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The Pied Piper–Robert Browning

When Robert Browning (no relation) wrote his verse version of “The Pied Piper of Hamelin,” he did not originate the tale, instead latching onto a legend already more than 500 years old by his day. The story, of course, is well known. The town of Hamelin, suffering terribly from an infestation of rats,plays host to a man, clad in two-colored clothing, who offers to rid the place of its vermin. The town fathers readily agree to his price, and the piper hastily pipes the rats into the nearby river. When the town refuses to pay their full bill, the piper returns and pipes away nearly all of the children.

So what sort of story is this? Browning viewed it as a children’s story, yet it seems a strange fit for that. What child delights in a story of being abducted due to the poor business dealings of one’s parents?

Also, the overall tone of Browning’s poem seems ill-suited to the rather frightening subject matter, as the second stanza will readily reveal.

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
In fifty different sharps and flats.

How can Browning, a father of his own child, think that such a flippant tone and such heavy subject matter is acceptable for a child’s poem? That’s an intriguing question for which I don’t have an equally intriguing answer. However, we should recall that kids seem perpetually drawn to the weird and the morbid. Perhaps it is simply the parents who cannot deal with such matters.

The Piper appears as a sort of anti-Christ figure. In this, I do not mean an Antichrist in the sense of standing against Christ. Instead, I would suggest that he does somewhat the opposite of Jesus. Rather than saving the townspeople despite their sins against him, the Piper punishes them in a way more far-reaching than they might have ever suspected. The Piper delivers the town from corruption and filth in the form of the rats, yet the town does not deliver the agreed upon fee. In a hurry to return to Baghdad, the Piper then immediately pipes away the children, taking in one act the innocence and the future of the town.

Posted in English Literature, Victorian.

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