In Elizabeth Barrett Browning's poem "The Cry of the Children," why does the speaker compare the lives of young animals to the lives of babies and children?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem “The Cry of the Children” opens with a stanza that emphasizes the contrasts between the carefree lives of most young animals and the misery felt by human children:

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;  [5]
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!---  [10]
They are weeping in the playtime of the others
In the country of the free.

The references to animals here serve a number of functions, including the following:

  • Such references contribute to the irony of the poem. Although we normally think of human beings as superior to animals, Browning’s speaker implies that in fact young animals are in many ways better off than young children.
  • These references to animals help emphasize the contrasts between the world as God intends it to be and the world as humans have perverted and corrupted it. Later, the poem stresses the ways that children are made to work in grim factories and coal mines. Ironically, most animals enjoy much more freedom (the poem suggests) than most human children.
  • The references to the animals suggest an attractive pastoral landscape, which constrasts sharply with the poem’s later emphasis on dark, oppressive urban factories and bleak rural coal mines.
  • The references to the animals mention pleasing, attractive sounds – sounds that contrast greatly with the loud, booming, unappealing factories described later in this work.
  • The references to the animals help emphasize the speaker’s appeal to her fellow human beings. She is essentially saying, “Look at how freely most animals live; isn’t it shameful that we humans allow our own young to suffer as they do?”  In other words, the speaker makes a contrast that most of her readers will readily be able to understand. Instead of speaking of human suffering in abstract terms, she uses the concrete examples of the animals to make her argument as clear and vivid as possible.




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