Elizabeth Barrett Browning: A Biography

by Margaret Forster

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What is the summary of "The Cry of the Children" by Elizabeth Barrett Browning?

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"The Cry of the Children" is about the suffering of children in the coal mines and factories of England during the Industrial Revolution and the way in which their suffering is both against the laws of nature and against the laws of God. The poem opens with the striking image of children weeping against their mothers while creatures in nature, such as lambs and fawns, are playing. The image of children weeping at their mothers' bosoms calls to mind the image of the Virgin Mary.

The poet describes an old man weeping for times past, and she asks why young people are crying. While it is natural, she implies, for the elderly to weep, it is unnatural for children to cry. The poet describes the children's state, presenting imagery of their "pale and and sunken faces," as a contrast with the healthy state of young and innocent animals enjoying nature.

The poet presents a series of images of children who are sick or dead, including a girl named Alice who rests in peace, as now no one can wake her to work. The poet presents an oxymoron of "death in life" to describe the children's state. They live, but they desire death. Their lives, described in images such as "the coal-dark, underground" is presented as hellish, in contrast to the heavenly state of nature. The children, faced with the endless tasks of the factory or the mine, ask for God's help, but the poet, using both a simile and alliteration, describes God in the children's minds as "speechless as a stone." At the end of the poem, the children cry out for the nation to help them put an end to their misery. 

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This is a protest poem decrying the horror of child labor in factories and coal mines of England.

Children were put out to work at very young ages in factories and in the coal mines. They were small enough to fit in the tight spaces of the mines and used to pull carts of coal up from the depths.  Many children died from brown lung disease and other diseases of overwork, malnutrition and tuberculosis during this time period.

Children did not have the "childhood" experiences that we modern people associate with "childhood" unless they were born in the upper wealthy class. Most children were put out to factory work by the time they were 8 or 9 years old. Children began working in the coal mines at around the same ages.

Child labor laws were not yet common practice, so any child of any age could be put out to work.  Most factories worked 13-15 hours, and there was no such thing as a break from work.   The work was dangerous as well because there were no safety regulations in the factories or mines.  Browning's poem is a protest poem which did have a large impact on the readers of her poetry.

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