Printer Friendly

The sentimental artistry of Barrett Browning's "The Cry of the Children".

Despite the fact that "The Cry of the Children" has been consistently recognized by Victorian and modern critics as one of the best verses in the two-volume Poems, 1844, which established Elizabeth Barrett Browning as a major Victorian poet, modern critical opinion has routinely dismissed it as too religious, sentimental, or socially conscious to be considered aesthetically worthy. (1) Alethea Hayter found the poem too religious for a modern audience while Angela Leighton described it as "a propagandistically tear-jerking poem." Similarly, Dorothy Mermin deemed its "meter awkward, the diction sentimental and false ..., the tears ... too profuse and damp, and the appeal to our feelings inartistically explicit"; bluntly put, Mermin found it "painful to read." (2) For these critics, there is too much of the sentimental in "The Cry of the Children" for it to be considered a poem of literary accomplishment. Working to restore Barrett Browning to the preeminence she enjoyed during her lifetime, Hayter, Leighton, and Mermin seem to be looking for an aesthetic experience which takes pleasure in subtle, ironic, indirect means of appeal and persuasion. Modern critical assessments of "good" literature tend to denigrate poetry which appeals to people's emotions or invokes religion as sentimental. From the modern critical perspective, being labeled sentimental is a pejorative judgment. Thus, such critics turn from the "The Cry of the Children" in confusion and even embarrassment. They are discomforted by the poem's pathos, piety, and passion--its "sentimentality"--and therefore judge it as "artistically weak or defective." (3) Unwilling to apply aesthetic evaluation to the poem's sentimentality, critics say such writing is beneath aesthetic consideration. By acceding to the twentieth-century bias against sentimentality, they perpetuate an uncritical and, in its own way, quite ideologically repressive view of aesthetic experience which ignores the artistic accomplishments of some of Barrett Browning's most enduring work, especially in Poems, 1844.

If as Joanne Dobson has asserted, "literary sentimentalism ... is premised on an emotional and philosophical ethos that celebrates human connection, both personal and communal," then it should come as no surprise that Barrett Browning's Poems, 1844 contains numerous verses written in the sentimental tradition# According to Simon Avery and Rebecca Stott, the publication of Poems, 1844 marked a progression in Barrett Browning's artistic and social development which embraced the notion that poetry had the power to affect change; from 1844 on her "engagement with contemporary debates" grew (p. 88). Further, Marjorie Stone notes that Barrett Browning aligned herself with the vates model of the poet; that is, she viewed herself as a poet-prophet "speaking at the centre of culture to an audience and seeking to influence that audience." (5) Indeed, as early as 1826, she claimed that "ethical poetry is the highest of all poetry forms" and that "poetry should be able to encompass argument and persuasion." (6) Not only did Barrett Browning think that poetry could be ethical, she also thought that it could and should be religious and did not hesitate to incorporate religiosity into her poetry. In the face of her desire to make her contemporaries think and act in response to the pressing problems of her day, Barrett Browning's use of passionate feeling, religion, and other aspects of sentimentality seems entirely appropriate. Indeed, as Fred Kaplan has informed us, "most Victorians believed that the human community was one of shared moral feelings, and that sentimentality was a desirable way of feeling and of expressing ourselves morally." (7) Many verses in Poems, 1844 and the reactions of Barrett Browning's first critics to them bear out Kaplan's contentions. Modern scholars like those quoted above, however, have chosen to ignore, dismiss, or denigrate this aspect of Barrett Browning's poetry. In doing so, scholars do her a disservice, because her deployment of sentimental strategies and devices often resulted in some of her most intellectually complex and aesthetically powerful poetry.

I argue that when a sentimental aesthetic standard--one that values effective, gripping persuasion and relies on overt emotional, even sensational, expression and religious engagement--is applied to "The Cry of the Children" and other sentimental verses in Poems, 1844, their intrinsic and enduring quality becomes visible, and they emerge as poems of "strong passion and emotion" that nonetheless preserve their "artistic power and integrity." (8) Though Poems, 1844 includes numerous texts with sentimental traits, "The Cry of the Children" is the most thorough-going sentimental verse of the collection. Not only that but the overwhelming power of the poem's sentimental facets captured the admiration of Victorian critics whose reviews I draw on throughout this article, because as Stone has noted, "nineteenth-century assessments of [Barrett Browning's] texts ... often reveal strikingly different presuppositions concerning generic categories ... than those that" prevail in our own period (p. 8). Through a reappraisal of the aesthetic and formal qualities of "The Cry of the Children," I demonstrate how Barrett Browning infused "a conventional sentimental aesthetic" with her "individual imagination, idiosyncratic personal feelings, and skilled use of language" to create an "engaging, even compelling ... lyric" (Dobson, p. 265).

Hayter, Leighton, and Mermin's attitudes toward "The Cry of the Children" were part of a larger program of devaluation of sentimental texts, which lasted most of the last century. In fact, throughout most of the twentieth century, literary analysis of sentimental texts was virtually impossible, because as Dobson has noted, the "twentieth-century critique of sentimentalism has worked methodologically, ideologically and institutionally to discourage investigation of sentimental texts as participants in literary traditions ... and as products of individual imagination, talent, and agency." (9) Indeed, as modernism turned to literature that was ironic, alienated, ambiguous, obscure, and difficult, sentimental literature claimed little other than negative critical attention from academia. (10) Critics persist in believing that "sentimentality substitutes cheap manipulation of feeling for careful calculation of form or judicious development of character." (11) The opening line of an article tellingly entitled "Sentimentality: The Victorian Failing," which appears on The Victorian Web, is indicative of the modern attitude: "We may define sentimentality as a writer's consciously indulging emotion for its own sake, pushing the reader to emotional peaks through exaggeration, manipulation of language and situation, and such mechanical tricks as dwelling on the suffering and purity of a dying child." (12) As Kaplan puts it, "in modern high culture, sentimentality is often thought of as vaguely embarrassing or is condemned for being in bad taste or for being insincere." (13) Such texts, they argue, are "inherently nonliterary." (14)

Barrett Browning suffered from the nineteenth- and twentieth-century devaluation of sentimentality in a more complex and profound way than did any other writer of the era in Britain or the United States. Sentimentality damaged her scholarly standing by, on the one hand, transforming her life into the sentimental romance of a reclusive invalid rescued by her poet-knight, and on the other, reducing her poetry to Sonnets from the Portuguese, the collection of love poems seen as validating the romance. During her lifetime, she enjoyed an international reputation substantial enough to earn her a serious nomination for poet laureate at the death of William Wordsworth in 1850; it remained strong at her death in 1861. Yet, despite her lifelong critical standing, for the first six decades of the twentieth century, she became the victim of a pernicious form of sentimentality. (15)

Robert Huntington Fletcher's introduction to the poetry of "Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning" in his 1918 anthology entitled History of English Literature aptly illustrates the way in which critics have used sentimentality to diminish Barrett Browning's poetic achievements. (16) Ostensibly providing an overview of the two poets, Fletcher in actuality focuses primarily on Robert Browning, dismissing Barrett Browning's poetry in a brief critical assessment as too tainted by sentimentalism to be artistically accomplished (pp. 409-410, 412-413). He dismisses her popular and critical acclaim as erroneous, claiming that her "achievement ... was generally overestimated, in her own day and later, but it is now [1918] recognized that she is scarcely a really great artist." Reading Barrett Browning as being out-of-control of her emotions and unable to control them in her poetry, he links her sentimentality to pathology, conflating her invalidism and her poetry: "Her secluded life of ill-health rendered her often sentimental, high-strung, and even hysterical." Declaring that Barrett Browning and many critics mistake "enthusiasm or indignation for artistic inspiration," he concludes that Barrett Browning's poetry is the product of an already inferior poetic practice made worse by her personal experience (p. 413).

