The nineteenth century in England is also referred to as the Victorian Period because of Queen Victoria’s lengthy reign (1837-1901). This time was marked by the Industrial Revolution’s effects on the economy, politics, and social perspectives.
The expansion of industry benefited England’s economy. In the middle of the period, England emerged as the most forward-thinking industrial nation in the world. The Victorian era also saw the growth of political liberalism and democracy, ensuring that everyone in England had access to and opportunity to exercise their constitutional rights. In the social sphere, we could observe the growing and solidifying power of the industrial workers who fought for justice over the years. In addition to the workers, the middle class was advancing. The most influential people in the Victorian era were traders and industrialists. Additionally, new miracles were unveiled by science, such as the development of electricity, which benefited human endeavours. Charles Darwin’s (1809–1882) research, which was presented in “The Origin of Species.” yielded some of the most exciting findings. People’s perspectives on everything in the world have changed as a result of the biological evolution theory. The Victorian era was referred to as the prose era in literature. Excellent poems were also produced, but the problems of the time encouraged more people to write prose than poetry. One aspect that set Victorian poetry apart from Romantic poetry was the reduction of spontaneous lyrics. A more sombre tone that was mainly reflective, critical, and questioning took its place. Poems from the Victorian era mainly addressed social issues, science, and religion.
Summary of The Cry of the Children
The celebrated poet and social activist, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, penned the stirring work, “The Cry of the Children,” during the Victorian era. This literary piece stands as a poignant critique of the child labour that plagued the Industrial Revolution. The poem’s narrator paints a harrowing picture of the plight of young workers, detailing the exhaustion and suffering they experience as they toil away for long hours in perilous environments, far removed from the warmth and comfort of their loved ones.
The speaker’s descriptions of the young labourers’ pain are accentuated by the contrast between their lot and that of their youthful counterparts in nature, such as lambs, birds, fawns, and flowers, who frolic and revel in the joys of youth. Amidst their despair, the children question whether anyone cares for their welfare, their disillusionment leading them to express their preference for death over continued suffering.
The speaker passionately implores the reader to heed the anguished cries of these vulnerable souls and take action to alleviate their suffering. A call to prayer is issued in the poem’s final lines, inviting the afflicted children to seek solace and hope in God.
In the opening stanza, the narrator sets the sombre tone by asking the reader to listen for the weeping of children, held close by their mothers. The tears of these young ones are contrasted with the idyllic existence of other creatures in nature, which only serves to highlight the tragedy of their circumstance.
The following stanzas draw attention to the severity of the children’s woes, contrasting the sorrow of the old, who lament their past, with the overwhelming misery that consumes the young. The children’s struggle is depicted as an almost insurmountable one, with their world viewed as dreary, and their strength and resilience all but sapped. Death is portrayed as a welcome escape from their suffering.
Despite being invited to leave their drudgery and experience the joys of life, the children are resigned to their fate, refusing to embrace a different reality. The speaker underscores the harsh reality of their existence, where their world is one of coal mines and factories, and the simple pleasures of life are beyond their reach.
The narrator laments the children’s loss of humanity, as they are swallowed up by the machinery that surrounds them. A poignant moment of connection is then described, where the children share a rare moment of silence, allowing them to connect with each other and rediscover their own humanity.
The poem’s compelling message is clear: social justice must prevail, and the weakest and most vulnerable members of society must not be sacrificed in the pursuit of progress. Through the children’s voices, Elizabeth Barrett Browning shines a light on the horrors of child labour, issuing a passionate plea for a better world for all.
Full Summary of The Cry of the Children
The poem, “The Cry of the Children” (1841), was written in protest of industrialists who employed children as industrial workers. In this poem, the poet uses dramatic monologues to express the situation of children who work in factories and mines. The development of industry in England resulted in the establishment of new factories and mines that required labour. They required the completion of some simple tasks that could only be performed by children. The fact that the population increased during the Industrial Revolution drove citizens into poverty and starvation. As a result, the number of children working in England increased as a result of industrialization. These children may be underpaid and required to work long hours. The first four lines of The Cry of the Children focus on the children’s weeping. Elizabeth’s use of the word “brothers” could refer to the men in power at the time this is happening. Those children can still lean against their mothers while crying, but they can’t stop their tears because their mothers can’t either. Poverty and hunger forced their mothers to keep their children working in mines and factories.
