The Cry of the Children by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

‘The Cry of the Children’ was published inAugust 1843 in Blackwood’s Magazine. In it, Browning explores the horrors of children’s manual labor. Browning was inspired to write the poem after a report on the subject came out by the Royal Commission of Inquiry in Children’s Employment as well as a lifetime of writing about topics of her day and age. She is remembered today for advocating, within her poetry and outside of it, for liberal causes. When it was published, the poem was an immediate success, although it is today sometimes critiqued for its sentimentality. 

Readers should also take note of the epigraph that comes before the first line of the poem. It reads: “Pheu pheu, ti prosderkesthe m ommasin, tekna”. Meaning, “Alas, alas, why do you gaze at me with your eyes, my children.”

These lines come from Medea by Euripides, a story about a woman who murders her children. The line implicates the reader, and all those not reading, in the children’s deaths and suffering in the poem. 

The Cry of the Children by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

 

Summary of The Cry of the Children 

The Cry of the Children’ by Elizabeth Barrett Browning is a moving poem that explores the terrors of child labor and those who suffer it.

The poem alternates between the voice of a narrator and the voice of the children. The speaker introduces the children, their plight while at the same time asking that the listener and all fellow human beings pay attention to what she’s saying. Then, the children raise their voices. They express their sorrow as well as their desire to meet their deaths as soon as possible. Unfortunately, they add, it’s not so easy. The wheels of the factories and mines continue to turn, and they’re young, so they have a long way to go before they can rest. Throughout the poem’s conclusion, the speaker tries to drive home her point by guilting readers into realizing that they, too, are part of the problem. 

 

Themes in The Cry of the Children 

The themes in ‘The Cry of the Children’ include pain/suffering and God. Throughout the poem, Browning uses very direct language in order to address the overwhelming problem of children’s labor during her lifetime. This was something that she often spoke out against, something that was quite unusual for the time. This can be interpreted simply from the way that the speaker addresses the listeners. They, she says, are part of the problem. They walk past the crying, suffering children, and do nothing. These same kids get a chance to speak in the poem as well. They express their utter despair over the life they lead day in and out. The children also try to understand what role God plays in their lives, or, as it is, doesn’t play. 

 

Structure and Form of The Cry of the Children 

The Cry of the Children’ by Elizabeth Barrett Browning is a thirteen stanza poem that is divided into sets of twelve lines. These follow the rhyme scheme of ABABCDCDEFEF, with a few moments of divergence throughout. For example, the first stanza rhymes ABABCDCDAEAE. Additionally, readers should note how some of the end sounds are repeated in other lines. For instance, “brothers” and “mothers” rhymes with “brothers” and “others” later on in the poem. The stanzas can be divided up into sets of four lines, as noted by the rhyme scheme. The structure, like the content, is straightforward. There is no way to read this poem and not understand what Browning was hoping to convey. 

 

Literary Devices in The Cry of the Children 

Browning makes use of several literary devices in ‘The Cry of the Children.’ These include but are not limited to examples of anaphora, metaphor, caesurae, and enjambment. The latter is a common formal device that is concerned with where the poet chooses to end a line. If the line ends before the end of a sentence or phrase, then it is likely enjambed. For example, the transition between lines three and four of the second stanza as well as lines one and two of the fourth stanza. 

Anaphora is an interesting device that is connected more broadly to repetition. It involves the use and reuse of the same words at the beginning of multiple lines. For example, “The young…” in lines five, six, seven, and eight of the first stanza. This kind of repetition appears again in the second stanza with “The old” in lines three, five, six, and seven. 

There are also a few metaphors in ‘The Cry of the Children.’ This is a type of comparison in which the poet does not use “like” or “as” in the sentence. With a metaphor, the poet or speaker is saying that one thing is another, not that it’s “like” another. 

 

Analysis of The Cry of the Children 

Stanza One 

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. 

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. 

The first stanza of ‘The Cry of the Children’ is quite direct (as are all the following stanzas). Browning immediately jumps into the main point of the poem, condemning and exposing the horrors of child labor in England and around the world. She asks her brothers or her fellow countrymen if they can hear the “children weeping.” These young boys and girls are too young to know the sorrow they’re experiencing, she adds, making it all the more important that someone listens. 

The following lines suggest that nothing in the children’s worlds can make them feel better, not even something as comforting as a mother. She uses the next few lines to create a comparison between young human children and the children of sheep, birds, and deer. These latter three are living as young creatures should, “playing with the shadows” and “bleating in the meadows.” But in England, the children are young and “weeping bitterly.” This is meant to drive home her point about how unnatural and terrible child labor is. 