Long before her life was reduced to a sentimental love story and her poetry to greeting-card status by the likes of Fletcher, Barrett Browning realized the difficulties associated with sentimentality for the female poet. Her relationship with feeling, the main currency of sentimental literature, was complicated both by her position as a woman in Victorian society and her sense of herself as a poet. She wrote during a time when both women's lives and art were limited by social conventions which marked them as emotional rather than reasoning, sensitive to individual grief but incapable of understanding broad societal problems. She knew that poetry deemed emotional ran the risk of being associated with the feminine and thus losing its ability to influence Victorian audiences, a peril she resisted. In one of her earliest published works, An Essay on Mind (1826), Barrett Browning argues that extreme emotion needs to be moderated by reason (11. 759-764). Despite her reservations about untempered feeling, she nonetheless considered emotion a viable component of her poetry. Indeed according to Avery and Stott, feeling played a key role throughout her career (p. 78). Pointing specifically to the period between the publication of The Seraphim (1838) and Poems, 1844, they note that she worked to reconcile the gendered binary of feeling and reason in her poetics. A perusal of Poems, 1844 attests to the fact that strong feeling now played an integral part in her poetry. However, while Barrett Browning might have reconciled herself to the strong emotions of sentimentality, modern critics and popular culture replicated Fletcher's view for most of the twentieth century. (17) Consequently, scholars working to reestablish her reputation as a major Victorian poet have been understandably reluctant to take seriously the sentimentality of some of her key poems.

This is the case with Dorothy Mermin in her 1989 biography of Barrett Browning. Her discussion of the ballads in Poems, 1844, for example, demonstrates her alignment with the anti-sentimental bias of twentieth-century scholars. Mermin claims that "modern readers are apt ... [to] find only suspicious fluency, verbal thinness, inept diction, [and] mawkish sentimentality" (p. 90). Forced to admit the ballads' popularity, she disdainfully remarks that "[their] main appeal is to the feelings." Like Fletcher, Mermin is condescending toward nineteenth-century critics: "Her ballads gave what early Victorian critics of poetry wanted: an apparently simple appeal to common human emotion" (p. 90), which in her view disqualifies them as aesthetically meritorious. (18) Mermin's "rules of aesthetic value" are revealed when she discusses some of Barrett Browning's political writings, (19) which are "aesthetically more attractive" than the ballads, in Mermin's opinion, because they are "detached, analytical, witty, appealing to a complex range of ideas and feelings" (p. 97). Despite acknowledging that Barrett Browning took "the essence of poetry to be feeling-fervor, rapture, love-despite [her] insistence on formal control," Mermin, nonetheless, does not accept that the aesthetic value of her emotionally charged ballads arises from their sentimentality (p. 85). Yet, Victorian critics recognized in these sentimental verses both poetic force and intellectual power. The Westminster Review pointed to "The Rhyme of the Duchess May," "Catarina to Camoens," and "Bertha in the Lane" as exemplars of the "highest of the class." Speaking specifically of the "Rhyme of the Duchess May," he wrote: "It has all the rapidity of action of 'Leonore,' the descriptive power of Scott and Campbell, united with the deep pathos of the earlier Scott ballads, and by the nicest dexterity in construction, or rather the innate prompting of a heart that beats time to truth and beauty" (BC, 9:376).

One ballad that comes under Mermin's disapprobation but was admired by Victorian critics is the exquisitely sentimental "Bertha in the Lane." The Sun's reviewer observed, "Bertha in the Lane" is ... the truest to the human heart of any in the language, and we defy any one to read it without being deeply moved by its impassioned sensibility" while The Westminster Review saw in it "the power of individualizing passion" (BC, 9:374, 376). What Victorian critics saw and accepted in "Bertha in the Lane" is a skillful deployment of sentimentality in the production of a complex study of human conflict. Replete with many of the commonplaces of sentimentality--deep personal passion, high emotionality, deathbed scenes, a ghostly presence, sacrificial love, sensational revelations, a profusion of tears, and the keepsake--"Bertha in the Lane" is a psychologically complex poem about a woman who gives up her lover to her sister. As realized in this poem, Barrett Browning's brand of sentimentality does not appeal to tastes that prefer "simple, pathetic, and ... ingenuous" poetry (Mermin, p. 76). On the contrary, this ballad contains complex emotions resulting from betrayal, frustration, shock, envy, and anger. Processed through Barrett Browning's poetic imagination, sentimentality in "Bertha in the Lane" yields a finely executed narrative. Reading the ballad through the framework of sentimentality, Victorian critics caught the quality of its intellectual and emotional engagement which modern scholars have missed by disregarding that aspect of it.

This attitude did not change until the late twentieth century when in her highly influential Sensational Designs (1985) Jane Tompkins countered this program of devaluation by showing the cultural value of sentimental fiction which she declared had harnessed "sentimental power" to bring about great social change (p. 123). In the years following Tompkins' groundbreaking study, having recognized the complexity and significance of sentimentalism and freed themselves from modernist prejudice, scholars gradually began to value, and more importantly, to evaluate sentimental literature on the basis of its aesthetic appeal. (20) In the preface to a special issue of American Literature, guest editors Christopher Castiglia and Russ Castronova suggest that critics are beginning to take a second look at aesthetics and consequently to realize that aesthetics no longer signifies the conservative, elitist, ahistorical, individualistic program that it once did:
   If the first look sees aesthetics as a celebration of timeless
   transcendence, a second look shows us the historical development of
   theories, objects, sensations, and actions made possible through
   aesthetics; if a first look suggests that aesthetics provide a
   foundation for liberal subjectivity, a second look reveals that
   aesthetics disrupt the individual subject and provide the
   groundwork for an alternative, post-identity collectivism; if a
   first look discerns aesthetics' apolitical concern with ephemera, a
   second look reveals those objects as the historical manifestations
   of loss and possibility, of waste and wishfulness, as deeply
   political movements of sensation and sensibility; if a first look
   tells us that the overly formal subject of aesthetics does not
   merit close cultural investigation, a second look reveals the ways
   nationalism and globalism, consent and coercion, materiality and
   universalism, fear and pleasure, even life and death are mediated
   through aesthetics. Aesthetics require and enable not just first
   and second looks but also different tastes. (21)

I applaud this reorientation. I am not advocating the end of cultural studies. Rather, I am saying that cultural studies should not be the only method by which sentimental texts are evaluated. On the contrary, sentimental literature should be analyzed by its own aesthetics principles. This process was helped by the work of scholars such as Dobson who in "Reclaiming Sentimental Literature" argued persuasively for critics to analyze sentimental texts as they would any other literary work. Dobson called on critics to recognize that just as there are poor and excellent practitioners of form, content, and style in other genres, so there are in sentimental literature. She correctly maintained that it is possible to distinguish "between the slavishly standardized text and one that plays with conventions in genuinely engaging ways, between the inept versifier and the skilled poet, between the mere technician of language and the uniquely imaginative writer" (p. 268). This attitude is evidently shared by Victorian critics of Barrett Browning's Poems, 1844 when, for instance, they compared "The Cry of the Children" to another celebrated social protest poem of the era, Thomas Hood's "Song of the Shirt" (1843). Commenting on the image of crying in both poems, the Westminster Review's critic remarked that Hood's poem was "too monotonous in its wail" while Tait's Magazine's reviewer declared Barrett Browning's poem "far superior to ["Song of the Shirt"] that most powerful poem, in grandeur and profound significance, as Beethoven is to the best of other harmonists" (BC, 9:365, 375).

