The Cry of the Children Summary
by Elizabeth Barrett Moulton

Start Your Free Trial

Download The Cry of the Children Study Guide

Subscribe Now

The Cry of the Children Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The Cry of the Children is representative not only of Barrett Browning’s political poetry but also of her work in general. It contains themes and images that can be found throughout her work. The use of language, meter, and rhyme in the poem demonstrates her innovative poetics and singular style.

It is problematic that Barrett Browning actually heard the cry of the children whom she so eloquently laments in her poem. She wrote The Cry of the Children after reading a report on the employment of children in mines and manufactories. A master of language, she evokes its emotional power to engender a response of outrage in her readers. The poem is intentionally didactic, political in purpose as well as subject matter. It is an expression of her own alienation and abhorrence of industrial society seen through the eyes and feelings of factory children, represented as innocence betrayed and used by political and economic interests for selfish purposes.

Throughout the poem, demonic images of a Factory Hell are contrasted with the Heaven of the English countryside, the inferno of industrialism with the bliss of a land-based society. The children are implored to leave the mine and city for the serenity of meadow and country. The grinding, droning mechanism of industrial society destroys the promise and hope of human life. Barrett Browning was concerned with the fate of a society that exploited human life for profit, and she ends her poem with an indictment of industrial society.

The reader is made to experience the dreariness of the factory inferno by Barrett Browning’s use of language, as she describes the harrowing reality of the “droning, turning” factory wheels, relentlessly grinding the children’s spirit and life as it molds its goods. The factory is depicted as a perversion of nature, a literal Hell seen as the absence and corruption of the natural world. Instead of the world revolving around the sun, the sky turns—as the wheels, similarly, turn. Barrett Browning’s use of words ending in “ing” and containing long vowel sounds—“moaning,” “droning,” “turning,” “burning”—invokes the monotony and despair of this awful abyss of industry.

The “Children” of the poem are silenced by the sound of the wheels turning, seek the silence of death as their only means of escape, and, finally, are reduced to a mere “sob in the silence” in a vain effort to curse. The struggle to speak is a constant theme in the poem, a motif that vies with the oppression of the factory and the plight of the children. The repetition of the phrase, “say the children” makes it a key element in the very structure of the poem. Words of speech and silence are used throughout—“hear,” “ask,” “listen,” “sing,” “answer,” “quiet,” “silent,” “still,”...

(The entire section is 663 words.)