Elizabeth Barrett Browning 2 Essay, Research Paper
The Horror of Child Labor
Over 150 years later, the same situation exists. Light was not exactly shed in the problems of child labor in the mid-1800 s. Soon, authors like Elizabeth Barrett Browning stepped to the forefront and raised public awareness for the deplorable conditions child laborers were subjected to. When government investigations into child labor revealed the rampant exploitation of children, Browning responded with a poem created in sympathy, taking the form of her 1843 poem, The Cry of the Children. With this poem, Browning worked to make the plight of the young workers known. She gave them a voice, loud and clear, where they previously had none. In her poem, Browning worked to express not simply the injustices dealt to the children or the conditions they endured, rather she worked to express the feelings of despair and bewilderment the child laborers were suffering.
The third stanza from The Cry of the Children represents the exact conditions that Browning wants her audience to be horrified and touched by. Browning paints a clean picture for her audience so that they do not simply read the words, but also visualize them. With the mental picture of children looking up with. . . pale and shrunken faces, Browning sets the stage for an emotional representation. She shows her audience images of the children she is talking about. Their faces are pale from the lack of sunlight and from malnourishment.
Browning then clearly defines the perpetrator of the sadness she describes. She identifies the hoary men, or old men who are rich industrialists, pulling and pressing down the checks of infancy. Browning takes the literal actions of the industrialists who owned these children s lives for 12-16 hours each day and became wealthy from their toil. Browning transforms the old men into child killers who smother the breath from the lungs of the small children, squashing out their lives.
This theme of impending death is then carried on throughout the stanza. The young children speak directly to the audience, conveying their own feelings about their labors.
Their reference to your old earth in line_____ is powerful. With just three words, the children are able to express the sub-standard nature of their lives. They are so lowly, and their lives so worthless, that they are not even residents or inhabitants of earth. They take no ownership of earth, because it, like every other freedom, has been denied to them. They have no power to own anything, so why should they even possess an earth to live on?
The young workers then show the audience that they have toiled and endured work, well beyond their years, and they reflect the effects of that age. Our young feet. . . are very weak;/ Few paces have [they] taken, yet are weary. Rather than appearing as young and carefree children, running and playing, these workers have used their young limbs beyond that capacity. They have been worked to the point of such exhaustion that they have lost their desire, their ability to be children. Their feet hurt as though they are adults returning home from work. All the more disturbing is the excessive fatigue the children feel, after having taken but a few paces. These few paces represent the small number of years the children have lived in comparison to the weariness they are now subjected to because of the grueling work.
The children are portrayed by Browning as so exhausted by the efforts of their short lives that they are actually looking forward to their own deaths. This wish for a swift death, too, is dashed, as they know that our grave-rest is very far to seek. Browning uses this imagery of death to evoke a feeling of horror from her audience. It is unbelievable that children could even think of dying, much less hope to die. The shocking realization of children desiring their own death is followed, however, with the knowledge that the children still have a long time to work and suffer before they get to rest. Browning takes the common perception of the elderly who are close to death and transposes it onto the frame of small children. These children should be full of life, but instead they desire and even hope for their own deaths.
Browning paints an ironic picture of the children who are happy to receive death. While both appear/feel as though they are near death, the children ask the aged why they weep. The irony is that the children do not weep at the thought of death despite living incomplete lives, yet the adults who live much more complete lives are crying. This disturbing acceptance of their own death, by the children is foiled by the tears and upset displayed by those elderly adults who have lived fuller lives and now face their own death. Both the immaturity of the elderly people in their response to death, and their fortuitousness of their impending death is the perspective of the children, is highlighted by the children s reactions to and their desire for their own deaths. From the perspective of the children, the adults are lucky to be able to die, and the children are jealous of that.
In the final three lines of the stanza, Browning paints one last cruel image for the audience through the voices of the children. The children evoke an image of young children standing in the frigid cold of reality without even proper shelter. The children stand outside, bewildering; confused about their lot in life, yet knowing nothing different. The final line drips with the same that the actual child workers felt, implicating that the graves are for the old. While the children are victims of the new industrialized economy, the elderly did not experience these cruelties of industrialization. The children resent that they don t even get a grave to die in. They are being used and abused and there is no end in sight. Even when they desire the unthinkable, to die, the unjust world, won t even let them die. They have reached a point of despair where their only option for relief from their suffering is their own death, and even their wishes for that are denied.
Browning continues The Cry of the Children, reiterating the same sentiments and feelings of work and pain for the abused child laborers. Her poem worked to bring acknowledgement and the light of truth to a subject often ignored in her time. Child labor issues continue to plague our society, but thanks to the work of authors like Browning, the incidences continue to decrease.