Barrett Browning also distinguished between the poorly executed, banal emotionality often associated with poetry by Victorian women and the deeply, compelling passion that she believed could touch readers. Her fullest articulation of her views on the former came more than a decade after the publication of Poems, 1844 in the second book of Aurora Leigh (1856). Through Romney Leigh, she delivers a devastating critique of this type of sentimentality:
   Your quick-breathed hearts,
   So sympathetic to the personal pang,
   Close on each separate knife-stroke, yielding up
   A whole life at each wound, incapable
   Of deepening, widening a large lap of life
   To hold the world-full woe.
   You weep for what you know. (22)

Barrett Browning detested the selfish emotionalism described by Romney. For her the true poet was one who had the vision to understand "universal anguish" and translate it so that her audience could as well (Aurora Leigh, 2.209). That included the ability of the poet to appeal to the emotions in a way that truly touched an audience to think or act differently. A poet unable to do this, in her opinion, could not and did not deserve to influence the world (2.218-225). Her reaction to the most sentimental text of the age, Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, shows the value she placed on sentimentality when it was done effectively. That Stowe's novel affected her deeply is evident from a letter she wrote to Anna Jameson on April 12, 1853: "Not read Mrs. Stowe's book! But you must. Her book is quite a sign of the times, and has otherwise and intrinsically considerable power." (23)

When she dashed off the opening stanza of "The Cry of the Children" in urgent response to the Children's Employment Commission's report, (24) Barrett Browning demonstrated the intellectual complexity and aesthetic power of sentimentality when it is done by a brilliant poet, what Solomon has called "the elegance of emotion" (p. 6). First published in Blackwood's Magazine in 1843 and later included in Poems, 1844, "The Cry of the Children" is a passionate and evocative condemnation of the Victorian child labor system which abounds with sentimental motifs, rhetoric, figurative conventions, and stylistic features. Before examining this impressive sentimental gem, getting a sense of the parliamentary report which so impacted Barrett Browning will help illuminate her choice of sentimentality as the vehicle of expression in "The Cry of the Children."


Partly authored by Barrett Browning's friend and correspondent Richard Hengist Home, the 1842 Report of the Royal Commission on Children's Employment in Mines and Factories told of the systematic exploitation and degradation of British child workers. (25) Home generated the report that Barrett Browning probably read from depositions which he took from witnesses, the vast majority of whom were children. Though delivered in simple straightforward prose, the cumulative effect of Home's summary reports and depositions is powerfully affecting, and many of his impressions and descriptions of his subjects and their conditions made their way into Barrett Browning's poem. According to Horne, the physical and mental effects of work on children were profoundly detrimental. He reported in relentless detail the onerous, dangerous, monotonous jobs performed by children who labored under unimaginable conditions. A striking feature of the children's condition was the fact that though "very little indeed for [their] age[s]," many were "like ... little old [men or women] in the face" (First Report, Q14). By far the most overriding effect on the children was fatigue, resulting from their young ages, hard labor, and protracted hours-a feature of Home's report that Barrett Browning captures powerfully in her lyric. Factory work, Home reported, allowed for few holidays, even less play time, and "no regular time whatever for healthful recreation" (First Report, Q9), "for they are too tired to play at any games" (First Report, Q14). According to Home, the vast majority of working people lived in "squalid and dirty" dwellings "situated in narrow courts, unpaved yards, and blind alleys" whose "narrow dark passage[s] or burrow[s]" looked like "rabbit-warren[s]" which might have aspired to "the resemblance of a colony of beavers, but wanting the green banks and the fresh air" (First Report, Q14). The children's surroundings were inferior to those of animals, another point Barrett Browning exploits in her poem. Home's description of working-class homes and environs more than likely inspired a scene in "The Cry of the Children" in which an ill-advised adult speaker suggests that the child laborers run and play in the field-to their utter bewilderment as they have no experience of play or fields. Released in 1842 at a time when the House of Commons was debating the repeal of the Corn Laws, protective tariffs which kept the price of bread artificially high for the poor, Home's report and those of his fellow sub-commissioners exposed the exploitative conditions endured by British working children in the 1840s as systematic and widespread.

The impact of the Children's Employment Commission's report was immediate. The Times of London devoted two long articles to the "revolting report" and called the treatment of working children "plain savage ill- treatment-indecencies amounting to barbarism." (26) For her part, Barrett Browning was immediately provoked into action and determined to use her poetry to publicize the physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual damage done to working children by this system. The result was "The Cry of the Children," the first stanza of which she claimed "came into my head in a hurricane." (27) Given the horrendous conditions detailed in Home's report, quite possibly only sentimentality provided the literary tools with which Barrett Browning could poetically articulate the horrific reality of the working children of Victorian Great Britain.


Significantly, the earliest critics of both Poems, 1844 and "The Cry of the Children" appraised them through the lens of a sentimental aesthetics and judged them favorably. Poems, 1844 appeared to great critical acclaim in Great Britain and in the United States. Unlike modern critics, reviewers greeted the intense emotion and religious devotion of the collection not with disdain but instead with approbation: "Whatever she writes is supported by a profound religious feeling" (BC, 9:344-345). According to one reviewer, "we take [these volumes] to our hearts at once, as the outpourings of a pure and noble spirit ... revealed in tones which are musical by the greatness, depth, and music of the thoughts" (BC, 9:364). In an extensive review, Blackwood's Magazine saw power and force in the collection which it located in its passion and affection, noting that "she writes evidently from the heart.... [W]e admire [her] for the depth and purity and sacredness of her feeling" (BC, 9:374). The Westminster Review's critic described the poet as an "impassioned religious woman" whose two volumes are "the productions of true genius" (BC, 9:374).

Consistently singling out "The Cry of the Children" as one of the best poems in the collection, critics' admiration stemmed from the sentimental attributes of the poem (BC, 9:344-345). Quoting extensively, reviewers highlighted its sentimental features, praising them in ways that would cause a modern audience to squirm in discomfort: "truly the feeling was strong, heart-stirring, pious, and lovely; and the verses swept on with a broad and deep flow of melody, as well as of power" (BC, 10:364). They were receptive to the emotional impact of the poem as, for example, was the Dublin University Magazine's critic who declared, "as your indignation kindles against their

oppressors, you love the noble womanly soul that has made you feel so well what is just and human" (BC, 10:364). One American reviewer recognized and responded to Barrett Browning's appeal to the emotions, declaring that we hear 'The Cry of the Children,' a noble and stirring supplication, rising from the very depths of the poet's soul, to every other true soul in the realm, and in the world" (BC, 9:344). Similarly, another wrote that "it is a poem not to be read without a choking voice" (BC, 9:365). Impressed with Barrett Browning's powerful integration of poetic skill and social concern, The Westminster Review's critic wrote that the qualities of "philanthropy with the power of individualizing passion ... [and] intensity of affection" are united in the poet (BC, 9:374). Edgar Allen Poe declared that the poem was "full of nervous unflinching energy--a horror sublime in its simplicity--of which greater than Dante might have been proud" (BC, 10:352). (28) Recognizing the distinctive quality of Barrett Browning's deployment of sentimental devices, her first audience overwhelmingly judged "The Cry of the Children" to be "effective sentimental literary art" (Dobson, p. 269).


