Elizabeth Barrett Browning

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Can you explain each stanza of Elizabeth Browning's "Cry of the Children"?

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Elizabeth Barret Browning's thirteen-stanza poem was published in 1843 to publicize the plight of child labor used in factories and coal mines. It uses sentiment—raising emotions in the reader—to try to urge the British to change factory conditions out of pity for the children.

In the first stanza, the speaker repeatedly notes that the children are weeping and likens them to young and innocent creatures of nature, such as lambs, birds, and fawns.

In stanza 2, the speaker addresses her readers, wondering if they ask why the children are weeping.

In stanza 3, the children explain that they are weak and weary from their work.

In stanza 4, they tell the reader the story of little Alice, who died before her time from overwork in the factory.

In stanza 5, the speaker laments that the children are seeking death in life and bids them to go play in the fields and laugh. But the children respond that such pleasures are not open to them, as they have to toil in the coal dust.

In stanza 6, the children add that they would be too tired to enjoy playing in meadows or outdoor places. If they were able to get outside, they would sleep because they are so broken from toiling in harsh conditions.

In stanza 7, the children further describe their conditions, with black flies on the walls and the "iron" factory wheels endlessly turning.

In stanza 8, the speaker expresses anguish that the children's souls are not fed in the factories where they toil, nor can they develop relationships with one another.

In stanza 9, the speaker wants the children to pray to God, but they say that neither God nor people hear their sobs.

In stanza 10, the children go on to say they have called on God as their father. They assert that if he heard them, he would rescue them from their fate, so he must not hear them.

In stanza 11, the children continue speaking about God, saying he is the image of the cruel factory master. They question how there can be a loving God if those who say they worship him treat the children so cruelly.

In stanza 12, the speaker says that the children are weary slaves who have every right to weep.

In stanza 13, the speaker and the children cry out to the British nation to release them from their bondage and weeping.

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This poem was written by Browning in response to a parliamentary report exposing the terrible conditions under which child laborers were working. This was a preoccupation of many Victorian writers, including also Dickens and Gaskett. Browning's poem appeals to the public to witness the plight of these children and to try to do something to mitigate it. 

The first stanza laments that "the young, young children," unlike the young lambs, bird, and fawns, are not free, but are "weeping in the playtime of the others / in the country of the free." These children, the stanza suggests, should be enjoying playtime as young animals do.

The second stanza describes the "old tree," "the old year," "the old wound" and "the old hope," suggesting that, yes, those who have "lost" things "in Long Ago" have reason to weep, but children should not have such reason. Again, Browning refers to the "happy Fatherland" of England, suggesting that this is a lie if its children are in such distress.

The third stanza describes the "pale and sunken faces" of the children, and then puts words into their mouths: the children declare "few paces have we taken, yet are weary," and two references to "graves" hint that death is brought on too soon by child labor.

This is confirmed in the next stanza, which describes how "little Alice died last year," and concludes with the children declaring morbidly that "it is good when it happens . . . that we die before our time." The next stanza goes on to explain this, referring again to the freedom of the "cowslips of the meadows,"; the following stanza continues on this theme, describing the "coal dark" of the children's "underground lives."

Next, the children explain that "all day, the wheels are droning, turning," and all they want is for the work to "be silent for to-day!"

The next stanza has the poet echoing the imagined pleas of the children that the wheels should be silent; Browning says that the children's souls should not "spin on blindly in the dark." Next, the poet implores the public to imagine again the plight of these children, who weep to God and do not hear their prayers answered.

This theme continues into the next stanza. Next, the children are pictured imagining that God "is speechless as a stone," suggesting that their working conditions are so bad that it may make them fear God does not exist.

The final two stanzas revisit again the theme of the weeping children and reuse some imagery of "pale and sunken face" from earlier in the poem. The image of the "blood" which "splashes upward" is more graphic here: the poet ends on this striking picture of the children's situation in order to move her audience to sympathy and action.

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This poem was written based on a report that was written because of the treatment of children in mines and factories. Children were being worked to death.

The first stanza speaks of all of the young offspring with their mothers: birds, lambs,fawns and even flowers.  They are all allowed to laugh and play like children should. Meanwhile, real children are crying uncontrollably.

The second and third stanzas speak of the old--men, trees, old wounds who have been around.  But the question remains--"why are the children weeping so?"  This has not been answered.

The forth and fifth stanzas speak of Alice and how happy she is now that she is dead.  She doesn't cry anymore and other children agree with her--it's better to  leave the misery on earth.  The adult voice wants the children to run and be happy.  The children still would rather die than slave away in the mines.

Stanzas 6-8 speak of the wheels of the mine carts that go round and round, droning on day after day, yet the children don't care.  The speaker wants them to have a break from the pain and suffering.

In stanzas 9-11 the speaker wants the children to pray and know God. However, their response is that they don't know God.  How could they when the men who hear their cries continue on and never stop to help them or comfort them.  They say that he remains silent and never answers their prayers.

The last two stanzas continue the overall theme of the poem.  How can the children know truth and goodness and Christianity if all they ever have known has been pain and suffering from working for powerful and controlling men.

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