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Robert Browning (1812-1889)

The Pied Piper of Hamelin: A Child's Story


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

I.

              1Hamelin Town's in Brunswick,
              2  By famous Hanover city;
              3The river Weser, deep and wide,
              4Washes its wall on the southern side;
              5A pleasanter spot you never spied;
              6  But, when begins my ditty,
              7Almost five hundred years ago,
              8To see the townsfolk suffer so
              9  From vermin, was a pity.

II.

            10    Rats!
            11They fought the dogs, and killed the cats,
            12  And bit the babies in the cradles,
            13And eat the cheeses out of the vats,
            14  And licked the soup from the cooks' own ladles,
            15Split open the kegs of salted sprats,
            16Made nests inside men's Sunday hats,
            17And even spoiled the women's chats
            18    By drowning their speaking
            19    With shrieking and squeaking
            20In fifty different sharps and flats.

III.

            21At last the people in a body
            22  To the Town Hall came flocking:
            23'Tis clear, cried they, our Mayor's a noddy;
            24  And as for our Corporation -- shocking
            25To think we buy gowns lined with ermine
            26For dolts that can't or won't determine
            27What's like to rid us of our vermin!
            28Rouse up, Sirs! Give your brains a racking
            29To find the remedy we're lacking,
            30Or, sure as fate, we'll send you packing!
            31  At this the Mayor and Corporation
            32  Quaked with a mighty consternation.

IV.

            33An hour they sate in council,
            34  At length the Mayor broke silence:
            35For a guilder I'd my ermine gown sell;
            36  I wish I were a mile hence!
            37It's easy to bid one rack one's brain --
            38I'm sure my poor head aches again
            39I've scratched it so, and all in vain.
            40Oh for a trap, a trap, a trap!
            41Just as he said this, what should hap
            42At the chamber door but a gentle tap?
            43Bless us, cried the Mayor, what's that?
            44(With the Corporation as he sate,
            45Looking little though wondrous fat);
            46Only a scraping of shoes on the mat?
            47Anything like the sound of a rat
            48Makes my heart go pit-a-pat!

V.

            49Come in! -- the Mayor cried, looking bigger:
            50And in did come the strangest figure!
            51His queer long coat from heel to head
            52Was half of yellow and half of red;
            53And he himself was tall and thin,
            54With sharp blue eyes, each like a pin,
            55And light loose hair, yet swarthy skin,
            56No tuft on cheek nor beard on chin,
            57But lips where smiles went out and in --
            58There was no guessing his kith and kin!
            59And nobody could enough admire
            60The tall man and his quaint attire:
            61Quoth one: It's as my great-grandsire,
            62Starting up at the Trump of Doom's tone,
            63Had walked this way from his painted tombstone!

VI.

            64He advanced to the council-table:
            65And, Please your honours, said he, I'm able,
            66By means of a secret charm, to draw
            67All creatures living beneath the sun,
            68That creep, or swim, or fly, or run,
            69After me so as you never saw!
            70And I chiefly use my charm
            71On creatures that do people harm,
            72The mole, and toad, and newt, and viper;
            73And people call me the Pied Piper.
            74(And here they noticed round his neck
            75A scarf of red and yellow stripe,
            76To match with his coat of the self-same cheque;
            77And at the scarf's end hung a pipe;
            78And his fingers, they noticed, were ever straying
            79As if impatient to be playing
            80Upon this pipe, as low it dangled
            81Over his vesture so old-fangled.)
            82Yet, said he, poor piper as I am,
            83In Tartary I freed the Cham,
            84Last June, from his huge swarms of gnats;
            85I eased in Asia the Nizam
            86Of a monstrous brood of vampyre-bats:
            87And, as for what your brain bewilders,
            88If I can rid your town of rats
            89Will you give me a thousand guilders?
            90One? fifty thousand! -- was the exclamation
            91Of the astonished Mayor and Corporation.

VII.