Do ye hear the children weeping, O my brothers,
Ere the sorrow comes with years?
They are leaning their young heads against their mothers, —
And that cannot stop their tears.
Elizabeth emphasises the children’s suffering by drawing comparisons to animals. Those animals, like the lambs in the meadows and the birds in the nest, are free and happy where they belong. The young fawns even freely play with their shadows. However, young children, who are valued more than animals or flowers, are suffering. They are crying when they should be playing freely and happily with others. Elizabeth even added the phrase “country of the free” as a sarcastic reference to her own country. England’s ideology claims to be a free country, while its children are being deprived of their childhood rights.
The young lambs are bleating in the meadows ;
The young birds are chirping in the nest ;
The young fawns are playing with the shadows ;
The young flowers are blowing toward the west—
But the young, young children, O my brothers,
They are weeping bitterly!
They are weeping in the playtime of the others,
In the country of the free.
In the next stanza, Elizabeth wants to know why the young children are sad. Most of the time, old men are sad because they gave up on the future a long time ago. But why are those young children already sad?
Do you question the young children in the sorrow,
Why their tears are falling so?
The old man may weep for his to-morrow
Which is lost in Long Ago —
Children began working in industrial areas on average when they were eight years old. The majority of them started out as piecers, standing at spinning machines repairing thread breaks. Some began as scavengers, crawling beneath the machinery to clear it of dirt, dust, or anything else that might cause the mechanism to malfunction. Children usually started out in the mines by watching over the trap doors, picking out coals at the pit mouth, or carrying picks for the miners. Those children were working for very little pay, doing dirty and dangerous work, and usually working very long hours.
Elizabeth describes how the struggle of those children causes their pale faces to sunken. It’s heartbreaking to see because the children’s faces should be happy and bright. The poem makes it appear as if the children are explaining why they are sad.
“Your old earth,” they say, “is very dreary;”
“Our young feet,” they say, “are very weak !”
The reason for their sad and sunken faces is that those children believe the earth is too bleak for their young feet. It’s because they’re tired of going hungry and working in mines and factories. But it is the elderly who should explain why the children are crying because they are the ones with power in such matters.
The fourth stanza touches the readers’ hearts. It begins with the statement that it is true that those children may die before their time. It is possible because child labour in the Victorian era was associated with dreadful working conditions, particularly in coal mines. It was dark in the mines, making it difficult to see, and this condition could cause permanent vision problems due to the constant strain on the eyes of the children’s workers, who were still growing. Coal dust was thick in the air due to a lack of proper ventilation. Given that Victorian-era children worked 12 to 18 hours a day, it is understandable that respiratory problems could arise in their small bodies. The other issue was rat infestation or permanent spine deformation from constantly walking stooped over for children who worked in mine pits. Due to a lack of safety awareness in the mines, explosions were still the most common fear. These could be the causes of children’s premature death.
“True,” say the children, “it may happen
That we die before our time!
Little Alice died last year her grave is shapen
Like a snowball, in the rime.
We looked into the pit prepared to take her —
Was no room for any work in the close clay :
From the sleep wherein she lieth none will wake her,
Crying, ‘Get up, little Alice! it is day.’
If you listen by that grave, in sun and shower,
With your ear down, little Alice never cries ;
Could we see her face, be sure we should not know her,
For the smile has time for growing in her eyes,—
And merry go her moments, lulled and stilled in
The shroud, by the kirk-chime!
Elizabeth uses the name ‘Alice’ because it was a popular girl’s name during the Victorian era. She speaks of Alice, who died in the pit where she works as a mine worker. There is no room for anyone else to enter the pit and remove her body. But her friends, the other kids who work there, look at her as if she’s sleeping. They can even see the smiles growing in Alice’s eyes as she finally finds joy in her death. Life is too tiring and harsh for Alice and the other children. Her death is the best way for her to be free of all of her sufferings as a mine worker. As a result, the children believe that dying at a young age is beneficial to them.
