Cedar Crest College
Explication of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s "The Cry of the Children"
Elizabeth Barrett Browning uses a theme of politics along with rich imagery to draw her readers into the plight of the children forced into working in the mines and factories of industrial England. She writes to expose the horrific conditions under which these children are forced to live and die. The poem is a detailed description of the thoughts and wishes of the children paired with an outsider’s pleas with the public to change the lives of the children.
In the first stanza of the poem, the reader is offered an idea of just how awful the conditions these children experience everyday are. The author describes the children as, "weeping," later she says, "they are leaning their young heads against their mothers, and that cannot stop their tears." Personally, I feel as if many times in our lives we turn to our mothers for comfort and reassurance, especially at the worst of times. Mothers instinctively have the ability to "make it all better." Browning illustrates that what these children are put through is so terrible that even their mothers cannot offer them the reassurance that things will improve. This only emphasizes that what they deal with is most awful.
The author goes on in this stanza to plead with her "brothers" to listen to the children’s weeping. She hopes to gain their support in aiding these children and saving them from their present living conditions. The poem describes how while "in the playtime of others," these children are crying. This sentence is meant to point out that the owners of the factories and mines, perhaps even the members of Parliament, are simply living their day to day lives, happy and care free, without regard for these children who are being taken advantage of. The people who have the power to stop the tears of these children from falling continue with their "playtime" without concern for these innocent youngsters.
The author even confronts these influential individuals and asks them if they "question the young children in sorrow why their tears are falling so?" Browning is blatantly calling attention to the neglect the owners of these places of work have displayed to the children they force into employment . She wants them to realize how badly they are exploiting the children and she’s attempting to convince them to change their ways.
In stanza four, Browning impresses the image of a young girl’s death upon the minds of her audience. This picture brings to life the hardships and cruelty which these young child endure in their workplaces. It emphasizes the heartlessness of the employers to be so unconcerned for the well-being of the their workers. Even further, it hints to those members of government who have the power to change laws, that they ought to implement some reform to prohibit child labor because of its dangers. I think Browning’s description of the girl smiling now that she is dead is most clever. The poem says that, "Could we see her face, be sure we should not know her, for the smile has time for growing in her eyes." Browning reinforces that with death, this girl has finally found happiness. This little child preferred death to life because life as a child laborer was so harsh.
The conditions in which these children are forced to work and live are so undesirable that they lose every faith in God that they ever had. In stanza nine, the children say, "Who is God that he should hear us,… the human creatures near us- passing by, hearing not." This line only reiterates the ignorance that is going on within the country. The children pray to God and receive no relief. They even cry to those they see everyday, and nothing is done. They figure that if those they encounter everyday cannot acknowledge their weeping that why would God be anymore likely to do so.
In the next stanza the children describe how when they pray the only words they know to pray are "Our Father." This is meant to show the audience how uneducated these children are as a result of being forced into work. This is a blaring signal for those in government to realize that these children are being deprived of their right to an education.
Stanza eleven returns to the children’s lack of faith in God. They express how "His image is the master Who commands us to work." They have been convinced into believing that is the will of God that they suffer and labor as they do. They would have faith in God, only "grief has made us unbelieving."
In the next stanza Browning writes of how the children work such long hours laboring in the mines and factories of these industrial times. "They have never seen sunshine," because they are up long before the sun and are home after it sets or because they are cooped up in the depths of darkness in the coal mines of the regions. Browning wants to emphasize the long hours these children are forced to work and the lives they are losing doing it too. Although they are only children, their experiences, as dismal and rough as they are, have taught them "the grief of man," with the time spent growing up into manhood.
In closing, Browning addresses the government saying, " ‘How long, O cruel nation, will you stand, to move the world, on a child’s heart?" This sentence in the final paragraph of the poem is the final plea with the country of England to reform the working conditions of their young and save the lives of the underprivileged children.
The reader can hear the children’s cries, feel the dampness of their tears, and see the faces of those who have died. Browning’s images are cemented in the brains of her audience and the children’s weeping ring through their ears. This poem is a cry for the children and of the children. It is one citizen’s devotion to the future of her country and the commitment of protecting the innocent ones who can not voice a plea for protection themselves.