Overt and implied references to religious and mythical themes
| Robert Browning’s “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” Viewed as an Altogether Typical Expression of the Poet’s Deep Religious and Philosophical Concerns
Certain influential doctrines in the domain of literary criticism discourage the practice of interpreting one poem in the light of any other on the presumption that each poem is an isolated aesthetic object. For such a reason, I suggest, Robert Browning’s “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” is deemed to be an amusing but not profound work by Robert Browning, a poet acknowledged as great not least on account of his exploration of philosophical and religious themes. It is therefore not without reason that I propose that passages found in “How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix” and “By the Fire-side” are relevant to a study of “The Pied Piper of Hamelin.”
References to the sun and to biblical texts abound in “The Pied Piper of Hamelin, one such case being “the trump of doom’s tone.” The basic facts relating to the Pied Piper point to the association of the figure with summer and the domain of religion and mysticism. All accounts of the legend place the event of the Piper’s appearance in Hamelin in the early or middle days of summer, the season for dancing and musical diversion as Richard III in the Shakespearean drama that bears his name well knew. The sun according to the psychological theories of Jung and Freud represents the libido in search of its feminine counterpart the anima. Clearly the figure who goes by the name of “the Pied Piper” in English and der Rattenfänger in German (though the original versions of the legend make no reference to rats) evinces enviable powers of erotic allurement. Goethe had girls and women chase after him, and not only children, in “Der Rattenfänger,” and mulled over placing him in the Witches’ Sabbath presented in a scene in Faust Part I. However, in broader terms the libido represents more than anything we could bracket off as explicitly sexual, for it also stands for vigour, potency, the life force itself, which explains the Piper’s appeal to children and youth in Browning’s “ditty” as the natural consequence of their shared affinities. On the other hand, potency can lead to both good and evil ends, which makes the Pied Piper a very ambivalent figure indeed, as literary representations of him through the centuries, either as the devil or a Christ-like saviour, indicate so clearly.
Robert Browning’s “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” is quoted below in full with certain words highlighted in yellow or blue. Those highlighted in yellow evince an aspect that connects them with the sun and the south, those in blue with matters to do with religion and the Bible in some way. I am not the only one to have discerned references to religious themes to be found in Browning’s “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” as the noted scholar in the field of depth psychology Iacob Levi found in the three notes by which the Pied Piper began his music playing an allusion to the Trinity. The mystical significance of the number three underlies the narrative of another poem by Robert Browning – “How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix,” according to which only one of the three horses that began their ride in Ghent survives to bring “the good news,” an allusion to the Gospel, to Aix.
Sometimes solar and biblical imagery merge as in the case of the implication of the word “risen” or that of the words “under the sun.” Milton Millhauser noted that the word “pottage” recalled the biblical episode in which Esau sold his birthright to Jacob thus sacrificing a spiritual blessing for the sake of a material gratification. There are however quite explicit pointers to biblical passages in the poem such as those made to “the Trump of Doom’s tone” or the warning of Jesus concerning the entrapment of riches. Otherwise, individual words support the religious symbolism that pervades the poem despite the fact that their primary meanings at the literal level bear no reference to religious matters. It is simply the aggregation of their secondary meanings within their general lexical range of meanings that underlines a central religious motif, such words being ”cross” with the primary sense of to traverse, passion, primarily a synonym of rage or a fit of anger and the Mayor of Hamelin’s words ”What’s dead can’t come to life, think.”
Note here the contrast of words within a given context and words unbounded by any context at all, a phenomenon noted by Jurij Tynjanov in his article translated into English as “The Meaning of the Word in Verse.” The multivalent potential of the word “cross,” whether as a verb or noun, is evident in “By the Fire-Side” from its insistent repetition in the poem in these lines: "Silent the crumbling bridge we cross." (166) "The cross is down, the altar bare," (174) "We stoop and look in through the grate,/ See the little porch and rustic door,/ Read duly the dead builder's date; / Then cross the bridge that we crossed before" (176- 179).
Occurrences of the word ”promise,” either as a noun or a verb, underline appear twice in the final line of the poem and in close proximity to “land” evoke the theme of the Exodus and the journey to the Promised Land.
The solar symbolism of the poem comes through in various ways, some seemingly trivial as in the case of a reference to “Sunday hats,” some imbued with a mystical or religious association as in the case of the word ‘risen.” As Arthur Dixon argued in his article “Browning’s Source for The Pied Piper of Hamelin,” Browning was most probably acquainted with at least one early version of the Pied Piper story, according to which the Piper led 130 children born in Hamelin to Calvary.
With regard to Browning’s dissemination of verbal clues “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” is altogether typical and Barbara Melchiori noted the poet’s habitual practice of concealing his deep concerns beneath the surface of beguiling narratives. Browning’s deep concern with the subject of the Resurrection shows itself explicitly in his works written before and after 1842, the year in which he composed “The Pied Piper of Hamelin.” The poem was originally part of a collection of poems under the general title of Bells and Pomegranates, which recalls the hem of the garment worn be the High Priest when conducting his obligations in the Holy of Holies.
In the following annotated version of Robert Browning’s “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” words that imply an allusion to the sun and the solar symbolism in the poem are tagged with (S) and those recalling a motif in the Bible with (B).
THE PIED PIPER OF HAMELIN
Hamelin’s Town’s in Brunswick.
By famous Hanover city;
The river Weser, deep and wide,
Washes its wall on the southern side: (S)
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 cooks’ own ladles,
Split open the kegs of salted sprats,
Made nests inside men’s Sunday hats, (S)
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 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 the scraping of shoes on a mat?
“Anything like the sound of a rat
“Makes my soul go pit-a-pat!”
“Come in!” – the Major 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, (S)
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 smile went out and in:
There was no guessing his kith and kin: (B)
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, (B)
“Had walked his way from his painted tombstone!”
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, (S)
“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. (S)
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,
Last June, from his huge swarm of gnats,
“I eased in Asia the Nizam
“Of a monstrous brood of vampire-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.
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 musician adept,
To blow his 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 into a grumbling;
And the grumbling grew into a mighty rumbling;
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 prickling whiskers,
Families by tens and dozens,
Brothers, sisters, husbands, wives,, -
Followed the Piper for their lives
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, as 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,
“Into a cider-press’s gripe.
“And a moving away of pickle-tub-boards,
“And a leaving ajar of conserve=cupboards,
“And a drawing of corks of trainoil-flasks,
“And a breaking of 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,
Breakfast, supper, dinner, luncheon!”
“And just as a bulky sugar-puncheon,
All ready staved, like a great sun shone (S)
“Glorious scarce an inch before me,
“Just as methought it said, ‘Come bore me!”
• I found the Weser rolling o’er me.”
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!”
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 the sum to a wandering fellow (B)
With a gypsy coat of red and yellow.
“Beside,” said 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. (B)
“So, friend, we’re not the folks to shrink
“From the duty of giving you something to drink,
“And a matter of money to put in your poke:
“But as for the guilders, what we spoke
“Of them, as you well know, was in joke:
“Beside, our losses have made us thrifty,
“A thousand guilders! Come, take fifty!”
The Piper’s face fell, and he cried,
“No trifling! I can’t wait, beside!
“I’ve promised to visit by dinner-time
“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 (B)
“May find me pipe after a different fashion.”
“How!” cried the Mayor, “d’ye think I brook
“Being worse treated than a Cook?
“Insulted by a lazy ribald
“With an idle pipe and vesture piebald?
“You threaten us, fellow? Do your worst,
“Blow your pipe there till you burst!”
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 (B)
Soft notes as yet musician’s cunning
Never gave the enraptured air
There was a rustling that seemed like a bustling
Of merry crowds jostling 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, run merrily after
The wonderful music with shouting and laughter.
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,
- 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 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! (B)
“He’s forced to let his 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.
Did I say all! No! One was lame,
And could not dance the whole of the way;
Andin 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. (B)
“For he led us, he said, to a joyous land (B)
“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.!”
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
As the needle’s eye takes the camel in! (B)
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’s 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 for ever,
They made a decree that lawyers never
Should think their records dated duly
If, after the day of the month and the 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 the memory to fix
The place of the children’s last retreat,
They called it, the Pied Piper’s Street-
Where any one playing a pipe or a tabor,
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 a story on a column,
And on the great church-window painted
The same, to make the world acquainted
How the 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
The outlandish ways and dress
On which their neighbours lay such stress,
To their fathers and mothers having risen (S & B)
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 and why, they don’t understand.
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. (B)
The Pied Piper in the focus of video material concerned with the theme from various angles
One of the most intriguing legends in the world is that of the Pied Piper of the Hamelin. Does this have a basis in some historical event? The material presented by the video recordings below may prove of interest to those who seek connections between legends, history, literature and psychology.
A –A lecture which surveys the connections to which I have just referred.
B. An analysis of a picture by Augustin von Moesperg dating from 1592 that depicts the abduction of Hamline’s children
C. A documentary on the Pied Pied Theme in German
D. A poem based on an interpretation of Robert Browning’s “The Pied Piper of Hamelin”
A study of “How they brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix”
Allusive references to the Pied Piper in “Fern Hill” by Dylan Thomas