It is good when it happens,” say the children,
“That we die before our time !”
The very next stanza returns to Elizabeth’s response to hearing the children’s confession. She regards them as filthy as the children. Then she orders the children to leave the mines and the city. They should leave the city and live in the countryside, where they can play and sing in the meadows.
Go out, children, from the mine and from the city —
Sing out, children, as the little thrushes do —
Pluck you handfuls of the meadow-cowslips pretty
Laugh aloud, to feel your fingers let them through!
Unfortunately, the children whose no hope, answered;
“For oh,” say the children, “we are weary,
And we cannot run or leap —
If we cared for any meadows, it were merely
To drop down in them and sleep.
Working in mines and factories in a harsh environment hardens the hearts of young children to the point where optimism is an alien feeling to them.
The very next stanza describes the tumultuous turning wheels of industrialization that can be attributed to children’s crying.
“For all day, the wheels are droning, turning, —
Their wind comes in our faces, —
Till our hearts turn, — our heads, with pulses burning,
During the Victorian era, factory and mill owners saw children as cheap and efficient labourers. They were paid far less than adults, and little girls were even less. Some jobs would be performed as well as or better by children than adults due to their size and youthful energy. Children had no rights in the factories. Children were assigned the dirtiest jobs, such as cleaning the wheels or machines. They were instructed to clean beneath the machines while they were still running. Because there was no safety in the factories at the time, workers were frequently injured or killed. Children would normally work in factories from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m., Monday through Saturday. They would be beaten or fined if they fell asleep, made a mistake, or were late.
The children describe their experiences as factory workers. The wheels drone and turn all day, and the wind hits their faces. They are exhausted to the point where their heads burn. But the children could only hope that the wheel would stop for a day so they could rest or play outside with others.
And sometimes we could pray,
‘O ye wheels,’ (breaking out in a mad moaning)
‘Stop ! be silent for to-day! ‘ “
In the next stanza, Elizabeth encourages them to pray and believe in God. But the harsh conditions under which those children are forced to work and live without peace are so deplorable that they lose any faith they may have had in God.
Now tell the poor young children, O my brothers,
To look up to Him and pray —
So the blessed One, who blesseth all the others,
Will bless them another day.
They answer, ” Who is God that He should hear us,
While the rushing of the iron wheels is stirred?
When we sob aloud, the human creatures near us
Pass by, hearing not, or answer not a word!
And we hear not (for the wheels in their resounding)
Strangers speaking at the door :
Is it likely God, with angels singing round Him,
Hears our weeping any more?
The children’s response shows that they no longer believe in God and do not expect a better life. Their desperation for religion reflects the ignorance that existed in the country at the time. The children pray to God but receive no relief other than the harsh life of labour. They even claim to be crying to those they see every day who wield power, but nothing has changed for the better. Those people can hear them but refuse to respond. The children reason that if those they encounter on a daily basis cannot acknowledge their tears, why should God, whom they never see,? How can God hear them when angels are singing all around Him?
We say softly for a charm.
We know no other words, except ‘Our Father,’
The lines stating that the children know no other words than “Our Father” demonstrate the lack of spiritual support. Because of their poverty, they were unable to attend school or church and instead worked as child labourers. It is difficult for them to regain their faith in God without spiritual support. On the other hand, the harsh conditions make it difficult for them to believe in God.
Stanza eleven still shows the children’s lack of faith in God;
“But, no !” say the children, weeping faster,
” He is speechless as a stone ;
And they tell us, of His image is the master
Who commands us to work on?
Go to ! ” say the children,—”up in Heaven,
Dark, wheel-like, turning clouds are all we find!
Do not mock us; grief has made us unbelieving —
We look up for God, but tears have made us blind.”
