What does the line, "The young flowers are blowing toward the west," in "The Cry of the Children" by Elizabeth Barrett Moulton mean?
In Elizabeth Barrett Moulton (Browning)'s poem, "The Cry of the Children," the author is sending out a "battle cry" against the harsh working conditions of the children in the advent of the Industrial Revolution in England in the 1700s. While one might expect the work to affect older males more than any other group, children (boys and girls) were often used in mining because they could crawl into spaces much too large for even a young man, and their wages were much lower than that of an adult.
The pay helped many, many families to survive, but the costs were high:
Many children were forced to work in relatively bad conditions for much lower pay than their elders, 10-20% of an adult male's wage. Children as young as four were employed.
Children had no rights. They worked long hours in dangerous conditions. The dust of the mines very often led to death by cancer, or black lung disease which often caused workers to die before they turned thirty. Some children lost hands, feet, or limbs, while others were decapitated, killed in dynamite blasting or mowed down by moving carts carrying coal. The coal, of course, powered the new machines of the Industrial Revolution.
The author is aware of the plight of these children as reflected in the poem where the children weep with tears usually reserved for those much older:
Do ye hear the children weeping, O my brothers,
Ere the sorrow comes with years?
The author asks why the children are not gathering flowers and playing in the fields as she felt they should be:
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 pretty---
Laugh aloud, to feel your fingers let them through!
The reality of the lives of the children is shown in the following lines as they explain the significance of meadows in the world in which they live:
"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…”
There could be two meanings of the line, "The young flowers are blowing toward the west---". First (and I would imagine the most likely circumstance), the author may be comparing children of the "Heartland" (England) to the children in America ("in the country of the free"). At this time, the children there were allowed to be children...to run and play and live out their young years with joy. (It would take approximately one hundred years for the Industrial Revolution to move across the ocean.)
Perhaps, too, the author might have a feeling of foreboding that this "revolution" that came at such a terrible cost for England's children might one day create a similar danger to the children to the west; in other worlds Barrett-Moulton (Browning) might be worrying about the spread of the Industrial Revolution to the United States. It is a logical concern in that trends in England often moved (though more slowly) to the U.S.