‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin’ by Robert Browning is an entertaining poem about the importance of telling the truth and keeping one’s promises.
Throughout the poem, Browning uses engaging images and clear, concise diction to tell the Pied Piper’s story. The words are mostly within a child’s vocabulary, and the consistent rhyme scheme makes the poem feel like the original story by the Brothers Grimm. It was originally published in Children’s and Household Tales in 1812. Browning’s ‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin’ has influenced the way that children learn, and adults remember the story today.
Explore The Pied Piper of Hamelin
In the first lines of the poem, the speaker begins by describing the town of Hamelin and the central issue they’re contending with. The town is overrun with rats. They’re everywhere and making the townspeople miserable. Luckily for them, the Piper turns up and offers to rid their town of rats for a fee of 1,000 guilders. They accept happily, and the Piper does exactly what he promised. Once the rats are gone, the Piper asks for his money, and the Mayor refuses to pay him.
In order to teach the town a lesson, the Piper plays his pipe again and leads all the town’s children through a mountain passage. After this, the town attempts to seek him out and pay what they owe, but they’re never able to. The children grow up and have children of their own who remember their past as a legend.
Throughout ‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin, ’ Browning engages with themes of the truth, promises, and magic. The Piper’s magic is at the center of this story. Without it, Hamelin and the Piper wouldn’t have ended up in the situation they’re in. He has control over any living thing and depending on how he uses his pipe. He can drive them into the river or out of town. Once Hamelin’s mayor betrays him, he uses his powers to teach the city a lesson about telling the truth and keeping one’s promises. It’s one that they never forget. The Piper did everything he said he was going to, completely keeping up his end of the bargain.
Structure and Form
‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin’ by Robert Browning is a light-hearted poem that is separated out into fifteen parts of varying lengths. Some, such as Part I, are as short as nine lines, while others, like Part VII, are as long as forty-eight lines. The poem does not follow a single consistent rhyme scheme, but it does rhyme throughout. For example, the first stanza follows a pattern of ABCCCBDDB, and the second stanza, using different end sounds, rhymes ABABAAACCA. The continual use of rhyme influences the poem’s overall tone, making sure it maintains its story-telling, fairy tale-esque tone.
Browning makes use of several literary devices in ‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin.’ These include but are not limited to:
- Caesurae: occurs when the poet inserts a pause into the middle of a line. This might occur due to their use of punctuation or meter. For example, “Come in!”–the Mayor cried, looking bigger” and “A thousand guilders! The Mayor looked blue.”
- Alliteration: occurs when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of words. For example, “bit” and “babies” in line two of Part II and “heard” and “Hamelin” in line one of Part VIII.
- Anaphora: occurs when the poet repeats the same word or words at the beginning of lines. For example, “And” starts thirteen lines in Part VII.
- Imagery: occurs when the poet uses particularly interesting and clear descriptions. For example, “With sharp blue eyes, each like a pin, / And light loose hair, yet swarthy skin” in Part V.
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.
In the first lines of ‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin,’ the speaker begins with the exposition. He describes the setting and states that it’s in this place, “Hamelin Town in Brunswick,” 500 years ago that his story begins. It involves “vermin” was “was a pity.”
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 ladle’s,
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
In fifty different sharps and flats.
The city has a serious rat problem, and Browning uses the following lines to describe all the things that the rats did to irritate the town’s population. They “bit the babies” and “licked the soup.” The rats were loud and irritating all the time. In these lines, readers can find examples of enjambment as well.
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?
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.
In Part III, the speaker adds more details to the story. Browning uses a specific dialect in these lines that conveys the people in a specific way. This adds personality to the story and makes it more realistic. The use of sharp words like “lacking” and “packing” in this stanza help to convey the townspeople’s anger. They are determined to fix the problem in the town, or they’re going to send their Mayor “packing.” Browning uses other great examples of literary devices in this stanza, including alliteration and internal rhyme.
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–
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,
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!”
The fourth part of ‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin’ contains more of the meeting with the mayor and the townspeople. The Mayor and the Corporation have a long, stressful meeting in which they don’t manage to resolve anything. It’s not until Part V that something changes for them. But, before that, the poet spends these lines emphasizing how useless the officials in this town are. He also spends lines mocking the Mayor, comparing him to “a too-long-opened oyster.” In the last lines of this stanza, the speaker alludes to the arrival of the Pied Piper.
“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,
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 if my great-grandsire,
Starting up at the Trump of Doom’s tone,
Had walked this way from his painted tombstone!”
In these lines, the “strangest figure” appears. Browning outlines the Piper’s appearance, which is completely unusual in that town. No one could tell who his “kith and kin” were. He’s out of place in this town, and Browning makes a concerted effort to ensure the reader understands that.
He advanced to the council-table:
And, “Please your honors,” 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.”
(And here they noticed round his neck
A scarf of red and yellow stripe,
To match with his coat of the self-same check;
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,
Last June, from his huge swarm 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.
In the next section, which is the longest so far, the Piper explains to the council what he can do for them. He can use a secret charm to bring creatures to his side. It doesn’t matter what they are. He can control them. He brings out his pipe in the next lines, explaining that he has freed other towns from animals in the past. For example, he says, he “eased in Asia the Nizam / Of a monstrous brood of vampyre-bats.” The town agrees to pay him as much and more than he wants if he’ll help them.
Into the street the Piper stept,
Smiling first a little smile,
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;
And out of the houses the rats came tumbling.
Great rats, small rats, lean rats, brawny rats,
Brown rats, black rats, gray 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.