 

Stanza Two 

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 — 

The old tree is leafless in the forest — 

The old year is ending in the frost — 

The old wound, if stricken, is the sorest — 

The old hope is hardest to be lost : 

But the young, young children, O my brothers, 

Do you ask them why they stand 

Weeping sore before the bosoms of their mothers, 

In our happy Fatherland ? 

The next stanza also begins with a question. She asks the listeners, her “brothers,” if they have even thought to ask the children why they’re crying. This suggests that men and women of the upper classes usually do not take the time to think about what the children are going through. There are some griefs, the speaker says, which can be expected. This includes the old weeping for their youths and the loss of long-held dreams. These are normal griefs, ones that come with age. But, when a child is young, they shouldn’t suffer so. They should take comfort from their bother’s breasts and feel safe in the supposedly “happy Fatherland” in which they all live. By repeatedly bringing up the country, Browning is condemning the governmental systems that allowed these practices to flourish. 

 

Stanza Three 

They look up with their pale and sunken faces, 

And their looks are sad to see, 

For the man’s grief abhorrent, draws and presses 

Down the cheeks of infancy — 

“Your old earth,” they say, “is very dreary;” 

“Our young feet,” they say, “are very weak !” 

Few paces have we taken, yet are weary— 

Our grave-rest is very far to seek ! 

Ask the old why they weep, and not the children, 

For the outside earth is cold — 

And we young ones stand without, in our bewildering, 

And the graves are for the old !” 

The third stanza of ‘The Cry of the Children’ is dedicated to what the children look like. It also brings in the first bits of dialogue. The speaker describes them as having “pale and sunken faces” that are filled with grief. They are burdened as if they’re old men. The children speak in the next lines, expressing how tired they are and how gloomy they find the earth. They’ve barely had time be able alive, and already they’re seeking rest in their grave. Unfortunately, they say, they have a long way to go before that time. 

 

Stanza Four

“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 ! 

It is good when it happens,” say the children, 

“That we die before our time !” 

The fourth stanza is the longest so far, breaking the pattern and stretching to sixteen lines. There is more dialogue in this passage as the children talk about “Little Alice” who “died last year.” She gave a pit, something they compare to a snowball. 

Alice has moved away from the suffering of their everyday lives. In fact, the children say that if they could see her now, they wouldn’t recognize her. She has a smile that is totally unknown to these suffering kids. They all agree that it’s best if they die before their time. 

 

Stanza Five 

Alas, the wretched children ! they are seeking 

Death in life, as best to have ! 

They are binding up their hearts away from breaking, 

With a cerement from the grave. 

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 ! 

But they answer, ” Are your cowslips of the meadows 

Like our weeds anear the mine ? 

Leave us quiet in the dark of the coal-shadows, 

From your pleasures fair and fine! 

The speaker comes back into ‘The Cry of the Children’ in the fifth line. She picks back up by exclaiming over the children’s desire for death. She finds it outrageous, as everyone should, that these kids are forced to live such painful lives. There is an interesting metaphor in the first part of this stanza where the poet says that the children are binding their hearts as one would wrap a corpse with the wax cloth. This is a disturbing image, one that she tries to counteract by encouraging the children to “Go out…from the mine and from the city”. She would like them to run free outside “as the little thrushes do” and feel nature as young kids are meant to. She’d like them to laugh and sing and take pleasure n simple things. 

Despite her encouragement, the children are unable to do so. They answer that they don’t want to hear this person’s words. They have to go back into the mine. The only flowers they see are weeds growing near to where they work. These “pleasures” the speaker describes are of a different world. 

 

Stanza Six 

“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. 

Our knees tremble sorely in the stooping — 

We fall upon our faces, trying to go ; 

And, underneath our heavy eyelids drooping, 

The reddest flower would look as pale as snow. 

For, all day, we drag our burden tiring, 

Through the coal-dark, underground — 

Or, all day, we drive the wheels of iron 

In the factories, round and round. 

The children continue to respond to the speaker in the next stanza. They tell her that they’re unable to do the things she’s asking of them. They’re too “weary” to leap, and if they saw a meadow, they’d use it as a place to sleep rather than to play. There is a good example of alliteration in these lines with “meadows” and “merely.” There is no way for them to take pleasure in the things that she’d like them to. They are too changed by the work they do day in and day out. 

 

Stanza Seven 

“For all day, the wheels are droning, turning, — 

Their wind comes in our faces, — 

Till our hearts turn, — our heads, with pulses burning, 

And the walls turn in their places 

Turns the sky in the high window blank and reeling — 

Turns the long light that droppeth down the wall, — 

Turn the black flies that crawl along the ceiling — 

All are turning, all the day, and we with all ! — 

And all day, the iron wheels are droning ; 

And sometimes we could pray, 

‘O ye wheels,’ (breaking out in a mad moaning) 

‘Stop ! be silent for to-day ! ‘ “ 

The seventh stanza continues in the same way as the sixth. In a hauntingly melodic passage, the children describe the way the wheels in the mines and factories turn around and around all day long. The walls even start to look like they’re spinning. It’s a haunting movement and a haunting sound, one that follows them throughout the hours of their days and nights. They beg, at the end of this stanza, for the wheels to be silent “for today.” 