In "The Cry of the Children," Barrett Browning deployed a wide array of sentimental strategies and devices including pathetic diction, pathos, graphic imagery, childhood death, grave-side scenes, super abundant crying, and biblical rhetoric. A beautifully crafted poem, it is composed of thirteen linked stanzas whose rich symbolism and graphic imagery expose the degradation and dehumanization experienced by Great Britain's working children. Through the two motifs of the poem, "crying" and "the wheels," the poet captures many of the horrendous details of Horne's report. Tautly controlled and beautifully blended, crying and the wheels are interwoven throughout the poem; and, translated through Barrett Browning's unique imagination, they build to a "terrible and Dantesque" final scene of condemnation of the Victorian industrial complex (BC, 9:344).

First, she weaves crying, the universal symbol of distress and a key sentimental element, throughout the poem as its unifying theme. Barrett Browning combines crying with other sentimental strategies not merely to invoke pity (the sentimental response to distress) but to give a sense of how extensive the children's misery is, to protest against it, to indicate who is responsible for it, and to insist that something be done to alleviate it. Tears are profuse in the poem, but in Barrett Browning's capable hands, crying becomes a powerful imaginative site. As Steve Dillon has shown, throughout her career Barrett Browning self-consciously focuses on the cry, presenting it in many different forms such as "an ecstatic shriek, painful shout, or despairing moan to God." (29) Indeed from The Seraphim (1838) to Aurora Leigh (1856), she complicates the motif, often crying in the voices of angels, children, slaves, and even Christ.

Furthermore, crying surfaces in her work as appeals, protests, or expressions of agony. Dillon rightly argues that scholars should "do more to emphasize the creative element of those cries," because "these are often scenes of 'poetic composition' and creation" (p. 511). Thus, while her subjects cry often ("crying" in various forms appears in the poem seventeen times), Barrett Browning's multivalenced transformation of their tears is transcendent. First there is a melancholy, elegiac quality to the children's pleading; second their tears morph into angry cries of frustration, outrage, and resentment; then, tears still streaming, they cry out in defiance and confrontation until they burst out in supplication; finally, their psalmistic lament, "How long, ..., how long, O cruel nation," culminates in an Old Testament-style prophetic curse. (30) In the opening stanzas, using the motif of crying with the sentimental convention of blighted childhood innocence, Barrett Browning compels her readers to gaze upon the weeping children so that the depth of their deprivation becomes visible. As William Blake does in Songs of Innocence and of Experience, she juxtaposes the children's age against the adult experiences which daily assault them. (31) Echoing Home, she exposes the depths of the children's despair by comparing their blighted existence to that of young animals engaged in age-appropriate pursuits. Worse off than animals, "the young, young children" are "weeping bitterly" and thus unnaturally in the "playtime of the others" (1. 11). Further exploiting the sentimental motif of youth tainted by unnatural agedness, Barrett Browning recreates a feature that surfaced repeatedly in Horne's report-descriptions of children whose innocence had literally been worked out of them and who "looked old and hard-featured, like a weather-beaten man of 40" (First Report, Q66). Free to apply the craftsmanship of the poet, Barrett Browning employs pathetic diction ("pale," "sunken," "hoary," "infancy") to accentuate their prematurely aged appearance: "For the man's hoary anguish draws and presses / Down the cheeks of infancy" (11. 25-28). Given the anguish faced by the working children of England, it is no wonder, stresses Barrett Browning, that they weep "sore before the bosoms of their mothers" (1. 23). While it is the children's crying that gains our attention in the opening stanzas of the poem, the emphasis is not on "crying" per se but on the devastating contrasts it highlights.

In the ensuing stanzas, Barrett Browning creates an aesthetically powerful sentimental situation as the children, their tears now transformed into defiant speech, become "speaking subjects" (Stone, p. 13). Exhibiting the adult consciousness that Blake's "Chimney Sweeper" lacks, the politically and socially voiceless children speak for themselves. Far from crying, they are now defiant and assertive in their response to the query which concludes the second stanza, declaring with frustration: "Ask the aged why they weep, and not the children" (1. 33), for such questions are more appropriately asked of adults than of children. Like the children quoted in the Commission's Report, Barrett Browning's speakers describe serious subjects such as death and dying with the resignation one would expect of adults: "True, ... it may happen / That we die before our time" (1. 37). Yet, the substance of their speech presents a shocking juxtaposition to the level tone of their delivery for the children see happiness, peace, and rest in death.

Through the figurative structure of a dialogue between the children and an adult speaker, Barrett Browning incorporates several common sentimental motifs, injecting the scene with pathos and sensation. At the same time, however, she attacks and rejects the cheap, impotent emotionalism that she would later ridicule in Aurora Leigh. Doing so through the children's voices, she allows them to refuse pity and instead demand genuine perception from the adult speaker (as well as from Barrett Browning's audience). First, she draws a macabre graveside scene in which the children enviously consider the earlier death of a child they have known. The scene is pregnant with pathos for what could be more pathetic than children gathered at the graveside of another child. Musing aloud from a grownup perspective, the children speak of deceased "Little Alice" whom they imagine smiling and merry in death free from sleep deprivation, long workdays, and arduous work (1l. 41-48). Barrett Browning's vividly detailed imagery--the snowball-shaped grave, Alice's potential death smile, the absence of crying, the presence of merry moments, and the hint of a lullaby performed by the church bells--creates a scene of appalling pathos (II. 39-50). The surviving children view death as the sleep from which "none will wake her / Crying, 'Get up, little Alice! It is day'" (II. 43-44) and imagine Alice's grave as a site of security and rest. They lament the fact that given their youth even that "grave-rest" is a distant reality for them (1. 32). Nonetheless, the children declare, "It is good when it happens ... / That we die before our time" (1. 52).

This heart-wrenching tableau seems calculated to appeal directly to readers' feelings and actually provokes a sentimental interjection, "Alas, alas," as the adult speaker responds in horror (l. 53). However, Barrett Browning refuses the adult persona the emotional extravagance of merely expressing repugnance at the shocking attitudes expressed by the children. Mistakenly framing the situation in terms of an urban-rural binary, the adult persona, dismayed by the children's envy of little Alice, suggests they escape to the countryside, exhorting them to turn from scenes of industrialization and urbanization toward the bucolic and pastoral:
   Go out, children, from the mine and from the city,
     Sing out, children, as the little thrushes do;
   Pluck you handfuls of the meadow-cowslips pretty,
     Laugh aloud, to feel your fingers let them through! (11. 57-60)

Perplexed by references to meadows and flower petals falling through their fingers, the children sharply rebuke the speaker's mawkishness, their resentment at the ridiculous notion apparent: "Leave us quiet in the dark of the coal-shadows, / From your pleasures fair and fine!" (11. 63-64). They expose the absurdity of the speaker's exhortation, declaring they are too exhausted for meadowlarks and could do little else than "drop down in [the meadows] and sleep" (1. 68). (32) Such chronic weariness, declares Barrett Browning, cannot be ameliorated by a romp in the country. The children's lives, devoid of sunshine, nature, pleasure, and rest, are indeed pathetic. However, Barrett Browning rejects pity, exposes ignorance, and, rather than unbridled emotion, demands passionate indignation that such suffering is allowed to exist in Great Britain.

