Dramatic Romances, by Robert Browning

The Pied Piper of Hamelin:

A Child’s Story.

(Written for, and inscribed to, W. M. the Younger.)
I

Hamelin Town’s in Brunswick,

By famous Hanover city;

The river Weser, deep and wide,

Washes its wall on the southern side;

A pleasanter spot you never spied;

But, when begins my ditty,

Almost five hundred years ago,

To see the townsfolk suffer so

From vermin, was a pity.

II
10

Rats!

They fought the dogs and killed the cats,

And bit the babies in the cradles,

And ate the cheeses out of the vats,

And licked the soup from the cooks’ own ladles,

Split open the kegs of salted sprats,

Made nests inside men’s Sunday hats,

And even spoiled the women’s chats

By drowning their speaking

With shrieking and squeaking

20

In fifty different sharps and flats.

III

At last the people in a body

To the Town Hall came flocking

“’Tis clear,” cried they, “our Mayor’s a noddy,

And as for our Corporation — shocking

To think we buy gowns lined with ermine

For dolts that can’t or won’t determine

What’s best to rid us of our vermin!

You hope, because you’re old and obese,

To find in the furry civic robe ease?

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Rouse up, sirs! Give your brains a racking

To find the remedy we’re lacking,

Or, sure as fate, we’ll send you packing!”

At this the Mayor and Corporation

Quaked with a mighty consternation.

IV

An hour they sat in council,

At length the Mayor broke silence:

“For a guilder I’d my ermine gown sell,

I wish I were a mile hence!

It’s easy to bid one rack one’s brain —

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I’m sure my poor head aches again,

I’ve scratched it so, and all in vain.

Oh for a trap, a trap, a trap!”

Just as he said this, what should hap

At the chamber door but a gentle tap?

“Bless us,” cried the Mayor, “what’s that?”

(With the Corporation as he sat,

Looking little though wondrous fat;

Nor brighter was his eye, nor moister

Than a too-long-opened oyster,

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Save when at noon his paunch grew mutinous

For a plate of turtle green and glutinous)

“Only a scraping of shoes on the mat?

Anything like the sound of a rat

Makes my heart go pit-a-pat!”

V

“Come in!” the Mayor cried, looking bigger:

And in did come the strangest figure!

His queer long coat from heel to head

Was half of yellow and half of red,

And he himself was tall and thin,

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With sharp blue eyes, each like a pin,

And light loose hair, yet swarthy skin,

No tuft on cheek nor beard on chin,

But lips where smiles went out and in;

There was no guessing his kith and kin:

And nobody could enough admire

The tall man and his quaint attire.

Quoth one: “It’s as my great-grandsire,

Starting up at the Trump of Doom’s tone,

Had walked this way from his painted tombstone!”

VI
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He advanced to the council-table

And, “Please your honours,” said he, “I’m able,

By means of a secret charm, to draw

All creatures living beneath the sun,

That creep or swim or fly or run,

After me so as you never saw!

And I chiefly use my charm

On creatures that do people harm,

The mole and toad and newt and viper;

And people call me the Pied Piper.”

80

(And here they noticed round his neck

A scarf of red and yellow stripe,

To match with his coat of the self-same cheque

And at the scarf’s end hung a pipe;

And his fingers, they noticed, were ever straying

As if impatient to be playing

Upon this pipe, as low it dangled

Over his vesture so old-fangled.)

“Yet,” said he, “poor piper as I am,

In Tartary I freed the Cham,

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Last June, from his huge swarms of gnats;

I eased in Asia the Nizam

Of a monstrous brood of vampyre-bats:

And as for what your brain bewilders,

If I can rid your town of rats

Will you give me a thousand guilders?”

“One? fifty thousand!”-was the exclamation

Of the astonished Mayor and Corporation.

VII

Into the street the Piper stept,

Smiling first a little smile,

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As if he knew what magic slept

In his quiet pipe the while;

Then, like a musical adept

To blow the pipe his lips he wrinkled,

And green and blue his sharp eyes twinkled

Like a candle-flame where salt is sprinkled;

And ere three shrill notes the pipe uttered,

You heard as if an army muttered;

And the muttering grew to a grumbling;

And the grumbling grew to a mighty rumbling;

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And out of the houses the rats came tumbling.