God, the children believe, is as speechless as a stone because He never responds to them. And their circumstances convinced them that their suffering and labour are God’s will. God permits their master to order the children to continue working in mines or factories. Even in heaven, the children believe they will encounter darkness, wheels, and turning clouds. They claim that their grief caused them to lose faith in God. They had actually prayed to God with tears, but all they received were tears, and too many tears had blinded them.
They are weary ere they run ;
They have never seen the sunshine, nor the glory
Which is brighter than the sun :
They know the grief of man, without its wisdom ;
They sink in the despair, without its calm —
Are slaves, without the liberty in Christendom, –
Elizabeth writes in the following stanza about how the children work such long hours in these industrial mines and factories. That is why they are tired of everything, so let them cry. Those children who work have never seen the sun or the glory because they are up before the sun to begin working and return home after it sets. Or it’s because they’re trapped in the coal mines in the dead of night. Elizabeth is attempting to emphasise the long hours that these children are forced to work. As a result, they lose their lives as children who should be free and able to shine. Although they are only children, their traumatic experiences have taught them “the grief of man.”
At the end of the poem, Elizabeth addresses the government;
“How long,” they say, “how long, O cruel nation,
Will you stand, to move the world, on a child’s heart, —
Stifle down with a mailed heel its palpitation,
And tread onward to your throne amid the mart?
Our blood splashes upward, O our tyrants,
And your purple shows your path ;
But the child’s sob curseth deeper in the silence
Than the strong man in his wrath !”
This is Elizabeth’s request to her country’s government to improve working conditions and save the lives of underprivileged children because children are a country’s future generation. Elizabeth uses dire words in her final lines in the hope that they will provide the impetus needed to spark social reform. Although children are the subject of this poem, Elizabeth is also referring to society as a whole, adults and children alike. Children’s labour is distinct, but it is also related to the working conditions that adults faced during the Victorian era. Elizabeth considers child labour to be a major sin as a result of industrialization. Because the children lacked power, poets such as Elizabeth Barret Browning may have used her literal works to express her feelings in order to protect them.
Analysis of The Cry of the Children
“The Cry of the Children” exemplifies not only Barrett Browning’s political poetry but also her overall work. It includes themes and images found throughout her work. The poem’s use of language, metre, and rhyme demonstrates her innovative poetics and distinct style.
It is troubling that Barrett Browning did not actually hear the cry of the children whose plight she so eloquently laments in her poem. After reading a report on child labour in mines and factories, she wrote “The Cry of the Children” She is a master of language, and she uses its emotional power to elicit outrage in her readers. The poem’s purpose and subject matter are both didactic and political. It is an expression of her own alienation and disdain for industrial society as seen through the eyes and feelings of factory children, who are portrayed as innocents betrayed and exploited by political and economic interests.
Throughout the poem, demonic images of a Factory Hell are juxtaposed with the Heaven of the English countryside, the inferno of industrialism juxtaposed with the bliss of a land-based society. The children are urged to flee the mine and city for the peace and quiet of the countryside. The industrial society’s grinding, droning mechanism destroys the promise and hope of human life. Barrett Browning was concerned about the fate of a society that profited from human life, and her poem concludes with an indictment of industrial society.
The reader is made to experience the dreariness of the factory inferno by Barrett Browning’s use of language, as she describes the harrowing reality of the “droning, turning” factory wheels, relentlessly grinding the children’s spirit and life as it moulds its goods. The factory is portrayed as a perversion of nature, a literal Hell characterised by the absence and corruption of nature. Instead of the world revolving around the sun, the sky turns—just as the wheels do. Barrett Browning’s use of words that end in “ing” and have long vowel sounds—”moaning,” “droning,” “turning,” and “burning”—evokes the monotony and despair of this terrible abyss of industry.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “The Cry of the Children,” sheds light on the cruelty of child labour that stained Britain’s hands during the nineteenth-century Industrial Revolution. As children were forced to work long hours in dangerous and deplorable conditions, parliamentary debates about child labour were taking place in the United Kingdom. Barrett Browning entered the conversation by using her medium to raise awareness of the social injustice to a wider audience, making the atrocities committed by child labourers feel deeply personal.
