Get Your Premium Membership

Robert Browning’s “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” viewed as the result of the sublimation of “The Dance of Death”

by Julian Scutts

If we understand sublimation as the process whereby the mind converts the stuff of traumas, nightmares, and thoughts of death and horror into obverse appreciations of things acceptable and pleasant, then Robert Browning's poem "The Pied Piper of Hamelin" must be one of the most successful completion of this process -so much so that few, even  learned scholars, discern the profound and possibly disturbing realities that underlie the poem.


In German the term Leseratte (combining the words meaning “read” and “rat”) is a vibrant synonym for any avid reader of books. Should it be that a rodent had the ability to read, I would not advise this creature to read Robert Browning’s  “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” notwithstanding the fact that this poem is taken by most people to be a jaunty and light-hearted ditty.  Not being rats, we might seek confirmation for the belief that poem has no unpleasant connotations  in the poem’s apparently innocent subtitle “A  Child’s Story.” Indeed, a noted literary scholar Milton Millhauser, once referred to the ”innocent” nature of Browning’s subject matter. [1] An examination of the evolution of the Pied Piper legend does not bear out Millhauser’s evaluation.

     The earliest sources of the legend make no mention of rats but darkly report that a hundred and thirty children born in Hamelin were “lost” at a place called Calvary. [2] During the sixteenth century such sinister undertones yielded to the outright declaration that the Pied Piper was the Devil. It is now that rats enter the scene, and rats were known to be the carriers of plague and deadly contamination. Research has shown that the legend merged with the motif of the Dance of Death, giving room to the conjecture of a doctor that the lurid colors of the Piper’s coat were those of skin discolorations on the bodies of those stricken by pestilence. [3] The pervasive influence of the Pied Piper legend in association with the Dance of Death might even have made its presence felt in Richard the Third, an expert in Shakespeare studies has suggested.[4] Such facts could only be relevant to a discussion of Browning’s poem to the extent that one establishes that Browning himself was acquainted with them.

      There is in fact evidence that suggests that Browning was aware of the darker side of the legend’s import. According to Arthur Dixon Browning had read a passage in Prosper Mérimée’s novel Chronique du temps de Charles IX in which a gypsy girl recounts the tale of the Pied Piper to mercenary soldiers on their way to Paris just before the massacre of Protestants on the Eve of Saint Bartholomew. [5] The story of the Pied Piper clearly identified as the Devil proves to be a portent of the massacre. According to Dixon Browning was acquainted with a negative representation of the Pied Piper in one of the early  documentary sources of the legend.[6]

     I base evidence pointing to  Browning’s recognition of the negative aspect of the Pied Piper story  on a consideration of Browning’s earliest  poetic works and  subtle implications of the wording of “The Pied Piper of Hamelin.” When still a youth, Browning composed  juvenilia works in a collection that bore the title “Incondita.” Presumably, to shield himself from adverse criticism, he decided to destroy all traces of his earliest poetry, but he did not fully succeed in this attempt, as two poems survived his drastic act of self-censorship. They bore the titles “The Dance of Death” and “The First-Born of Egypt.” These are cited below.

     “The Dance of Death” is the more horrific of these poems. It is composed of monologues delivered by ghoulish personifications of Death, Fever, Pestilence, Ague, Madness, and Consumption, who vie for the title of being the grisliest purveyor of death and destruction. The ghastliness of Browning’s dark vision is tempered in “The First-Born of Egypt” only by an empathetic description of a father’s feelings for his departed son in lines which Eliza Sarah Flower Adams, an acquaintance of Browning, commended for their poetic quality. [7]

     Did no more than a youth’s immature obsession with his gruesome subject matter give rise to these poems? Did some external prompt also play a role in this matter? After all, “The First-Born of Egypt” takes  its cue from the Book of Exodus, and yet does not quite conform  to the spirit of orthodox exposition of the kind that typified a household in which Browning’s devout mother, an adherent of strict evangelical views,  wielded a dominant influence, for in the poem we note an element of resentment against the extreme severity and perceived injustice of divine chastisement.