The second motif of "The Cry of the Children" is the wheels which Barrett Browning introduces in the closing lines of stanza six as the children school the adult speaker about the source of their exhaustion; in the mines and factories, they literally drag and "drive the wheels of iron" on their heads, shoulders, and backs (11. 73-76). Barrett Browning develops the wheels into a rich synecdoche of the mining and factory systems which reveals the emotional, psychological, and especially spiritual damage experienced by working children. (33) Using this literal embodiment of the system which oppressed British child laborers, she brings the full force of sentimentality to bear as she exposes the industrial system's culpability for the spiritual alienation of the children. Most significantly, she integrates the wheels imagery with a mainstay of sentimental writing--overt spirituality and religious rhetoric. While modern scholars, denizens of a more secular culture, are embarrassed by conspicuous religious displays in literature, Barrett Browning shared the conviction with most of her contemporaries that strong religious beliefs could and should be integrated into poetry. Moreover, Christian beliefs played a central role in sentimental literature in terms of its themes, tropes, and literary expression. (34) And Barrett Browning "insisted that poetry should be religious" (Mermin, pp. 77, 84). In fact, as Alexandra M. B. Worn notes, "spirituality and theological reflection held a central place" in her "life and work." (35) Her convictions were strong: "We want the touch of Christ's hand upon our literature, as it touches other dead things--we want the sense of the saturation of Christ's blood upon the souls of our poets, that it may cry through them in answer to the ceaseless wail of the Sphinx of our humanity, expounding agony into renovation." (36) She considered poets, as she put it in Aurora Leigh, to be "the only truth-tellers now left to God" (1.859). And thus, though modern critics may have grown deaf to the resonant, allusive, and deeply effective quality of biblical rhetoric, the second half of "The Cry of the Children" is permeated with biblical language and allusions, religious images, and spiritual expression infused by other elements of sentimentality.

Beginning with the rich, dense seventh stanza which stands as the poem's literal and aesthetic centerpiece, Barrett Browning completely engages in the overt religiosity that Mermin, Hayter, and other scholars so condemned, but in doing so she demonstrates her ability to transcend the cliches of sentimentality. Thus, she reverses the hortatory or exemplifying role that biblical rhetoric typically plays in sentimental writing and redeploys it to dramatize the blasphemous perversions present in the Victorian workplace. She makes use of the wheel vision of the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel, (37) for instance, portraying the industrial wheels as godlike in the eyes of the children. In an extremely dramatic account, Ezekiel describes his vision of God "enthroned on a chariot supported by four tetramorphic creatures" which are mysteriously connected to wheels. (38) Significantly, Ezekiel's vision commences with the arrival of a "whirlwind," which signifies the Holy Spirit in scripture, and in the poem represents the powerful spirit of the machines. (39) After portraying the four creatures in great detail, the prophet describes a set of awesome, beryl- colored, whirling, intersecting wheels with eyes around the rims which are able to move in any direction without turning, and, significantly, are indwelt by an animating spirit. Whereas Ezekiel's wheels signify God's omnipresence, omnipotence, and omniscience-His power and dominion over the world-the factory wheels represent the corresponding profane power of the Captains of Industry over the lives of the children.

Like Ezekiel's vision, Barrett Browning's description of the factory wheels "is strange, almost hallucinatory, and yet compelling.'' (40) Through a sensational psychodelic dream-like sequence which focuses on the operation of the wheels, she presents the psychological impact of the ceaseless cycle of monotonous workdays and stupefying fatigue on the children. Beginning with the revolving motion of wheels, she capitalizes on the several meanings of the verb "turn" to create a melodramatic scene which vividly depicts the physical degradation, sensory deprivation, and psychological isolation endured by the children. As in Ezekiel's vision, the godlike power of the wheels is realized through the wind which completely encompasses and controls the children--mind, soul, and body--and everything else on the factory floor. Like the Holy Spirit, the wind created by the turning of the factory wheels is inescapably, perpetually ubiquitous. Picking up the "all day" refrain of the closing lines of stanza six, Barrett Browning moves from the actual motion of the wheels to their mental impact on the children: "'For all day the wheels are droning, turning; / Their wind comes in our faces, / Till our hearts turn, our heads with pulses burning'" (11. 77-79). As the stanza progresses, Barrett Browning uses "turn" in the sense of spinning emotionally and psychologically out of control as the children have a hallucinatory experience in which everything associated with the factory floor "turns" until they are driven mad by the incessant motion and noise of the wheels (11.81-87). The viewpoint is the children's, and their perspective becomes the reader's who along with them suffers the same disorientation (1. 77), a sensation noted by one of Barrett Browning's reviewers who wrote "you feel your heart ache and your head grow dizzy with the poor young creatures" (BC, 10:346). The repetition is "not ornamental, but ... emphatic" as Barrett Browning uses the reiteration of "turn" and "all" (which appear seven and five times, respectively) to signify the ubiquity and absolute domination of the industrial complex. (41) The children's cry of supplication to "ye wheels" marks the displacement of God (1. 87). The god-like status of the wheels is confirmed by the authorial speaker who joins her supplication to that of the children, repeating their request: "Ay, be silent!" (1. 89).

At this point in "The Cry of the Children," Barrett Browning uses a full repertoire of religious devices. The greater part of stanza eight, for instance, is a prayer uttered by the adult speaker who, now fully comprehending the children's circumstances, echoes the language and cadence of the psalmists. (42)
     Let them hear each other breathing
     For a moment, mouth to mouth!
   Let them touch each other's hand, in a fresh wreathing
     Of their tender youth!
   Let them feel that this cold metallic motion
     Is not all the life God fashions or reveals
   Let them prove their living souls against the notion
     That they live in you, or under you, O wheels! (11. 89-96)

Praying to the wheels rather than to God, the speaker underscores the problem that Barrett Browning identifies-the children have grown skeptical of the existence of a being more powerful than the world of the factory. The last words of the speaker's prayer allude to Acts 17.28 where St. Paul points to God as the source of humanity's existence, emphasizing human beings' dependence on and intimate connection to Him: "For in him we live, and move, and have our being." Here Barrett Browning's biblical reference focuses attention on the barrier the wheels pose between the children and their realization of God's existence or love for them. She portrays the "cold metallic motion" of the "iron wheels" as a relentless, malevolent act meant to grind "life down" as though the children have been caught in the gears of machinery, transforming what was a common occurrence in the factories into a spiritual event (1. 98). Thus, overpowered by the insensate wheels, the "children's souls" are incapable of responding to God's call for them to come "sunward" (1. 99). Barrett Browning's Victorian audience, well versed in the Scriptures, would not have missed the play on "sunward" nor the allusion tol Peter 2.9 which declares that believers are "a chosen generation ... called forth out of darkness into his marvelous light." Confused and disoriented, the children do not recognize themselves as a chosen generation, so they "Spin on blindly in the dark" (11. 99-100).

