#metoo in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “A Musical Instrument”
Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “A Musical Instrument” touches on an unsettling topic that is far too common throughout history. There are countless examples in various mythological texts that illustrate women being chased down by male gods and becoming victims of sexual assault. “A Musical Instrument” is based on the classical myth of Pan and Syrinx, which tells a similar story. Pan is the god of the wild, of shepherds and flocks, and of the sense of panic. He is the son of the Olympian god Hermes and of a wood nymph and is born with the appearance of a beast who is half man and half goat. According to the myth in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Pan is infatuated with a nymph named Syrinx, but this love is unrequited (22). Syrinx flees from Pan because she wishes to remain a virgin, but he is persistent with the chase (22). As a last resort, Syrinx pleads with the gods to protect her virginity until they transform her into a reed by the river where she will remain for the rest of her days (22). Even though Syrinx has done everything possible to distance herself from the tireless advances of Pan, including altering her physiological nature, Pan does not relent. He finds her near a river as a reed, cuts her down, and creates an instrument known as the Pan pipes (22).
While this can be viewed as a creation story for the instrument, it also showcases a popular story of a girl being taken advantage of without consent. In recent years, this scenario has resulted in the #metoo movement circulated around multiple social media platforms to express the prevalence of sexual assault. Because Syrinx is no longer human, you might think she has escaped the possibility of being a victim of sexual assault. However, Barrett Browning’s language suggests otherwise. In the poem, she explains how Pan “notched the poor dry empty thing/ in holes as he sate by the river” (l. 23-24) and dropped “his mouth to a hole in the reed/ he blew in power by the river” (l. 29-30). These descriptions have subtle sexual implications and suggest that Syrinx is still a victim of assault.
Victims of sexual assault often experience many negative emotional consequences. Feelings of isolation and shame are both potentially common. Isolation is a particularly powerful consequence as it implies that the victim feels different from others and alone in what they’re experiencing. In turn, this often results in victims being less likely to seek help. Barrett Browning reveals this problem in the poem when she writes how the reed is one “that grows nevermore again / as a reed with the reeds in the river” (l.41-42). It is evident from the passage that the reed that has been victimized is now different from the rest. She is no longer pure and feels isolated from those she once identified with. The passage reveals Syrinx’s feelings of loneliness and is quite sombre in tone.
The #metoo movement is a powerful platform because it provides social support and tries to eliminate feelings of isolation. It provides a sense of comfort by giving women the opportunity to share their stories with others who understand what they’re going through. “A Musical Instrument” perhaps may have provided comfort for victims of assault in the Victorian period as a piece of literature they could relate to. The poem describes a vile situation with beautiful words and thus provides hope with the parallel that something good may come from the pain.
Barrett Browning, Elizabeth. “A Musical Instrument.” The Cornhill Magazine, vol 2, no. 7-12, 1860, pp. 84-86.
Ovid. Metamorphoses. Edited by A.D. Melville, OUP Oxford, 1998.