      I now introduce an item of biographic information often overlooked in the domain of Browning scholarship. Browning, when a boy of fourteen,  received tuition in music and singing from Isaac Nathan, the same person who prompted Lord Byron to compose the Hebrew Melodies.[8] In this “The Destruction of Sennacherib” graphically portrays an act of the divine vengeance in the form of the plague that destroyed the invading Assyrian army under the leadership of Sennacherib. There are also strikingly similar  linguistic features that signal possible connections between Byron’s poem and the two surviving poems that formed a part of “Incondita.” In the three poems under consideration, we find much the same contrast of the colors gold and purple. The First-Born of Egypt” and “The Destruction of Sennacherib”  end on a similar note of awe and dread at the contemplation of the destructive power of the God of Israel.

     The case I present rests on more than a reflection on one poem written by Lord Byron. In the second section entitled “Byronic Lyrics for David’s Harp” of his monograph Byron’s Hebrew Melodies, Thomas L. Ashton refers to “Herod’s Lament to Mariamne” as the precursor of Robert Browning’s “Porphyria’s Lover,” later joined by “Johannes Agricola in Meditation” under the title “Madhouse Cells I and II.” [9] Ashton detects an affinity between “Herod’s Lament  to Mariamna” and “Madhouse Cells” on the basis a  common concern to reveal the distraught mentalities of those who kill a loved one.

     Similarities are not confined to items of subject for they  also, and perhaps more importantly, evince cognate  modes of presentation. Byron was a pioneer in the creation of the dramatic monologue, a genre which Browning further developed and perfected. Scholarship has focused on Browning’s adulation of Shelley as guide and source of inspiration, but Shelley’s poetry left no residual traces in Browning’s work that compare with the aftermath of Byron’s influence. Browning disavowed Shelleyan idealism in Pauline and developed his own strain of prophetic Biblicism combined with a  mode of realism that combined evolutionary change with a high esteem of the virtue he ascribed to “the imperfect” both in art and life. Ideals still had their place but only as providers of motivation and the impetus to move forward, to progress.

     Browning never became a great dramatist despite his ambition to become such in his earlier years. The Willy apostrophized at the end of “The Pied Piper of Hamelin”  was the son of William Macready, a noted theatre manager,  and the admonition to keep promises was probably a message to William Macready Senior, not to his son. The composition of ”The Pied Piper of Hamelin”  marked Browning’s  entry into the realm of popular verse, a welcome event in view of  Browning’s former reputation as an obscure and self-absorbed writer, particularly  after the mixed reception of the long poem Sordello. Most of all, his success  lay in transforming the Pied Piper as the leader of the Dance of Death into a savior-artist figure. In conformity with this introversion Calvary was no longer the gate of Hell as seen in the Middle Ages but the opening to freedom and new life. See arguments for this proposition in  another essay.[10]



The First-Born of Egypt

by Robert Browning

That night came on in Egypt with a step
So calmly stealing in the gorgeous train
Of sunset glories flooding the pale clouds
With liquid gold, until at length the glow
Sank to its shadowy impulse and soft sleep
Bent o'er the world to curtain it from life—
Vitality was hushed beneath her wing—
Pomp sought his couch of purple—care-worn grief
Flung slumber's mantle o'er him. At that hour
He in whose brain the burning fever fiend
Held revelry—his hot cheek turned awhile
Upon the cooler pillow. In his cell
The captive wrapped him in his squalid rags,
And sank amid his straw. Circean sleep!
Bathed in thine opiate dew, false hope vacates
Her seat in the sick soul, leaving awhile
Her dreamy fond imaginings—pale fear
His wild misgivings, and the warm life-springs
Flow in their wonted channels—and the train—
The harpy train of care, forsakes the heart.

