Whose bicentenary was on 7th May this very year?
Robert Browning, no less. Perhaps you already knew. The significance of the year and date escaped me completely. It was mere coincidence (or happy synchronicity) that led me to putting The Pied Piper of Hamelin into a tiny pamphlet in September. In fact, it’s not even in the shop yet but it does exist, trust me.
I don’t know when poetry for children (apart from nursery rhymes) first appeared, but the Pied Piper, in 1842, must surely be one of the earliest manifestations. Heinrich Hoffmann’s Der Struwwelpeter wasn’t printed until 1845, three whole years after the Pied Piper had piped the children into the mountainside, and though both tales are set in Germany, I doubt the German psychiatrist Hoffmann was remotely aware of the aspiring poet/playwright Robert Browning.
In fact, when Browning penned his children’s epic, he was a mere thirty years old, unmarried, living with his parents, a poet who hoped to write for the theatre. He was ambitious but he was certainly far from successful. His main reputation up to that point was for obscurity. His marathon poem Sordello, had been published in 1840 (at his father’s expense) by the same publisher who was bringing out the works of a then little-known contemporary, three years his senior, Alfred Tennyson. (Tennyson didn’t make the leap to celebrity status until 1842; and Elizabeth Barrett’s 1844 volume Poems, the book that would change Browning’s life forever, was still a twinkle in the author’s eye.)
Poets are not always nice to each other. Tennyson said he understood two lines of Sordello only, the first and the last, and both (since one claimed it was going to tell the story of Sordello and the other claimed the story had been told) were lies. William Macready, the leading actor (and friend) whom Browning very much wanted to impress, noted in his diary for 17 June, 1840: “After dinner tried – another attempt – utterly desperate – on Sordello; it is not readable.” How one’s heart goes out to Macready! But at least he reserved his comments for his personal diary, and the friendship survived. (Clyde de L. Ryals calls it a “wonderful, zany poem”, by the way — perhaps Browning was just somewhat ahead of his time. John Lucas’s excellent Student Guide to Robert Browning observes drily that Ezra Pound “claimed to understand it, although he never explained his explanation”.)
But enough of Sordello. Browning had had good friends and he valued them. When William Macready’s oldest son fell ill and was confined to bed, he wrote him a story for entertainment purposes. It was a story in verse: The Pied Piper of Hamelin, and he suggested the boy might like to illustrate it. The author wasn’t preoccupied with penning Great Poetry. Perhaps that’s why the Pied Piper leaps off the page so delightfully:
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.
Oh boy, what a rhymer! What a man of metre! What fun he was having!
The year before Browning’s death, the Pied Piper appeared in an edition illustrated beautifully by Kate Greenaway and, although I don’t possess a copy, I think this may have been the version I first read, perhaps my first dose of Browning. With or without illustration, the poem has unparalleled bounce, a quality not often associated with long poems. And it shows Browning’s joy in unreasonable rhyme, something he showed off at dinner parties, apparently, to the end of his days. Who else would rhyme “painted tombstone” with “the Trump of Doom’s tone”? It’s a joke, of course, and some of this no doubt baffled the young Macready. Other bits though must have been a joy, such as the voice of the surviving rat: “So munch on, crunch on, take your nuncheon, /Breakfast, supper, dinner, luncheon”. Such fragments can follow one through life, long after much else is lost.
The HappenStance version of The Pied Piper of Hamelin has a number of rats scattered through its pages, though not in the Kate Greenaway style. They are what poet Frank Wood (his first pamphlet will imminently issued by HappenStance in Racing the Stable Clock) calls “racing rodents”. He likes them so much he wants those rats for his pamphlet too. . . .
In the 1870s, by which time he had outlived Elizabeth by decades, Browning had a pet owl called Bob, which sat either on a bust beside his desk or on his shoulder when he wrote. This is recorded in an anonymous article titled ‘Celebrities at Home’ in The World (1880). A pet owl called Bob. A brown owl.
The great Robert Browning had a sense of humour. Never let that be forgotten.