The Pied Piper of Hamelin
by Robert Browning
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.
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 cook’s 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
In fifty different sharps and flats.
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.
An hour they sate 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!”
Robert Browning’s poem, “The Pied Piper of Hamelin,” is a retelling of an ancient folk legend. However, last fall I was surprised—perhaps disturbed is a more accurate word—to learn that scholars have good reason to believe the tale, in part at least, is true. A plaque dating from 1602, as well as numerous other historical documents, refers specifically to the disappearance of precisely 130 children from Hamelin in the year 1284. This plaque states, with alarming precision,
A.D. 1284 – on the 26th of June – the day of St. John and St. Paul – 130 children – born in Hamelin were led out of the town by a piper wearing multicoloured clothes. After passing the Calvary near the Koppenberg they disappeared forever.
Scholars have a few theories about what actually may have occurred, some of which are outlined in this article.
On a slightly less (or perhaps more?) somber note, this Saturday, June 26, is Rat-catcher’s Day, wherein the world commemorates the legend of the Pied Piper, hence the timely publishing of this post. However, all rat-catchers and celebrations aside, I hope you read the poem with relish and savour its delightful rhymes.
Image: Frontispiece to The Pied Piper of Hamelin, Kate Greenaway, 1888