Barrett Browning strategically employs forceful speech, sentimentality, and religious critique to capture readers’ attention, and her stylistic techniques are carefully crafted to elicit the desired emotions in readers in order to raise awareness and achieve results. Barrett Browning makes her readers feel the cruelties of child labourers on a more personal level by bringing the plight of child labourers into the realm of the arts, thus amplifying the ongoing discussion.
Parliamentary reports revealed the children’s working conditions, and while they were not entirely objective, the facts demanded an artistic interpretation that highlighted the personal and emotional aspects of child labour. “The Condition and Treatment of the Children Employed in the Mines and Colliers of the United Kingdom.” is one such document. “the report’s findings shocked society and swiftly led to legislation to secure minimum safety standards in mines and factories, as well as general controls on the employment of children.” according to the findings of a three-year investigation.
“The Cry of the Children” begins with a quote from Euripides’ Medea, a Greek tragedy written over 2,000 years before, which says, “‘Pheu pheu, ti prosderkesthe m ommasin, tekna;’ [Alas, alas, why do you look at me with your eyes, my children?]”
Barrett Browning gets right to the point by beginning her poem with Medea’s phrase. Medea says these words before murdering her two children with a knife in the ancient play, demonstrating the pain and guilt of a mother on the verge of doing the unthinkable. Barrett Browning uses the phrase as a parallel to describe what mothers in the nineteenth century went through when they sent their own children to what often resulted in their death. Barrett Browning creates a sense of despair that those who are childless will not understand, and may not even feel, but for the mothers, the phrase may be a painful reminder and elicit a familiar emotion.
Barrett Browning’s choice of a quote from Medea and keeping it in its original Greek was a clever strategy because, while evoking the desired emotions in the mothers of child labourers, it also reminds the reader of her position as an authoritative figure within the literary community. Barrett Browning’s use of Greek also suggests that her intended audience, an elite group of ruling men, was familiar with the language, and she thus positions herself among them.
Barrett Browning’s next approach is to consider Victorian Britain’s patriarchal society, and she addresses the men in power in the first line of the first stanza.
The line “Do ye hear the children weeping, O my brothers?” asks these men directly, but respectfully, to look at the children’s conditions. In a male-dominated culture, Barrett Browning places herself in a role equal to men by calling them her brothers, and she understands that for change to come, those in power must be swayed. Barrett Browning captures the attention of both women and men; mothers and fathers, by using a quote from Medea to rouse the women and by aligning herself with her “brothers.” Barrett Browning uses rhetorical techniques and emotion to shake her readers throughout the rest of the poem.
The poem introduces readers to weeping children who are bereft of comfort: “They are leaning their young heads against their mothers, – / And that cannot stop their tears” (3,4). Young children who look to their mothers to soothe them are unable to be soothed. The image of inconsolable youth is contrasted with the youth of nature: lambs, birds, fawns, and flowers which all imply the newness of spring. Words like “bleating/chirping/playing” provide no lively images and instead serve to remind readers that these children are missing out on the joys of life, and “weeping in the playtime of the others” serve to remind readers that these children are missing out on the joys of life (5-11).
The second stanza contrasts the old things with the youth of the first stanza, implying that the old have reasons to weep but the young do not. Barrett Browning questions her brothers once more: “Do you ask them why they stand/ Weeping sore before the bosoms of their mothers, / In our happy Fatherland?” (23-4). The second stanza of the poem concludes with an ironic image of a “happy” country where young children suffer in misery. Take note of how Barrett Browning changes England’s common term “Motherland” to a more accurate description of “Fatherland.” This concept is reminiscent of the patriarchal system that ruled England, and it cleverly assigns blame to that authority.
Barrett Browning’s image here is not created for the sake of pity. Peaches According to Henry, the poet can distinguish “between the poorly executed, banal emotionality often associated with Victorian women’s poetry and the deeply compelling passion that she believed could touch readers” (Henry 541). Barrett Browning’s intention is an important detail to remember as the poem progresses and the children, victims of the Industrial Revolution, are given voices. When the children finally speak up, they admit their weakness but refuse to be pitied and demand to be heard. “The politically and socially voiceless children speak for themselves,” Henry says. Instead of crying, they have become defiant and assertive in their response.”