            92Into the street the Piper stept,
            93  Smiling first a little smile,
            94As if he knew what magic slept
            95  In his quiet pipe the while;
            96Then, like a musical adept,
            97To blow the pipe his lips he wrinkled,
            98And green and blue his sharp eyes twinkled,
            99Like a candle-flame where salt is sprinkled;
          100And ere three shrill notes the pipe uttered,
          101You heard as if an army muttered;
          102And the muttering grew to a grumbling;
          103And the grumbling grew to a mighty rumbling;
          104And out of the houses the rats came tumbling.
          105Great rats, small rats, lean rats, brawny rats,
          106Brown rats, black rats, grey rats, tawny rats,
          107Grave old plodders, gay young friskers,
          108  Fathers, mothers, uncles, cousins,
          109Cocking tails and pricking whiskers,
          110  Families by tens and dozens,
          111Brothers, sisters, husbands, wives --
          112Followed the Piper for their lives.
          113From street to street he piped advancing,
          114And step for step they followed dancing,
          115Until they came to the river Weser
          116Wherein all plunged and perished
          117 -- Save one who, stout as Julius Caesar,
          118Swam across and lived to carry
          119(As he the manuscript he cherished)
          120To Rat-land home his commentary,
          121Which was, At the first shrill notes of the pipe,
          122I heard a sound as of scraping tripe,
          123And putting apples, wondrous ripe,
          124Into a cider-press's gripe:
          125And a moving away of pickle-tub-boards,
          126And a leaving ajar of conserve-cupboards,
          127And a drawing the corks of train-oil-flasks,
          128And a breaking the hoops of butter-casks;
          129And it seemed as if a voice
          130(Sweeter than by harp or by psaltery
          131Is breathed) called out, Oh rats, rejoice!
          132The world is grown to one vast drysaltery!
          133'So munch on, crunch on, take your nuncheon,
          134'Breakfast, supper, dinner, luncheon!
          135And just as one bulky sugar-puncheon,
          136Ready staved, like a great sun shone
          137Glorious scarce an inch before me,
          138Just as methought it said, Come, bore me!
          139 -- I found the Weser rolling o'er me.

VIII.

          140You should have heard the Hamelin people
          141Ringing the bells till they rocked the steeple;
          142Go, cried the Mayor, and get long poles!
          143Poke out the nests and block up the holes!
          144Consult with carpenters and builders,
          145And leave in our town not even a trace
          146Of the rats! -- when suddenly up the face
          147Of the Piper perked in the market-place,
          148With a, First, if you please, my thousand guilders!

IX.

          149A thousand guilders! The Mayor looked blue;
          150So did the Corporation too.
          151For council dinners made rare havock
          152With Claret, Moselle, Vin-de-Grave, Hock;
          153And half the money would replenish
          154Their cellar's biggest butt with Rhenish.
          155To pay this sum to a wandering fellow
          156With a gipsy coat of red and yellow!
          157Beside, quoth the Mayor with a knowing wink,
          158Our business was done at the river's brink;
          159We saw with our eyes the vermin sink,
          160And what's dead can't come to life, I think.
          161So, friend, we're not the folks to shrink
          162From the duty of giving you something for drink,
          163And a matter of money to put in your poke;
          164But, as for the guilders, what we spoke
          165Of them, as you very well know, was in joke.
          166Beside, our losses have made us thrifty;
          167A thousand guilders! Come, take fifty!

X.

          168The Piper's face fell, and he cried,
          169No trifling! I can't wait, beside!
          170I've promised to visit by dinner time
          171Bagdat, and accept the prime
          172Of the Head Cook's pottage, all he's rich in,
          173For having left, in the Caliph's kitchen,
          174Of a nest of scorpions no survivor --
          175With him I proved no bargain-driver,
          176With you, don't think I'll bate a stiver!
          177And folks who put me in a passion
          178May find me pipe after another fashion.

XI.

          179How? cried the Mayor, d'ye think I'll brook
          180Being worse treated than a Cook?
          181Insulted by a lazy ribald
          182With idle pipe and vesture piebald?
          183You threaten us, fellow? Do your worst,
          184Blow your pipe there till you burst!

XII.

          185Once more he stept into the street;
          186  And to his lips again
          187Laid his long pipe of smooth straight cane;
          188  And ere he blew three notes (such sweet
          189Soft notes as yet musician's cunning
          190  Never gave th'enraptured air)
          191There was a rustling, that seem'd like a bustling
          192Of merry crowds justling at pitching and hustling,
          193Small feet were pattering, wooden shoes clattering,
          194Little hands clapping, and little tongues chattering,
          195And, like fowls in a farm-yard when barley is scattering,
          196Out came the children running.
          197All the little boys and girls,
          198With rosy cheeks and flaxen curls,
          199And sparkling eyes and teeth like pearls,
          200Tripping and skipping, ran merrily after
          201The wonderful music with shouting and laughter.

XIII.

          202The Mayor was dumb, and the Council stood
          203As if they were changed into blocks of wood,
          204Unable to move a step, or cry
          205To the children merrily skipping by --
          206Could only follow with the eye
          207That joyous crowd at the Piper's back.
          208But how the Mayor was on the rack,
          209And the wretched Council's bosoms beat,
          210As the Piper turned from the High Street
          211To where the Weser rolled its waters
          212Right in the way of their sons and daughters!
          213However he turned from South to West,
          214And to Coppelburg Hill his steps addressed,
          215And after him the children pressed;
          216Great was the joy in every breast.
          217He never can cross that mighty top!
          218He's forced to let the piping drop,
          219And we shall see our children stop!
          220When, lo, as they reached the mountain's side,
          221A wondrous portal opened wide,
          222As if a cavern was suddenly hollowed;
          223And the Piper advanced and the children follow'd,
          224And when all were in to the very last,
          225The door in the mountain side shut fast.
          226Did I say, all? No! One was lame,
          227And could not dance the whole of the way;
          228And in after years, if you would blame
          229His sadness, he was used to say, --
          230It's dull in our town since my playmates left!
          231I can't forget that I'm bereft
          232Of all the pleasant sights they see,
          233Which the Piper also promised me;
          234For he led us, he said, to a joyous land,
          235Joining the town and just at hand,
          236Where waters gushed and fruit-trees grew,
          237And flowers put forth a fairer hue,
          238And every thing was strange and new;
          239The sparrows were brighter than peacocks here,
          240And their dogs outran our fallow deer,
          241And honey-bees had lost their stings,
          242And horses were born with eagles' wings:
          243And just as I felt assured
          244My lame foot would be speedily cured,
          245The music stopped and I stood still,
          246And found myself outside the Hill,
          247Left alone against my will,
          248To go now limping as before,
          249And never hear of that country more!