 

Stanza Eight 

Ay ! be silent ! Let them hear each other breathing 

For a moment, mouth to mouth — 

Let them touch each other’s hands, in a fresh wreathing 

Of their tender human youth ! 

Let them feel that this cold metallic motion 

Is not all the life God fashions or reveals — 

Let them prove their inward souls against the notion 

That they live in you, or under you, O wheels ! — 

Still, all day, the iron wheels go onward, 

As if Fate in each were stark ; 

And the children’s souls, which God is calling sunward, 

Spin on blindly in the dark. 

There are some good examples of anaphora in the eighth stanza as the speaker begs that the children be allowed to be children for a time. If the wheels stop, they might be able to hold one another and know that there is more to earth than that which they’ve experienced thus far. No matter how much the speaker might want this to happen, the “iron wheels go onward” as if driven by Fate. 

 

Stanza Nine 

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 ? 

Although the speaker believes in God and thinks that he will help the children who pray to him, the children have a different lived experience. They wonder why God would ever help them and if it’s possible for him to even hear them with the “rushing of the iron wheels.” Not even human beings passing them on the street could hear them weeping. These lines accurately convey the children’s desperation. 

 

Stanza Ten 

” Two words, indeed, of praying we remember ; 

And at midnight’s hour of harm, — 

‘Our Father,’ looking upward in the chamber, 

We say softly for a charm. 

We know no other words, except ‘Our Father,’ 

And we think that, in some pause of angels’ song, 

God may pluck them with the silence sweet to gather, 

And hold both within His right hand which is strong. 

‘Our Father !’ If He heard us, He would surely 

(For they call Him good and mild) 

Answer, smiling down the steep world very purely, 

‘Come and rest with me, my child.’ 

The tenth stanza of ‘The Cry of the Children’ continues from the children’s perceptive. They know the words “Our Father,” but that’s all. They whisper them at night, hoping that something would change but so far, it doesn’t seem like God is listening. If he heard them, the children say, then surely he would do something. Surely he could call them to his side to rest. 

 

Stanza Eleven 

“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.” 

Do ye hear the children weeping and disproving, 

O my brothers, what ye preach ? 

For God’s possible is taught by His world’s loving — 

And the children doubt of each. 

The children’s desperation grows as the stanzas go on. They are weeping faster, declaring that God is as “speechless as a stone.” This is not helped by the fact that their masters tell them that they’re working in God’s name. Still, the children say they want nothing but death to take them. There is no God that they can see through the tears in their eyes. 

 

Stanza Twelve 

And well may the children weep before you ; 

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 Christdom, — 

Are martyrs, by the pang without the palm, — 

Are worn, as if with age, yet unretrievingly 

No dear remembrance keep,— 

Are orphans of the earthly love and heavenly : 

Let them weep ! let them weep ! 

In the second to last stanza of ‘The Cry of the Children,’ the speaker tells any listener that the children are right to weep. They’ve known grief that few others have. They are filled with despair and are “slaves, without the liberty of Chirstdom.” 

 

Stanza Thirteen 

They look up, with their pale and sunken faces, 

And their look is dread to see, 

For they think you see their angels in their places, 

With eyes meant for Deity ;— 

“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 shews your path ; 

But the child’s sob curseth deeper in the silence 

Than the strong man in his wrath !”

The final stanza reiterates much of what was already discussed in the previous twelve stanzas. No matter where the children look, they see darkness and dread. They ask their world how long they’re going to be forced to labor in this way. The speaker, through the voices of the children, ask how long this is going to go on for before something changes. The last line describes the sob of a child as far more powerful than a “strong man in his wrath.” 

 

Similar Poetry

Readers who enjoyed ‘The Cry of the Children’ should also consider reading some of Brownings’ other poems. These include ‘Sonnet 14,’ ‘Sonnet 24,’ and ‘Patience Taught by Nature.’ The first sonnet, ‘Sonnet 14,’ is one of her best-known. It contains a speaker’s ideas about how she wants to be loved. She’s interested in being appreciated for love’s own sake. ‘Sonnet 24’ is another quite famous piece. In it, the speaker compares the end of the world’s problems to the closing of a knife. With the blade out of reach, the terrors of the world can’t impact anyone. In ‘Patience Taught by Nature,’ Browning speaks about another world, one that is not influenced by humanity’s mundane problems. There, where God resides, things are different.

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