The image of children seeking death to end their misery in the fourth stanza is heartbreaking and intentional. “Little Alice died last year, her grave is shaped / Like a snowball, in the rime,” the children say of their friend, illustrating the obscurity of Little Alice’s life (39-40). The reader imagines a snowball in a frosty pitch, a white lump among total whiteness, and realises that Little Alice’s life had no meaning; her time on earth was insignificant. “‘It is good when it happens,’ say the children, ‘that we die before our time!’ / That we die before our time!’ / That we die before our time!” Oh, those poor children! They seek death in life as the best option!” (51-4). Young children desiring death present a tragic image and appear to have an unnatural attitude towards life. Readers are compelled to listen due to the strong language and graphic images.
When an adult encourages the children to get away from the city and go to the meadows where they can pick flowers, laugh, and sing, Barrett Browning alludes to the ignorance of a society that would allow such abuse. “‘For oh,’ say the children, ‘we are weary / And we cannot run or leap – / If we cared for any meadows, it would be merely / To drop down in them and sleep.” (65-8).
Barrett Browning chastises the person who believes that child labourers can simply go play after a day of exhausting work through the voices of children. Furthermore, her ability to address the gravity of the situation artistically demonstrates a brilliant handling of the subject and a necessary addition to the ongoing discussion of child labour.
“‘How long,’ they say, ‘how long, O cruel nation, / Will you stand, to move the world, on a child’s heart, — / Stifle down with a mailed heel its palpitation, / And tread onward to your throne amid the mart?” (153-6).
In these lines, we read not only the children’s cries for help, but also Barrett Browning’s, who brings awareness and a sense of responsibility to the injustice of child labour. It is no small thing for a Victorian author to accuse Great Britain of being a cruel nation, but Barrett Browning speaks the truth using facts from the commissioner’s reports. Browning expresses the entire purpose of child labour by drawing attention to Great Britain’s “throne” in the marketplace: money and power. The senselessness of child labour is undeniable at this point in the poem.
The poem’s conclusion resonates in the readers’ ears and hearts, and Barrett Browning uses the final four lines to take power away from those who are to blame and give it back to the children. The cruel employers of the industrial system are referred to as “tyrants,” and the silent crying of children is described as stronger than any man’s wrath (157-60). The depiction of the power of the children’s sobs serves as a rallying cry to persuade readers to act.
The image of children crying in silence intends to motivate those who can do something to actually do something – to let the children know that their voices are heard. Barrett Browning understood the need for poetry in the context of social reform at this time in history, and while she could not participate in the political system as a woman, she used her voice to augment the conversation. Her beautiful words add power and passion to political and social discussions that would otherwise lack the ability to effect change.
Theme of the poem
The main theme of “The Cry of the Children” is the social injustice of child labour and the exploitation of children during the Victorian era. Elizabeth Barrett Browning uses this poem to draw attention to the plight of these children and to criticize the adults who are responsible for allowing such atrocities to occur.
The poem also touches on themes of empathy, compassion, and the importance of protecting and valuing children. The speaker urges her readers to recognize the humanity of these children and to take action to improve their lives.
We can conclude that the theme of “The Cry of the Children” is a call to action for social reform and an appeal to the reader’s sense of humanity and responsibility towards the most vulnerable members of society.
Purpose of the poem
The purpose of “The Cry of the Children” is to draw attention to the injustices of child labour and to call for social reform. Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote this poem to raise awareness about the terrible working conditions and exploitation that children were subjected to during the Victorian era.
Through her powerful and emotional language, she aims to stir the conscience of her readers and to inspire them to take action to protect these vulnerable children. The poem is also a plea for empathy and compassion towards the suffering of others, particularly towards those who are too young and defenceless to protect themselves.
Thus, the purpose of “The Cry of the Children” is to challenge the status quo and to motivate people to work towards a better, more just society for all.