Poetry Analysis of Cry of the Children by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
"The Cry of the Children"
"True," say the children, "it may happen That we die before our time.Little Alice died last yearher grave is shapenLike 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 inThe shroud by the kirk-chime.It is good when it happens," say the children,"That we die before our time."
Elizabeth Barrett Browning's poem entitled "The Cry of the Children" was written at the time "when government investigations had exposed the exploitation of children employed in coal mines and factories." Since writers tend to write about things that they know or firmly believe, it comes to no surprise that Elizabeth would write about the "appalling use of child labor," especially at this crucial time in history (1173-74 Norton Anthology of English Literature Vol. 2). For instance, in line 37 of the poem, Browning writes, "'True,' say the children, "it may happen that we die before our time;" indicates that the children know that what is happening is wrong and will not only put them in danger, but cause their early death.
It is sad to think that children would say this, sadder yet, to know that they died as a result of child labor. The children in the poem also go on to say, "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!" This part of the stanza illustrates the knowledge the children were exposed to; after all, they witnessed other children like themselves die before their eyes. The part that says, "Her grave is shapen like a snowball, in the rime," illustrates that once the child passed away, the body lay where it fell and from time dust or perhaps ashes from the coal created a grave by covering the child.
The children did not receive proper burials and once gone were forgotten. The children toiled away for long periods of time and died from exhaustion, lack of food, illness, breathing the fumes from the coal mines or getting hurt at the factory. Without medical attention, the weak faded from existence. How could parents and adults let children work? Even if times are tough, kids deserve to be kids, they should never work.
Following this through, although the poem is morbid, it is describing the harsh reality of what actually occurred. The poem does have negative imagery; however, it does have positive images as well. For example, "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," clearly depicts that although this little girl named Alice is dead, she is happier. She is no longer suffering, she is not laboring away under harsh conditions; this little girl, like so many before her are now free from the mistreatment that they endured.
This being so, the children are actually saying that is better to die than to withstand being overworked. This positive image makes the reader angry and sad at the same time, but knowing that the children are at a better place makes the poem extremely powerful. For instance, "'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.'"
This image is significant, and although she is dead, she lives on. "Lulled and stilled in the shroud by the kirk-chime," this phrase gives the poem a dreamlike quality and it gives the reader assurance that the children are well. "Shroud" in the phrase can be depicted as the church or of God that is covering the children, protecting them in some way.
This is also important, since many of the children did not have proper church burials and perhaps in a way God is saying that is okay. They will be saved. When the children say, "It is good when it happens That we die before our time," it is their way of saying that they are okay with dying. They are not afraid because anywhere is better than where they are, at that moment in time. Death is a sanctuary for the children. They can now be at peace. In conclusion, Browning's poem "The Cry of the Children" greatly depicts the harsh reality of child labor that occurred in the nineteenth century. At the time, this poem would have been seen as a warning telling the world that this is wrong and should be stopped.