As T. S. Eliot said of Alfred Tennyson's In Memoriam, it is the quality of the children's doubt rather than their faith which becomes the primary focus of the poem. As Barrett Browning brings together the two key motifs, crying and the wheels, the poem erupts into a cacophonous scene of accusations, condemnations, sobbing, and emotional dialogue; and while the scene is rich in sentimental actors such as innocent children, angels, and "brothers" (1. 134), Barrett Browning reconfigures these conventional sentimental tropes. Insisting on a familial relationship between the young workers and their masters, the speaker confronts "my brothers" with the children's unbelief, which they confirm by blasphemously questioning God's existence (BC, 9:344). The wheels also become actors in Barrett Browning's drama as she juxtaposes them with the pleas of sobbing children, their noise blocking communication with God and, in the minds of the children, overpowering heaven so that it is consumed by "Dark, wheel-like, turning clouds" (l. 130). Rather than point to a benevolent God, singing angels serve only as one more level of interference past which the children cannot penetrate. Even the sentimental tradition of praying children gets problematized. Gone is the saccharine tableau of cherubic children kneeling beside their beds overseen by benevolent parents. In its place are weary child laborers who utter the opening words of the paternoster, the only words of the Lord's Prayer that they know, at the witching hour as a good luck "charm" rather than as a gesture of faith. (43) Revealing their cynicism, they declare that "Our Father!" (someone who acknowledges a paternal relationship to them) "if He heard us," would certainly respond and say "'Come and rest with me, my child'" (1. 124), unwittingly echoing Christ words. (44) Rather than rest, the children are confronted with their master whom they are stunned to learn "is of [God's] image" (1. 127). At this news, the children are seemingly left without hope of escaping the exploitation of the mines and factories, as the adult speaker laments "And well may the children weep" (1. 137).

Barrett Browning wields biblical language, style, and tone in the final stanza of "The Cry of the Children" like the poet-prophet she claimed to be. Thus, while the children can see no relation between themselves and God, she not only establishes their connection to God but she also locates Him as the site of power greater than their masters. Then she warns their "brothers" that "they mind you of their angels in high places / With eyes turned on Deity" (11. 151-152). This allusion to words spoken by Christ establishes the relationship between the workers and God and warns that these "little ones" have heavenly protectors: "Take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones; for I say unto you, That in heaven their angels do always behold the face of my Father which is in heaven" (Matthew 18.10). Significantly, by linking the children to God, of whom they have little experience and therefore in whom they have little faith, Barrett Browning overcomes patriarchal (worldly) power and links them to the source of all power. Initially portrayed as powerless nonentities caught in the wheels of the industrial system, the children by virtue of their divine connection are now empowered to proclaim the final awful malediction.

Barrett Browning chose to galvanize Victorians by dosing the poem with "a rhetorically complex and resounding curse" aimed at the men who own and operate the factories and mines. (45) As Stone has noted, "the range and ingenuity of Barrett Browning's cursing are ... remarkable," and she stands out as the consummate Victorian practitioner of the art of cursing ("Cursing," p. 156). In delivering a curse, she was following a tradition dating back to the Old Testament. (46) Moreover, nineteenth-century sentimental writers often used religious strategies such as cursing and other religiously based principles to admonish their readers or to propel them into action on behalf of the oppressed. (47) Using the shocking graphic imagery and caustic tone of the Old Testament prophetic tradition, the curse is rhetorically and aesthetically effective. (48) In the most graphic language possible, the children speak on their own behalf, castigating the mining and manufacturing interests who exploit them. The economic pursuits of Great Britain are portrayed as murderous. Indeed, the gory depiction of a child's beating heart being trampled by an iron clad heel which marches to its "throne amid the mart" renders the acts of the Captains of Industry heinous (l. 156). The children's blood places a horrific marker on the "gold-heaper" which exposes his guilt: "And your purple shows your path!" (1. 158). With this final wrenching condemnation, the poem reaches a crescendo of sentimentality as the children are poised to pronounce a curse of biblical proportions. At this point, however, Barrett Browning pulls back from hyperbole to understatement. Juxtaposing the moral and emotional power of the child against the violence and economic might of the man, she pronounces the curse through the inarticulate sobbing of a single child and reminds Victorian society that "the child's sob in the silence curses deeper / Than the strong man in his wrath" (11. 159-160). With this culminating melodramatic scene, Barrett Browning provides a striking example of sentimental writing. As the reviewer of Poems in Tait's Edinburgh Magazine commented, "If Miss Barrett had written no other poem but 'The Cry of the Children,' she must have been recognised as a poetess of a very high class" (BC, 9:365).


The enduring aesthetic excellence of "The Cry of the Children" is undeniable. Unlike scholars such as Avery and Stott, who express approval of the poem in spite of its sentimentalism (p. 102), I argue that it is because of Barrett Browning's mastery of the aesthetics of sentimentality that this poem continues to impact lay and scholarly readers profoundly. (49) With "The Cry of the Children," Barrett Browning demonstrates that, when wielded effectively, sentimentality can be socially and aesthetically powerful. Thus, modern scholars should follow the lead of Victorian critics in recognizing her talent as a sentimental writer. Twenty years ago, diverging from modern high culture's denigration of sentimentality to evaluate it seriously in Barrett Browning's poetry might have risked undermining feminist scholars' project to recover her as a major poet; to do so now that modern criticism has caught up with her first critics in recognizing the aesthetic legitimacy of sentimentality can only enhance her standing as "nothing less than the first Victorian poet and first major woman poet in England" (Mermin, p. x).


(1) See John Forster, "Review of Poems (1844)," The Examiner (October 1844): 627-629 in Contemporary Reviews, Appendix III, The Brownings' Correspondence, ed. Philip Kelley and Scott Lewis, 14 vols. (Winfield, Kansas: Wedgestone Press, 1984- 1991), 9:348; hereafter cited in text as BC; BC, 9:344, 348, 364-365, 374; Dorothy Mermin who writes that "Poems, 1844 established [Barrett Browning] as one of the leading poets of the age" (Elizabeth Barrett Browning: The Origins of a New Poetry [Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1989], p. 87); Marjorie Stone who notes that the "1844 Poems established Elizabeth Barrett Barrett as Tennyson's rival in the eyes of many of her contemporaries. The two volumes are to her career what Tennyson's 2-volume 1842 Poems are to his" (Elizabeth Barrett Browning [New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995], pp. 15-16); and Simon Avery and Rebecca Stott who declare Poems, 1844 Barrett Browning's "most ground-breaking and original work" (Elizabeth Barrett Browning [London, Longman, 2003], p. 89).

(2) See Alethea Hayter, Mrs. Browning: A Poet's Work and Its Setting (London: Faber and Faber, 1962), p. 55; Angela Leighton, Victorian Women Poets: Writing Against the Heart (Hemel Hampstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1992), p. 94; and Mermin, p. 96. A notable exception is Avery and Stott's treatment, pp. 99-107.

(3) Jane Tompkins, Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860 (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1985), p. xv.

(4) Joanne Dobson. "Reclaiming Sentimental Literature," American Literature 69 (June 1997): 266.

(5) Stone, pp. 134-156. Also see Avery and Stott, p. 7.