Was it the passing sigh of the night wind
Or some lorn spirit's wail—that moaning cry
That struck the ear?—'tis hushed—no! it swells on
On—as the thunder peal when it essays
To wreck the summer sky—that fearful shriek
Still it increases—'tis the dolorous plaint,
The death cry of a nation—

It was a fearful thing—that hour of night—
I have seen many climes, but that dread hour
Hath left its burning impress on my soul
Never to be erased. Not the loud crash
When the shuddering forest swings to the red bolt,
Or march of the fell earthquake when it whelms
A city in its yawning gulf, could quell
That deep voice of despair. Pharaoh arose
Startled from slumber, and in anger sought
The reason of the mighty rushing throng
At that dark hour around the palace gates,
—And then he dashed his golden crown away
And tore his hair in frenzy when he knew
That Egypt's heir was dead—From every house,
The marbled mansion of regality
To the damp dungeon's walls—gay pleasure's seat
And poverty's bare hut, that cry was heard,
As guided by the Seraph's vengeful arm
The hand of death held on its withering course,
Blighting the hopes of thousands.

I sought the street to gaze upon the grief
Of congregated Egypt—there the slave
Stood by him late his master, for that hour
Made vain the world's distinctions—for could wealth
Or power arrest the woe?—Some were blue
As sculptured marble from the quarry late
Of whom the foot first in the floating dance,
The glowing cheek hued with the deepening flush
In the night revel—told the young and gay.
No kindly moisture dewed their stony eye,
Or damped their ghastly glare—for they felt not.
The chain of torpor bound around the heart
Had stifled it for ever. Tears stole down
The furrowed channels of those withered cheeks
Whose fount had long been chilled, but that night's term
Had loosed the springs—for 'twas a fearful thing
To see a nation's hope so blasted. One
Pressed his dead child unto his heart—no spot
Of livid plague was nigh—no purple cloud
Of scathing fever—and he struck his brow
To rouse himself from that wild fantasy
Deeming it but a vision of the night.
I marked one old man with his only son
Lifeless within his arms—his withered hand
Wandering o'er the features of his child
Bidding him wake from that long dreary sleep,
And lead his old blind father from the crowd
To the green meadows—but he answered not; [11]
And then the terrible truth flashed on his brain,
And when the throng rolled on some bade him rise
And cling not so unto the dead one there,
Nor voice nor look made answer—he was gone.
But one thought chained the powers of each mind
Amid that night's felt horror—each one owned
In silence the dread majesty—the might
Of Israel's God, whose red hand had avenged
His servants' cause so fearfully—


The Dance of Death

by Robert Browning


Bow to me, bow to me;
Follow me in my burning breath,
Which brings as the simoom destruction and death.
My spirit lives in the hectic glow
When I bid the life streams tainted flow
In the fervid sun's deep brooding beam
When seething vapours in volumes steam,
And they fall — the young, the gay — as the flower
'Neath the fiery wind's destructive power.
This day I have gotten a noble prize —
There was one who saw the morning rise,
And watched fair Cynthia's golden streak
Kiss the misty mountain peak,
But I was there, and my poisonous flood
Envenomed the gush of the youth's warm blood.
They hastily bore him to his bed,
But o'er him Death his swart pennons spread:

The skilled leech's art was vain,
Delirium revelled in each vein.
I marked each deathly change in him;
I watched each lustrous eye grow dim,
The purple cloud on his deep swollen brow,
The gathering death sweat's chilly flow,
The dull dense film obscure the eye,
Heard the last quick gasp and saw him die.





My spirit has passed on the lightning's wing
O'er city and land with its withering;
In the crowded street, in the flashing hall
My tramp has been heard: they are lonely all.
A nation has swept at my summons away
As mists before the glare of day.
See how proudly reigns my hand
In the blackening heaps on the surf-beat strand
Where the rank grass grows in deserted streets
Where the terrified stranger no passer meets
And all around the putrid air
Gleams lurid and red in Erinyes' stare
Where silence reigns, where late swelled the lute,
Thrilling lyre, mellifluous flute.
There if my prowess ye would know
Seek ye — and bow to your rival low.


