Every part of a poem is highly significant, because every part has the density of meaning that qualifies it as poetry in the first place. Each part of a poem is necessary to the coherency of the poem as a whole.
But often a reader will find that there's an ebb and flow to a poem's meaningful impact. Part of this comes from the author’s craftsmanship, and part of it comes from the particular reader’s own way of encountering the text.
Instead of claiming there’s one line or stanza or sequence that holds the ultimate secret to the poem, let’s look at a few different key moments to see what resonates with us most deeply on a personal level.
Right off the bat, the poem throws us a line from ancient Greece (which the Victorians loved to do). Whenever a poem begins with such an introductory quotation, or an epigraph, we should pay close attention to it. The line goes:
"Pheu pheu, ti prosderkesthe m ommasin, tekna;"
[[Alas, alas, why do you gaze at me with your eyes, my children.]]—Medea.
Medea is a character in Greek mythology. As is usually the case with Greek mythology, there are many versions of her story. But in the one dramatized by Euripides, Medea murders her children (and other people) after her husband, Jason, leaves her for another woman. There are, again, many interpretations about why she decided to do such a horrible thing, but in the climax of Euripides' play, she laments the sight of her children's eyes, and cannot bear the pain.
If nothing else, Browning wanted her poem to force the titans of nineteenth century English industry-- as well as the everyday people of England-- to look for once into the eyes of the child workers they exploited. One could say that the symbolic implication of the allusion to Medea is that English society was spiritually murdering its children.
When we look at the first stanza, the message of the poem is almost entirely given to us:
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.
At a time in their lives when every other living creature is most innocent, impressionable, and purely awake to the sheer experience of life, thousands, hundreds of thousands, practically countless human children were suffering in factories, mills, and mines, working for nothing from sunrise to sunset and more. And their suffering was not simply a numb, stupid ache, but a weeping sorrow that could not be comforted. Browning points out the high irony of this happening in a country that proclaimed itself collectively ‘free’ and Christian.
But then the heart of the poem might be stanza four, where the emotional punch of the poem hits its hardest:
"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 idea of children saying it would be good to die so they could rest and be free from their constant work is a self-evident proof of the evil and ignorance of the economic order at the time. What argument could a person possibly make in favor of child labor after hearing such a statement from a child?
But we should also look at stanza eight, where Browning momentarily opens into a liberatory and inspiring voice, only to quickly grow dark again, facing the ongoing and culturally- entrenched child exploitation all around her:
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.
In the last two lines Browning juxtaposes Christianity’s proclaimed love and care for children with the “blind,” subterranean reality God’s soulful creatures are trapped in by humanity’s greed and malice. This moment in the text is powerful enough on its own.
But it's the beginning of the stanza that's the most significant part of the poem for me, especially the idea of the looms and gears falling silent so the children could “hear each other breathing,” so they could feel themselves to be breathing, living beings, and not just servants of the machines. So they could be thankful for their brief, mortal, and beautiful lives, and not look to death as the only hope for peace.
Perhaps for you the most significant part of the poem is something we didn’t touch on here. When you read a new poem, especially a good one, it usually takes at least a few passes through to get an emotional feel for it, and to understand the poem's rhythm. Reading carefully and aloud is often the quickest way to the heart of a poem.