling pains and pleasures, doubling therefore the motives (passions) of life. I have said something of this in Aurora Leigh. Also there is a passion for essential truth (as apprehended) and a necessity for speaking it out at all risks, inconvenient to personal peace. Add to this and much else the loss of the sweet unconscious cool privacy among the 'reeds' . . . which I care so much for - the loss of the privilege of being glad or sorry, ill or well, without a 'notice.' . . . Yes! and be sure, Isa, that the 'true gods sigh' and have reason to sigh, for the cost and pain of it; sigh only . . . don't haggle over the cost; don't grudge a crazia, but . . . sigh, sigh . . . while they pay honestly. . . .
But he is a beast up to the waist; yes, Mr Trollope, a beast. He is not a true god.
And I am neither god nor beast, if you please - only a
Oh Bella Libertà! Le Poesie di Elizabeth Barrett Browning. A cura di Rita Severi e Julia Bolton Holloway. Firenze: Le Lettere, 2022. 290 pp.
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