(6) Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Preface, An Essay on Mind, The Complete Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, ed. Charlotte Porter and Helen A. Clarke, 6 vols. (New York: Thomas Crowell & Co., 1900), 1:5-6. Hereafter cited as Complete Works. Also see Avery and Stott, p. 69.

(7) Fred Kaplan, Sacred Tears: Sentimentality in Victorian Literature (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1987), p. 3.

(8) Jerome McGann, The Poetics of Sensibility: A Revolution in Literary Style (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), p. 104.

(9) Dobson, "Reclaiming Sentimental Literature," p. 264. Dobson is speaking of the texts of nineteenth-century American women. While in the United States sentimental fiction, particularly at the mid-century, was mostly produced by women, in England male authors such as Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray also wrote sentimental fiction. Moreover, Kaplan sees himself as doing something of a recovery job in Sacred Tears where he shows that in addition to these two Victorian powerhouses, Carlyle's writing was also impacted by sentimentality. See Kaplan, p. 3.

(10) See Herbert Ross Brown, The Sentimental Novel in America, 1789-1860 (Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 1940); Fred Lewis Patted, The Feminine Fifties (New York: D. Appleton-Century, 1940); Ann Douglas, The Feminization of American Culture (New York: Avon, 1977).

(11) Robert C. Solomon, In Defense of Sentimentality (New York: Oxford Univ. Press 2004), p. 5. This was the charge anti-sentimentalists leveled at Dickens who was seen as a major perpetrator of Victorian British sentimentality with pathetic characters such as Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol (1843) and little Paul in Dombey and Son (1846- 48). In his study of The Other Dickens (2003), for example, John Bowen argues that while Dickens' popular readers have always been delighted by the sentimental texts of his earlier career (such as Oliver Twist [1838], Nicholas Nickleby [1839], and Old Curiosity Shop [1841]), his scholarly readers have always favored his later works (Great Expectations [1861] and Bleak House [1853]), preferring their darker outlook and tone and considering them superior in plot structure. Critics as varied as Oscar Wilde, G. K. Chesterton, and Aldous Huxley expressed disapproval for what they considered Dickens' excessive sentimentality. Like Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), Dickens' Old Curiosity Shop (1841) has drawn vociferous criticism from modern critics. According to Bowen, "it is, almost universally, thought to be a text of notorious sentimentality, morbid and uncontrolled, embarrassing and absurd by turns" (John Bowen, The Other Dickens: Pickwick to Chuzzlewit [New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2003], p. 133). Even F. R. Leavis sought to disassociate himself from Little Nell before moving on to his recovery of Dickens the Novelist (1970).

(12) Philip V. Allingham, "Sentimentality: The Victorian Failing," 2004, The Victorian Web,

(13) Kaplan, Sacred Tears, p. 3. Solomon notes the same attitude at work in the title of Mark Jefferson's article, "What's Wrong with Sentimentality?" (1983), which is likewise an indication of "a century-old prejudice [that 'it goes without saying that there is something wrong with sentimentality'] that has been devastating to ethics and literature." He maintains that "our disdain for sentimentality is the rationalist's discomfort with any display of emotion, warranted as well as unwarranted, appropriate as well as inappropriate" (pp. 3-4).

(14) Joyce W. Warren, "Sentimentalism." American History Through Literature, ed. Janet Gabler-Hover and Robert Sattelmeyer (Gale Cengage, 2006. Available at www.enotes. com/american-history-literature/sentimentalism).

(15) Though here I am focusing on the lack of critical attention in the twentieth century, the sentimentalization of Barrett Browning's life and art began during her lifetime. For instance, her longtime correspondent, Richard Hengist Horne with whom she collaborated on literary and poetic projects, when he came to discuss her in A New Spirit of the Age, a collection of essays on contemporary authors, represented her as an isolated recluse who had spent years confined in a single room and mentioned nothing of her poems. Moreover, Barrett Browning figured sentimentally for numerous Victorians. Mermin notes: "And for the secular and literary Victorian imagination, her life was the pure essence of poetry. She was the Sleeping Beauty, Tennyson's Mariana and Lady of Shalott, Arnold's Iseult of Brittany, and the beautiful deathly women who were to dominate the visions of Dante Rossetti, Morris, and Swinburne: enclosed, isolated figures of art and desire, of living death" (p. 79). Also, here 1 want to highlight the fact that sentimentality can be guilty of all the charges that modern opinion has brought against it. The way in which it has been used to caricature Barrett

Browning's personal life and to diminish her poetic accomplishments demonstrates the negative, indeed detrimental, impact that sentimentality can have.

(16) Robert Huntington Fletcher, "Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning," A History of English Literature (Boston: R. G. Badger, 1918), pp. 408-417.

(17) For a full discussion of Barrett Browning's critical reception see Avery and Stott, pp. 2-22.

(18) Victorian reviewers contradict Mermin's contention that Barrett Browning wrote for an unsophisticated audience. According to Cornelius Mathews, she "relies greatly on an understood fund of learning in her reader; and taxes him, close and frequent, for whatever resources of nice analogy and far-off allusion he may be master" (BC, 9:345). Mathews' sense that Barrett Browning does not cater to readers is echoed by other critics. Tait's Magazine's reviewer wrote: "She writes only for the thoughtful, for those who have gone through a discipline of life akin to her own. Neither in her themes nor in her style is there anything to take a strong hold upon the general mind" (BC, 9:364).

(19) The term is Angela Leighton's. See Victorian Women Poets, p. 20.

(20) See Warren, "Sentimentalism." For example, in "What is Sentimentality?" June Howard argues that scholars should consider reconceptualizing sentimentality "as a transdisciplinary object of study" to rediscover and reclaim, for instance, its connections to eighteenth-century ethics and philosophy; see American Literary History 11, no. 1 (1999): 63-81. Also see Kaplan, Sacred Tears; Joyce W. Warren, "Introduction: Canon and Canon Fodder," The (Other)American Traditions: Nineteenth-Century Women Writers (New Brunswick: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1993); Dobson, "Reclaiming Sentimental Literature"; Hildegard Hoeller, Edith Wharton's Dialogue with Realism and Sentimental Fiction (Gainesville: Univ. Press of Florida, 2000); and Elizabeth Maddock Dillon, "Sentimental Aesthetics," American Literature 76 (September 2004): 495-523.

(21) See Christopher Castiglia and Russ Castranova, "Preface: A 'Hive of Subtlety': Aesthetics and the End(s) of Cultural Studies," American Literature 76 (September 2004): 433.

(22) Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh, ed. Margaret Reynolds (Athens: Ohio Univ. Press, 1992), 2.184-213.

(23) Letter to Anna Jameson, The Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, ed. Frederic G. Kenyon, 2 vols. (New York: Macmillan, 1898), 2:110.

(24) Barrett Browning wrote Richard Hengist Horne that "my 'Cry of the Children' owes its utterances to your exciting causations" (BC, 7:274).

(25) Royal Commission on Children's Employment in Mines and Factories, The First Report of Commissioners for inquiring into the Employment and Condition of Children in Mines and Manufactories (London, 1842), vols. XV-XVI; hereafter cited in the text as First Report, with the individual Queries cited as Q.

(26) Editorial, The Times (London), May 14, 1842: F5; Editorial, The Times, May 6, 1842: A6; Editorial, The Times, July 5, 1842: D4. See also "First Report of the Children's Employment Commissioners: Mines and Collieries," Westminster Review 38 (July- October 1842): 86-139.