In the first part of this section, the Piper goes out into the street and brings out his pipe. He plays it, his eye twinkle, and the “muttering” around him grew “to a grumbling,” then a “rumbling.” It’s clear that the Piper is working some kind of magic in these lines, an important feature of a fairy tale.
Just as the Piper promised, the rats start running to his side. They tumble out of the houses and join together, “Fathers, mothers, uncles, cousins,” as they head towards the Piper.
From street to street he piped advancing,
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 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,
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 dry-saltery!
So munch on, crunch on, take your nuncheon,
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 rolling o’er me.”
The classic image of the Pied Piper leading the rats away from the town grows in the following lines. He leads them towards a river where they plunge in and period. All, that is, “Save one,” who was able to swim across and carry his story to “Rat-land.” His commentary follows, explaining what happened to them with techniques like repetition and anaphora. He heard wonderful things in the tune of the pipe and followed along, as did all his brethren. They were tricked into the river before they knew what was happening.
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!
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!”
The eighth part of ‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin’ is only nine lines long and describes how happily the people of Hamelin celebrated after the rats were gone from their city. They packed in the holes to keep the rats from getting back into the city and used poles to push out the nests. When the Piper returns, he asks for his “thousand guilders.”
A thousand guilders! The Mayor looked blue;
So did the Corporation too.
For council dinners made rare havoc
With Claret, Moselle, Vin-de-Grave, Hock;
And half the money would replenish
Their cellar’s biggest butt with Rhenish.
To pay this sum to a wandering fellow
With a gypsy 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;
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!
Unfortunately, the Mayor is just as untrustworthy as he seemed in the first lines of the poem. He tries to renege on his promised sum of money, asking the Piper if he’d take fifty guilders rather than 100. The Mayor knows that the task is over and the rats are dead. He explicitly states that they can’t come back to life, so there’s no reason for him to pay the Piper.
Parts X and XI
The Piper’s face fell, and he cried,
“No trifling! I can’t wait! Beside,
I’ve promised to visit by dinnertime
Bagdad, and accept the prime
Of the Head-Cook’s pottage, all he’s rich in,
For having left, in the Caliph’s kitchen,
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 to another fashion.”
“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,
Blow your pipe there till you burst!”
The Piper threatens to undo what he did to help the town in the next lines of ‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin.’ He says that he can if he wants, “pipe in another fashion.”
The Mayor is disturbed by this news and starts to threaten the Piper, telling him to pipe till his pipe bursts. Or, in simpler terms, do his worst.
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,
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.
The Piper does exactly what the Mayor threatened and was likely secretly afraid of. He goes into the street and brings out his pipe again. As he does so, there is a rustling in the air and the sound of small feet “pattering, wooden shoes clattering.” The children started running out of all the houses around town, skipping and dancing to the music.
The Mayor was dumb, and the Council stood
As if they were changed into blocks of wood,
Unable to move a step or cry,
To the children merrily skipping by–
And 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 water’s
Right in the way of their sons and daughters!
However he turned from South to West
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,
And when all were in to the very last,
The door in the mountain-side shut fast.
The Mayor, Browning’s speaker, says, was “Dumb.” He didn’t know what to do or how to react to what the Piper was demonstrating. He also uses a simile in these lines comparing the Mayor and the Council to blocks of wood. The Piper makes the children follow him out of the town and through a secret mountain doorway the former opened. The Mayor and Council make some half-hearted threats to stop them, but they disappear.
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.
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 honey-bees had lost their stings,
And horses were born with eagles’ wings:
And just as I became assured
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!
Browning alludes to the initial rat exodus in the next lines of ‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin.’ Just as in that example, there is one child left behind. He tells his story, as the rat told his. The child has been lonely since his playmates left, and he recollects what he heard in the Piper’s music. This child has a limp, and it’s this disability that kept him from being able to keep up with his friends as they went into the mountain.
Alas, alas for Hamelin!
There came into many a burgher’s pate
A text which says that heaven’s gate
Opens to the rich at as easy rate
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 endeavor,
And Piper and dancers were gone forever,
They made a decree that lawyers never
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
Was sure for the future to lose his labor.
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
That, in Transylvania there’s a tribe
Of alien people who ascribe
To the outlandish ways and dress
On which their neighbors lay such stress,
To their fathers and mothers having risen
Out of some subterranean 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.
The narrator explains how the city of Hamelin tried afterward to find the Piper and to pay the fee he’d originally been promised. Unfortunately for them, they had no luck. Their children were gone, and the Piper was nowhere to be found. They decide to name a street after him and do everything they could to make sure future generations remembered: “how their children were stolen away.”
In the last lines of this stanza of ‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin,’ the speaker alludes to another story, one based around the children who were led away from their homes and had children of their own. Now, their descendants don’t remember who they are or where their forbearers came from. They have a legend about their past, but no one understands it.
So, Willy, let you and me 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 ought, let us keep our promise.
The last four lines of the poem are addressed to “Willy.” In these lines, he sums up the moral of the story—how important it is to keep promises. If the town had simply come through with the payment, the Piper asked for. Then they’d have been spared the tragedy of losing their children.
Readers who enjoyed ‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin’ should also consider reading some other Robert Browning poems. For example:
- ‘Fra Lippo Lippi’ – a dramatic monologue written in blank verse that tells the scandalous story of a painter’s life.
- ‘Andrea del Sarto’- is told from the perceptive of Andre del Sarto, an artist who wants to talk about his art and life with his wife.
- ‘The Wanderers’ –depicts a group of men who are restlessly seeking out progress and adventure.