Great rats, small rats, lean rats, brawny rats,

Brown rats, black rats, grey rats, tawny rats,

Grave old plodders, gay young friskers,

Fathers, mothers, uncles, cousins,

Cocking tails and pricking whiskers,

Families by tens and dozens,

Brothers, sisters, husbands, wives —

Followed the Piper for their lives.

From street to street he piped advancing,

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And step for step they followed dancing,

Until they came to the river Weser

Wherein all plunged and perished!

— Save one who, stout as Julius Caesar,

Swam across and lived to carry

(As he, the manuscript he cherished)

To Rat-land home his commentary:

Which was, “At the first shrill notes of the pipe,

I heard a sound as of scraping tripe,

And putting apples, wondrous ripe,

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Into a cider-press’s gripe:

And a moving away of pickle-tub-boards,

And a leaving ajar of conserve-cupboards,

And a drawing the corks of train-oil-flasks,

And a breaking the hoops of butter-casks:

And it seemed as if a voice

(Sweeter far than by harp or by psaltery

Is breathed) called out, ‘Oh rats, rejoice!

The world is grown to one vast drysaltery!

So munch on, crunch on, take your nuncheon,

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Breakfast, supper, dinner, luncheon!’

And just as a bulky sugar-puncheon,

All ready staved, like a great sun shone

Glorious scarce an inch before me

Just as methought it said ‘Come, bore me!’

— I found the Weser roiling o’er me.”

VIII

You should have heard the Hamelin people

Ringing the bells till they rocked the steeple.

“Go,” cried the Mayor, “and get long poles,

Poke out the nests and block up the holes!

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Consult with carpenters and builders,

And leave in our town not even a trace

Of the rats!”-when suddenly, up the face

Of the Piper perked in the market-place,

With a, “First, if you please, my thousand guilders!”

IX

A thousand guilders! The Mayor looked blue;

So did the Corporation too.

For council dinners made rare havoc

With Claret, Moselle, Vin-deGrave, Hock;

And half the money would replenish

160

Their cellar’s biggest butt with Rhenish.

This sum to a wandering fellow

With a gipsy coat of red and yellow!

“Beside,” quoth the Mayor with a knowing wink,

Our business was done at the river’s brink;

We saw with our eyes the vermin sink,

And what’s dead can’t come to life, I think.

So, friend, we’re not the folks to shrink

From the duty of giving you something for drink,

And a matter of money to put in your poke;

170

But as for the guilders, what we spoke

Of them, as you very well know, was in joke.

Beside, our losses have made us thrifty.

A thousand guilders! Come, take fifty!”

X

The Piper’s face fell, and he cried:

“No trifling! I can’t wait, beside!

I’ve promised to visit by dinner time

Bagdat, and accept the prime

Of the Head–Cook’s pottage, all he’s rich in,

For having left, in the Caliph’s kitchen,

180

Of a nest of scorpions no survivor:

With him I proved no bargain-driver,

With you, don’t think I’ll bate a stiver!

And folks who put me in a passion

May find me pipe after another fashion.”

XI

“How? cried the Mayor, “d’ye think I brook

Being worse treated than a Cook?

Insulted by a lazy ribald

With idle pipe and vesture piebald?

You threaten us, fellow? Do your worst,

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Blow your pipe there till you burst!”

XII

Once more he stept into the street

And to his lips again

Laid his long pipe of smooth straight cane;

And ere he blew three notes (such sweet

Soft notes as yet musician’s cunning

Never gave the enraptured air)

There was a rustling that seemed like a bustling

Of merry crowds justling at pitching and hustling,

Small feet were pattering, wooden shoes clattering,

200

Little hands clapping and little tongues chattering,

And, like fowls in a farm-yard when barley is scattering,

Out came the children running.

All the little boys and girls,

With rosy cheeks and flaxen curls,

And sparkling eyes and teeth like pearls,

Tripping and skipping, ran merrily after

The wonderful music with shouting and laughter.

