The 19th century in England is also well known as the Victorian Period because of the long reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901). The characteristic of this period was the changing of the economic, political, and social views as the result of the Industrial Revolution. The poverty and exploitation increased due to drastic changes in the demographics of England.
Amid the multitude of social and political forces of this age of democracy, it was an age of popular education, of religious tolerance, of growing brotherhood and of profound social unrest. The multitudes of men, women and little children in the mines and factories were victims of a more terrible industrial and social slavery. Child labour at the time was synonymous to slavery. Children were subjected to inhuman torture, exploitation and even death. These child labourers were forced to work in factories and workhouses at the insistence of their parents and workhouse guardians.
The reputation of Elizabeth Barrett Browning as a poet of liberal social conscience is chiefly based on her widely known ‘The Cry of the Children’. It is less well known that after the publication of that poem in 1843 Barrett Browning continued to champion social progress in England, the liberation movement in Italy, and abolitionism in the United States. While The Cry of the Children was a kind of poetical echo of Chartism. Child labour, in Victorian England, was part of a gruesome system which snatched children of their childhood, health and even their lives, which is picturized in the lines of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, which is as follows:
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 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. The poet brings out her female perspective of child abuse and child labour in the work which is published in 1843 in the Blackwood’s Magazine, was written after she had visited an urban factory and was shocked at the children’s pitiful state. The poem was read in the House of Lords and influenced legislation to protect working children. It is obvious that the poem is a personal response to the exploitation of children as cheap workers, especially in factories and mines, and a call to the society for reform. Within the poem Barrett Browning made use of repetitions and a plea to the reader is constantly present, as in lines such as:
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.
This poem addresses and pleads with the reader directly as if begging to cease the cruel practice on the spot. This urgency, apt imagery “The young lambs are bleating” and emotional description of the children’s “weeping” is the poet’s strength trying to make even deaf ears hear the message. Elizabeth Barrett Browning shows the direct cause and symptoms of social distress in her best social verse in the fourth stanza, where the speaker tells us about a young girl by the name of Alice, who died last year and the children try to hear her cry from her grave, but discovered little Alice never cries, so the children reason that Alice must be happier there. The verses provide an effect of pathos, piety and passion as the sentimental artistry to the poem, Barrett Browning’s disintegrating effects of social suffering is delved in the fifth stanza lines which are as follows:
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 your handfuls of the meadow-cowslips of the meadows,
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!
Barrett Browning’s penetrating insight finds the source and the only remedy for her social distress through writing this poem. It shows her deep concern about the affection caused by the Industrial Revolution happened centuries ago. Browning emphasizes a lot about the child labour victims and made even lively by using dramatic monologue. She pretends that she talks to the children in real life talking about their pains. Obviously, the subject matter of this poem is the misery lives of children back in the Victorian period who faced miserable lives as labours. Browning shows her concern to them who cannot enjoy their childhood lives due to the Industrial Revolution. Like mentioned above, the Industrial Revolution plays a very big impact on the country’s development during the period. Therefore, they are too seeking low-cost employment of under-aged children happened to be their last and cruel decision. During the period, under-aged children who are in the midst of their teens even younger were forced to work in mines with ridiculous working hours. They suffered from tiredness and depression. They couldn’t play like how youngsters should be, instead, they had to work for the country’s own good. In this case, Browning clearly shows how painful it was for the children by providing a pessimistic feel towards the readers since the stanza 7 of the poem.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poetic vocation in the stanzas 8 to 10, finalizes the poem with a bit sign of warning to the nation that as the country’s revolution is getting better, the social life in their country seems to be ignored. Browning wants to emphasize her protest to stop child labour in the stanzas 11 and 12. Browning thinks that the pains of the children seem to be deeper rather than the strong man’s wrath as she uses several poetic devices to support her style of writing. ; the repetition of verses Let them weep! Let them weep! tries to emphasize that the pains can actually make the children die faster at a very young age so everything needs to be stopped which picturizes the peak of her protest.
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 political imagery employed in the above lines as a criticism of the society and the government is almost scary, in which the children’s “hearts turn” and their heads “with pulses burn” are becoming one with the “droning” and “turning” of the wheels of the machines. It creates the impression as if the children and machines are interchangeable; the children become machines and the machines are more alive than the children. This impression of the unity of children workers and the machines, with which they work, is underlined through the poet’s use of plosives like “t” and “p”. The staccato-like rhythm of the poem, along with the repetitions of words like “turn” and “all” and the dashes (end-stopped poem) at the end of many lines create a sensation of the noise in a factory, which indicates too that it is by this rhythm that the children live and not only work. On a broader view one can also say that the verses also voice the sentiment and anxiety of the Victorian Age, as people felt that with the mechanization of work, people also lost their ability for kindness and emphatic feelings for others and became themselves more heartless.
The poem ends with the children’s angels speaking for them since no one else seems to do it, No one is exempt in the address of “O cruel nation” where Barrett Browning directly put forwards her distress and poetic vocation to criticize the Parliament. The poet opens up her anger by saying that, No one can point the finger at only one person or group of people, we all are to blame if today child labour is found in our nation, which we call Mother Earth so ironically if we neglect her children. The last two lines seem to have the purpose to haunt the reader, as the lines are:
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 in his wrath!
The Cry of the Children is a revolutionary and strong poem that is against the mistreatment of children and puts in doubt the belief in society, in nation and in God where Barrett Browning with her skillful use of political imagery, sound devices, repetitions, anaphora and caesura, along with the personal, emotional, haunting and colloquial style of the poem, in which all concerned ?parties’, the children, adults, preachers and angels, get their share of dialogues, she is able to reach the heart of her readers and powerfully provokes a response in them. Browning, in her own individual ways of using Child Labour as an instrument of Social Criticism, gives voice to the unheard cries of the children of her age and try to stir the readers.
Will you stand, to move the world, on a child’s heart?
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