Bow to me, bow to me;
My influence is in the freezing deeps
Where the icy power of torpor sleeps,
Where the frigid waters flow
My marble chair is more cold below;
When the Grecian braved the Hellespont's flood
How did I curdle his fevered blood,
And sent his love in tumescent wave
To meet with her lover an early grave.
When Hellas' victor sought the rush
Of the river to lave in its cooling gush,
Did he not feel my iron clutch
When he fainted and sank at my algid touch?
These are the least of the trophies I claim —
Bow to me then, and own my fame.



Hear ye not the gloomy yelling
Or the tide of anguish swelling,
Hear ye the clank of fetter and chain,
Hear ye the wild cry of grief and pain,
Followed by the shuddering laugh
As when fiends the life-blood quaff?
See! see that band,
See how their bursting eyeballs gleam,
As the crocodiles' when crouched in the stream,
In India's sultry land.
Now they are seized in the rabies fell,
Hark! 'tis a shriek as from fiends of hell;
Now there is a plaining moan,
As the flow of the sullen river —
List! there is a hollow groan.
Doth it not make e'en you to shiver —
These are they struck of the barbs of my quiver.
Slaves before my haughty throne,
Bow then, bow to me alone.



'Tis for me, 'tis for me;
Mine the prize of Death must be;
My spirit is o'er the young and gay
As on snowy wreaths in the bright noonday.
They wear a melting and vermeille flush
E'en while I bid their pulses hush,
Hueing o'er their dying brow
With the spring of health's best roseate glow
When the lover watches the full dark eye
Robed in tints of ianthine dye,
Beaming eloquent as to declare
The passions that deepen the glories there.
The frost in its tide of dazzling whiteness,
As Juno's brow of crystal brightness,
Such as the Grecian's hand could give
When he bade the sculptured marble " live,"
The ruby suffusing the Hebe cheek,
The pulses that love and pleasure speak
Can his fond heart claim but another day,
And the loathsome worm on her form shall prey.
She is scathed as the tender flower,
When mildews o'er its chalice lour.
Tell me not of her balmy breath,
Its tide shall be shut in the fold of death;
Tell me not of her honied lip,
The reptile's fangs shall its fragrance sip.
Then will I say triumphantly
Bow to the deadliest — bow to me!


[1]  Milton Millhauser, "Poet and Burgher: A Comic Variation on a Serious Theme," Victorian Poetry, 7 (1969), I63-168. 

[2][2] The earliest known account of the Pied Piper incident can be translated from the Low German as: “In the year 1284 on the day of John and Paul, the 26th of June, 130 children born in Hamelin were led away by a piper dressed in many-coloured clothes to Calvary close to the Koppen and were there lost. “


[3]  D. Wolfers, "A Plaguey Piper," The Lancet, April 3 1965, 756-757.


[4] A. P. Rossiter interprets Shakespeare's Richard III in the light of  the Pied Piper's associations with the medieval Dance of Death tradition. See: "Angel with Horns: The Unity of Richard lll," in Shakespeare: The Histories, ed. Eugene M. Wraith (New York: Prentice Hall, 1965 ) 77. The following quotation illuminates this point,:."the tune of the Dance of death  to which all dance to damnation is played by Margaret: and one aspect of the play is our watching the rats go into the Weser, compelled by that fatal tune."


[5]  Arthur Dixon, ”Browning’s Source for The Pied Piper of Hamelin.” Studies in Philology, Vol. XXIII, July 1926, No, 3,


[6]   Arthur Dixon, ”Browning’s Source for The Pied Piper of Hamelin.” Studies in Philology, Vol. XXIII, July 1926, No, 3,


[7]  See discussion of this comment in: Ian Jack, Browning’s Major Poetry (London,1973), 10


[8] Nathan Herbert E. Greene, ‘Browning’s Knowledge of Music,” PLMA, 62 (1947) 1095-1099.

[9] Thomas L. Ashton, Byron’s Hebrew Melodies, Austin (University of Texas Press) 1972.


[11] The lines in yellow highlighting received a favorable comment from Eliza Sarah Flower Adams, a friend and confidante of Browning in his teenage years. Incidentally, it was she who composed the hymn “Nearer my God to Thee.”