XIII

The Mayor was dumb, and the Council stood

As if they were changed into blocks of wood,

210

Unable to move a step, or cry

To the children merrily skipping by,

— Could only follow with the eye

That joyous crowd at the Piper’s back.

But how the Mayor was on the rack,

And the wretched Council’s bosoms beat,

As the Piper turned from the High Street

To where the Weser rolled its waters

Right in the way of their sons and daughters!

However he turned from South to West,

220

And to Koppelberg Hill his steps addressed,

And after him the children pressed;

Great was the joy in every breast.

“He never can cross that mighty top!

He’s forced to let the piping drop,

And we shall see our children stop!”

When, lo, as they reached the mountain-side,

A wondrous portal opened wide,

As if a cavern was suddenly hollowed;

And the Piper advanced and the children followed,

230

And when all were in to the very last,

The door in the mountain-side shut fast.

Did I say, all? No! One was lame,

And could not dance the whole of the way;

And in after years, if you would blame

His sadness, he was used to say —

“It’s dull in our town since my playmates left!

I can’t forget that I’m bereft

Of all the pleasant sights they see,

Which the Piper also promised me.

240

For he led us, he said, to a joyous land,

Joining the town and just at hand,

Where waters gushed and fruit-trees grew

And flowers put forth a fairer hue,

And everything was strange and new;

The sparrows were brighter than peacocks here,

And their dogs outran our fallow deer,

And honeybees had lost their stings,

And horses were born with eagles’ wings:

And just as I became assured

250

My lame foot would be speedily cured,

The music stopped and I stood still,

And found myself outside the hill,

Left alone against my will,

To go now limping as before,

And never hear of that country more!”

XIV

Alas, alas for Hamelin!

There came into many a burgher’s pate

A text which says that heaven’s gate

Opes to the rich at as easy rate

260

As the needle’s eye takes a camel in!

The mayor sent East, West, North and South

To offer the Piper, by word of mouth,

Wherever it was men’s lot to find him

Silver and gold to his heart’s content,

If he’d only return the way he went,

And bring the children behind him.

But when they saw ’twas a lost endeavour,

And Piper and dancers were gone for ever,

They made a decree that lawyers never

270

Should think their records dated duly

If, after the day of the month and year,

These words did not as well appear,

“And so long after what happened here

On the Twenty-second of July

Thirteen-hundred and seventy-six:”

And the better in memory to fix

The place of the children’s last retreat,

They called it, the Pied Piper’s Street —

Where any one playing on pipe or tabor

280

Was sure for the future to lose his labour.

Nor suffered they hostelry or tavern

To shock with mirth a street so solemn;

But opposite the place of the cavern

They wrote the story on a column,

And on the great church-window painted

The same, to make the world acquainted

How their children were stolen away,

And there it stands to this very day.

And I must not omit to say

290

That in Transylvania there’s a tribe

Of alien people who ascribe

The outlandish ways and dress

On which their neighbours lay such stress,

To their fathers and mothers having risen

Out of some subterraneous prison

Into which they were trepanned

Long time ago in a mighty band

Out of Hamelin town in Brunswick land,

But how or why, they don’t understand.

XV
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So, Willy, let me and you be wipers

Of scores out with all men — especially pipers!

And, whether they pipe us free from rats or from mice,

If we’ve promised them aught, let us keep our promise!

“The Pied Piper of Hamelin.” This clever versification of a well-known tale was written for the little son of the actor William Macready. According to Dr. Furnivall, the version used directly by Browning is from “The Wonders of the Little World: or A General History of Man,” by Nathaniel Wanley, published in 1578. There are, however, more incidents in common between the poem and the version given by Verstigan in his “Restitution of Decayed Intelligence” (1605). There are many other sources for the story, and it is not improbable that Browning knew more than one version. Tales similar to it occur also in Persia and China. For its kinship to myths of the wind as a musician, and as a psychopomp or leader of souls, see Baring–Gould, “Curious Myths of the Middle Ages”; John Fiske, “Myths and Myth-makers”; Cox, “Myths of the Aryan Races.” — Hamlin, or Hamelin, is a town in the province of Hanover, Prussia.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/browning/robert/dramatic/poem17.html

Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32