XIV.

          250Alas, alas for Hamelin!
          251  There came into many a burgher's pate
          252  A text which says, that Heaven's Gate
          253  Opes to the Rich at as easy a rate
          254As the needle's eye takes a camel in!
          255The Mayor sent East, West, North, and South,
          256To offer the Piper, by word of mouth,
          257  Wherever it was men's lot to find him,
          258Silver and gold to his heart's content,
          259If he'd only return the way he went,
          260  And bring the children behind him.
          261But when they saw 'twas a lost endeavour,
          262And Piper and dancers were gone for ever,
          263They made a decree that lawyers never
          264  Should think their records dated duly
          265If, after the day of the month and year,
          266These words did not as well appear,
          267"And so long after what happened here
          268  "On the Twenty-second of July,
          269"Thirteen hundred and Seventy-six:"
          270And the better in memory to fix
          271The place of the Children's last retreat,
          272They called it, The Pied Piper's Street --
          273Where any one playing on pipe or tabor
          274Was sure for the future to lose his labour.
          275Nor suffered they Hostelry or Tavern
          276  To shock with mirth a street so solemn;
          277But opposite the place of the cavern
          278  They wrote the story on a column,
          279And on the Great Church Window painted
          280The same, to make the world acquainted
          281How their children were stolen away;
          282And there it stands to this very day.
          283And I must not omit to say
          284That in Transylvania there's a tribe
          285Of alien people who ascribe
          286The outlandish ways and dress
          287On which their neighbours lay such stress
          288To their fathers and mothers having risen
          289Out of some subterraneous prison
          290Into which they were trepanned
          291Long time ago in a mighty band
          292Out of Hamelin town in Brunswick land,
          293But how or why, they don't understand.

XV.

          294So, Willy, let you and me be wipers
          295Of scores out with all men -- especially pipers:
          296And, whether they pipe us from rats or from mice,
          297If we've promised them aught, let us keep our promise.

Notes

1] Hamelin: Hameln, a town in Lower Saxony, on the Weser River, near Hanover. The town's 16th-century Rathaus Browning's probable source for the Pied Piper legend was Richard Verstegen's Restitution of Decayed Intelligence in Antiquities (1605), according to A. Dickson's "Browning's Source for The Pied Piper of Hamelin," Studies in Philology 23 (1926): 327-32. Hameln is not near Brunswick.

13] eat: ate.

35] guilder: gold coin in the Netherlands and regions in Germany.

83] Tartary: "the region of Central Asia extending eastward from the Caspian Sea, and formerly known as Independent and Chinese Tartary" ("Tartar," OED). Cham: khan, emperor of Tartars.

85] Nizam: the rulers of Hyderabad in India; also the Turkish army at this time.

127] train-oil: oil extracted from whale-blubber.

132] drysaltery: dry goods' store or business.

163] poke: a bag.

171] Bagdat: Bagdad, now in Iraq.

176] stiver: nothing, a very small coin (OED, "stiver," 2).

182] piebald: in different colours.

192] pitching and hustling: a children's game, in which "Each player pitches a coin at a mark; the one whose coin lies nearest to the mark then tosses all the coins and keeps those that turn up `head'; the one whose coin lay next in order does the same with the remaining ones, and so on till all the coins are disposed of" (OED, "pitch-and-toss").

214] Koppelberg, a small rise outside Hameln.

235] Joining: adjoining.

252] Matthew 19.24: "Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."

269] The legend dates the event in 1284.

284] Transylvania: mountainous region in western Rumania.

290] trepanned: trapped.

294] Willy: the son of William Macready, the English actor, for whom Browning wrote the poem as an entertainment during the boy's sickness.


Online text copyright © 2003, Ian Lancashire for the Department of English, University of Toronto.
Published by the Web Development Group, Information Technology Services, University of Toronto Libraries.

Original text: Dramatic Lyrics, Bells and Pomegranates III (1842).
First publication date: 26 November 1842
RPO poem editor: Ian Lancashire
RP edition:
Recent editing: 1:2002/11/17

Composition date: April 1842 - May 1842
Rhyme: Irregular: quatrains, triplets, couplets.


Other poems by Robert Browning