Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

Two of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Pan Poems and Their After-Life in Robert Browning's "Pan and Luna"

Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

Two of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Pan Poems and Their After-Life in Robert Browning's "Pan and Luna"

Article excerpt

Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "The Dead Pan" (1844) and "A Musical Instrument" (Cornhill Magazine, 1860) draw on the figure of the goat-god Pan to deal with aesthetic issues of poetic process and product, with theological issues of belief and godhead, and with complex cultural issues of sexual desire and violation of the woman. After her death, Robert Browning (RB) edited EBB's Last Poems, 1862 which included "A Musical Instrument." Much later, he, too, utilizes the figure of Pan in "Pan and Luna" (1880) and like EBB in "A Musical Instrument" revises the politics and dynamics of the classical and romantic chase, as well as the art which encodes the sexual encounter. In seeing the stories and the writing from the woman's point of view, the Brownings re-think and re-articulate traditional responses to the Pan material. In "A Musical Instrument," EBB foregrounds the role of the nymph Syrinx in the Pan myth from Ovid's Metamorphoses Book One, while in his "Pan and Luna," RB foregrounds the role of the moon goddess, Luna. RB's poem is as much about EBB's previous Pan poems as it is about Virgil's poetic version of Pan, the white fleece, and Luna in lines 391-393 from the third book of the Georgics. In his re-telling, RB interrogates transmissions and readings of this Pan myth, after he has written Pompilia's monologue in The Ring and the Book (1868). The story of Pompilia's marital rape and murder presents, among other things, Browning's responses to the current social outcry against domestic violence, (1) and his responses to EBB's treatment of Marian's rape in Aurora Leigh (1857). In the writing of "Pan and Luna," he remembers these violations and also Syrinx's in "A Musical Instrument."

The dialogues on high art, power relations, and sexuality which the Brownings began in their courtship letters continue in their poetry during the sixteen years of marriage and even after Elizabeth's death. Obviously a small part of that dialogue, the poetic interactions in these three Pan poems provide the material for examination here.

As Mary Rose Sullivan pointed out in 1987, the Brownings in their love letters "considered themselves engaged in a unique poetic as well as personal partnership." (2) She and many others over the years have felt the mutual influence, but found the proving elusive. Joint studies on the married poets have used words like "interchange," "exchange," "reciprocity," and "in the poetic relation." (3) In her recent book, Mary Sanders Pollock has chosen to organize alternate chapters on the Brownings' poems around the dialogic nature of the "creative partnership"; her study of the Brownings' dialogue stops for the most part in the mid-1850s with EBB's Aurora Leigh and RB's Men and Women. (4) Britta Martens, in this journal last year, has argued from a very different position for "oppositions between EBB's and [RB's] own irreconcilable poetics." (5) And yet relations among the poems do exist, and the reading of the poems together, rather than in alternating chapters or in opposition, does flesh out the patterns to which the Brownings themselves alluded in their letters and poetry. Pan figures in many of the Brownings' poems: in EBB's The Battle of Marathon, "The Dead Pan," "A Reed," "Flush or Faunus," "Mountaineer and Poet," Aurora Leigh, "A Musical Instrument"; and in RB's "The Bishop Orders His Tomb," "Bishop Blougram's Apology," The Ring and the Book, "Pheidippides," and "Pan and Luna." Intriguing patterns emerge from a simultaneous reading of the three Pan poems which focus most exclusively on the Pan myths. The lines of transmission and revision point to RB's continuation of EBB's feminist poetics almost twenty years after her death.

My analysis of "The Dead Pan," "A Musical Instrument," and "Pan and Luna" will maintain a double focus by attending not only to the Brownings' textual interactions, but also to the gendered assumptions underlying their Pan poetry. Strange and mysterious struggles in the poetry emerge between false and true gods and hence false and true poets, between male and female desires and perspectives, and between poetic explanation and poetic mystery. …

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