(27) Letter to Hugh Stuart Boyd, BC, 7:331.

(28) Other poems in the 1844 collection received attention for their sentimental dimensions including "The Cry of the Human," "A Child Asleep," and "Bertha in the Lane." Of "The Cry of the Human," which bears titular relation to "The Cry of the Children," Blackwood's Magazine wrote that parts of it "are inspired by profound feeling, and written with a rare force and simplicity of style" while "Bertha in the Lane" was noted for its "impassioned sensibility" (BC, 10:352).

(29) Steve Dillon, "Barrett Browning's Poetic Vocation: Crying, Singing, Breathing," Victorian Poetry 39, no. 4 (2001): 509.

(30) Elizabeth Barrett Browning, "The Cry of the Children," Complete Works, 3:153; hereafter cited in the text. See Psalm 6: "My soul is also vexed: but thou, O Lord, how long?"; Psalm 13.1: "How long wilt thou forget me? O Lord? for ever?"; and Psalm 94.3: "Lord, how long shall the wicked, how long shall the wicked triumph?"

(31) Stone notes that Barrett Browning's "reading of [Blake's] Songs of Innocence in 1842 contributed to the imagery and the radicalism of 'The Cry of the Children'" (p. 59); William Blake, "Chimney Sweeper" (Songs of Innocence) and "Chimney Sweeper" (Songs of Experience) in Selected Poetry and Prose of William Blake, ed. Northrop Frye (New York: Random House, 1953), pp. 27, 41.

(32) Throughout the 419 depositions, Home remarks on the children's ignorance of flowers. "You will find poor girls who had ... never seen a violet or primrose, and other flowers; and others whose only idea of a green field was derived from having been stung by a nettle" (Q19). Also see Q15-Q16, no.67; Q16, no. 71. Home also notes weariness in the children he interviewed: "constant exhaustion, or at least fatigue from constant work, leaves them neither time, nor inclination, nor stamina, for the excitement of the imagination and the senses" (Q14). One subject, Martha Hicks, maintained that "the last thing she thinks of at night is to get to bed and go to sleep" (Q16).

(33) The aptness of Barrett Browning's choice of "the wheels" to represent the industrial complex becomes abundantly clear upon perusal of Home's description of a factory floor:

The rooms are all crowded with dangerous machinery, so close that you can scarcely pass; indeed some operations have to be stopped in order that you may pass at all, so that there shall be room for the body to effect its passage, a safe distance being out of the question. Not any of this machinery is boxed off, or guarded in any way. It is a frightful place, turn which way you will. There is a constant hammering roar of wheels, so that you could not possibly hear any warning voice. You have but once to stumble on your passage from one place to another, or to be thinking of something else, and you are certain to be punished with the loss of a limb, or of your life if the limb does not come way kindly. Little boys and girls are here seen at work at the tip-punching machines (all acting by steam power) with their fingers in constant danger of being punched off once in every second, while at the same time they have their heads between two whirling wheels a few inches distant from each ear. (Q8-Q9)

(34) See Tompkins, pp. 126-136; Warren, "Sentimentalism"; and Julie Melnyk, Victorian Religion: Faith and Life in Britain (Westport, Connecticut: Praeger, 2008), pp. 116-122.

(35) Alexandra M. B. Worn, "'Poetry Is Where God Is': The Importance of Christian Faith and Theology in Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Life and Work," Victorian Religious Discourse: New Directions in Criticism, ed. Jude V. Nixon (New York: Palgave Macmillan, 2004), p. 235.

(36) Elizabeth Barrett Browning, The Greek Christian Poets, Complete Works, 6:176.

(37) As I will show, Barrett Browning also used allusions to the New Testament. However, in reference to "the wheels" imagery, she draws principally on Ezekiel's wheel vision. I would like to thank Joshua King for drawing my attention to the throne vision of Ezekiel.

(38) "Ezekiel," A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature, ed. David Lyle Jeffrey (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1992), p. 262. See Ezekiel 1.4-21; Ezekiel 10.2, 6-7, 9-13, 16-19; and Daniel 7.9.

(39) For instance, the Holy Spirit comes as "rushing mighty wind" at Pentecost (Acts 2.2).

(40) Joseph Blenkinsopp, Ezekiel, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), p. 18.

(41) Tom Furniss and Michael Bath, Reading Poetry: An Introduction to Theories, Histories, and Conventions (New York: Prentice Hall, 1996), p. 264.

(42) See Psalms 34.17-18; 72.16-18; 35.1-8, 19, 27-25; 40.14-16; 69.15, 23, 25, 28, 34; 70.2-5.

(43) The children's ignorance of the full Lord's Prayer or its meaning proved to be the most sensational revelation to emerge from Horne's report: "Many of the children told me they always said their prayers at night, and the prayer they said was 'Our Father.' I naturally thought they meant that they repeated the Lord's Prayer, but I soon found that few of them knew it. They only repeated the first two words ; they knew no more than' Our Father.' These poor children, after their laborious day's work, (nail- making, japanning, screw-making,) lying down to sleep with this simple appeal, seemed to me inexpressibly affecting" (QI9).

Working class poet Eliza Cook in "Our Father" also used this material to compose a poem about the factory children, but her predictable rhymes, obvious imagery, rudimentary diction, and condescending moralizing are no match for the depth and gravity of Barrett Browning's multivalenced language, evocative imagery, complex symbolism, and sophisticated biblical allusion. See Eliza Cook, "'Our Father,'" Victorian Women Poets: An Anthology, ed. Angela Leighton and Margaret Reynolds (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995), pp. 191-192.

(44) "Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest," Matthew 11.28.

(45) Marjorie Stone, "Cursing as One of the Fine Arts: Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Political Poems," Dalhousie Review 66 (1986): 160.

(46) The first curses in the Bible are issued by God in Genesis. He curses the serpent (Genesis 3.14), the ground (as a result of Adam and Eve's sin), and Cain (Genesis 3. 17). Also in the Bible, curses are delivered at the direction of God against the evildoer and are often the weapon of the wronged, the oppressed, or the righteous. See also Deuteronomy 27.15-26; 28.16-68; and Jeremiah 11.3; 17.5-6.

(47) Dickens, for instance, relied on religious sentiment in many of his novels and short stories, including "A Christmas Carol." Stowe used religious rhetoric at the end of Uncle Tom's Cabin where she suggests that readers respond to slavery by making certain that their sympathies are "in harmony with the sympathies of Christ" and not in line with "the sophistries of the worldly policy" (Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom's Cabin; or, Life of the Lowly, 2 vols. [Cleveland, 1853], 2:515).

(48) See Ezekiel 4.12-17; 5.10-12; 6.5-7; Jeremiah 7.32-34; 8.1-3, 17.

(49) It should also be noted that "The Cry of the Children" helped drive the political debates that led to the passage of the 1847 "Ten Hours" Factory Act for children and women.
COPYRIGHT 2011 West Virginia University Press, University of West Virginia
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2011 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Henry, Peaches
Publication:Victorian Poetry
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2011
Previous Article:"Perchance my hand may touch the lyre": orality and textuality in nineteenth-century deaf poetry.
Next Article:The margins of the dramatic monologue: teaching Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point".

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2020 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters