"The Pied Piper of Hamelin: A Child's Story" is a narrative poem by the British poet Robert Browning. It first appeared in print as part of the anthology of Browning's works Dramatic Lyrics that was published privately in 1842. The poem has appeared in numerous other anthologies since then. It has also been published in slim volumes on its own on more than one occasion, usually as a children's picture book. The 1888 edition with illustrations by the British artist and children's author Kate Greenaway is one notable example.
The action takes place in the town of Hamelin in Germany in the 14th century. The town is suffering from a serious rat infestation. A mysterious stranger in colorful clothes, known as the Pied Piper, says that he can solve the town's rat problem. He says that he can cast a spell over rats by playing his flute. The mayor promises to pay the Piper handsomely if he rids the town of the rats. When the Piper gets rid of the vermin, however, the mayor offers him much less money than he originally agreed to give him. The angry Piper plays his flute again and makes all of Hamelin's children follow him out of town.
The poem is based on a German legend. The earliest known written version of the story in English appears in the 1605 book A Restitution of Decayed Intelligence in Antiquities concerning the most noble and renowned English Nation by Richard Verstegan. Before Browning, the famous German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote a poem about the Pied Piper in 1803. The legend is also referred to in the first part of Goethe's play Faust, which was first published in 1808. The Brothers Grimm include a version of the Pied Piper story, drawn from eleven different sources, in their 1816-1818 work Deutsche Sagen (German Legends). The legend may have been inspired by real events. The records of the town of Hamelin begin in the year 1384 with the words, "it has been 100 years since the children left." Many modern historians, however, think that the term "children of the town" originally just meant "people of the town" and that the legend originated when landless serfs from Hamelin left to start new colonies in sparsely populated areas of Eastern Europe.
In the year 1376, the German town of Hamelin is overrun by rats. The townspeople go to the mayor and demand that something be done about the problem. The mayor calls a meeting with the other important people of the town. They sit in silence for an hour because none of them have any idea what to do,
A man comes to the door. He is tall and thin. He has bright blue eyes and very fair hair, although his skin is somewhat dark. He is wearing a strange long coat that is half yellow and half red. He says that he is known as the Pied Piper and that, by playing his flute, he is able to cast spells over animals of all kinds. He says that he normally uses his powers to rid people of animals that cause them harm and that powerful rulers in far away lands are satisfied customers of his pest control services. The Pied Piper states that he will rid Hamelin of its rats for a fee of a thousand guilders. The mayor says that he will happily pay the man fifty thousand guilders if he can do what he claims.
The Piper immediately goes out into the street and starts to play his pipe. All of the rats in the town start to pour out of the houses and into the the street. All of the rats follow the Piper to the river. They all jump in and almost all of them drown. One rat, described as being as brave as Julius Caesar, manages to swim across the river and return home to Rat-land. There he tells the other rats that the Piper's music caused him to see visions of the most delicious food imaginable.
The people of Hamelin are delighted that the rats are gone. When the Piper asks to be paid his thousand guilders, however, the mayor says that he cannot afford to pay that much and offers the man fifty guilders instead. The disappointed Piper says that a cook in Baghdad promised him some soup the most precious thing he could possibly offer, for ridding his kitchen of scorpions. The Piper warns the mayor that he can take his revenge on people who anger him by playing his pipe "after another fashion." The mayor is insulted at being compared to a cook and tells the Piper to do his worst.
The Piper immediately starts to play again. All of the children of the town run out into the street. The mayor and the other important people stand and watch powerlessly as the children begin following the Piper out of town. The people of Hamelin are relieved to see that, instead of going to the river, the Piper leads the children to the Koppelberg mountain. The people of Hamelin are certain that the Piper will never be able to go over the top of the mountain and that they will be able to get their children back. They are horrified when a door magically opens in the mountain. The Piper and the children go inside the mountain and the door shuts fast behind them.
Only one child is left in Hamelin. He is lame and was unable to keep up with the Piper and the other children. The lame boy says that the Piper's music spoke to him of a marvelous land where there are fruit trees, brightly colored flowers, brightly colored birds and amazing animals, including winged horses and bees that cannot sting. The boy adds that, just before he found himself alone outside the mountain, he was told that his lame foot would be cured in the fabulous land to which he was going.
The mayor sends out people to look for the Piper and offer him as much silver and gold as he wants if he will only bring back the children. The Piper, however, cannot be found. It is ordered that all official documents written in Hamelin must begin by saying how long it has been since the children disappeared. A monument is put up to the lost children and a stained glass window in the church tells their story. The name of the street in the town where the children were last seen is changed to Pied Piper Street. No music is ever played in that street and no places of entertainment are ever allowed to open there.
Before concluding the poem, the narrator gives some indication as to what happened to the children. There are some people in Transylvania whose clothes and customs are very different from those of their neighbors. They say that is because their ancestors originally came from Hamelin in Germany and spent many years imprisoned underground, for unknown reasons, before they were eventually released.
The narrator concludes the poem by saying that it is important to pay debts and that people should always be paid the exact amount they have been promised.
- The word pied means "decorated or colored in blotches".