Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Manuscript containing early poem drafts relating to “The Cry of the Children” (Browning Guide D0782):

“Rock me softly–softly mother”

“O pardon dear lady, for standing unsightly”

Rare Item Analysis:

By Tyler Cagle

My rare item was a journal of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s (Browning Guide D0782) that includes two poems addressing similar issues to “The Cry of the Children.” The two poems that appear in the manuscript are left untitled and went unpublished. “O pardon dear lady” and “Rock me softly,” as the pair of poems are named, serve as templates for “The Cry of the Children”, showing EBB’s experimentation with the issue of child poverty.

Both “O pardon dear lady” and “Rock me softly” feature child speakers, a stark contrast from the political tone of “The Cry of the Children.” While “The Cry of the Children” is a political statement, these two smaller poems allow the reader to feel the emotional pull of the starving, desperate, and depressed children that are forced to grow up too fast. “The Cry of the Children” demands a parliamentarian change in the scenery of child labor. Barrett Browning is giving her own personal account of why and how these changes should come about, speaking on the behalf of those children who cannot. However, in these early poetic drafts, EBB changes that script completely by embodying the very children that she seeks to aid. Firstly, the child of “Rock me softly” is a child who is being rocked in his mother’s arms, hungry and beaten down. The child wishes for the pain to be taken away so that he or she may join his or her sibling in heaven. The weakness and hunger of the child is highly emphasized in the poem, as the child mentions “hunger-pain” (13) and describes his or herself as “thin and weak” (12) several times throughout. The first child of EBB’s experimental poems is quite tragic, showing the immediate consequences of child labor.

“O pardon dear lady” also has a child speaker, though this child appears to be a little older than the former child. Walking the streets, the speaker comes across the path of an upper class lady, “pardoning” her by giving the lady some quick facts on the tragedy that is a child laborer’s life. The child speaker talks of the death and burial of her sister (37-50), the hunger of the children (65-70), and the eventual hope of death (100-110). The child of this poem knows that death is the only way out for these children and death is seen as a great liberator for the child workers like herself. She welcomes death, knowing that she will never be hungry again when she is in the hands of God, for he is on the side of the children (137-39).

The tone and energy that are brought to the table by the child speakers is both disturbing and yet, disconnecting. One might want to help these children, but cannot connect with them on their level of sorrow, hunger, and depression. Without a doubt, Parliament surely felt that the death of these children at the hands of machinery was a necessary evil, yet they did not understand the gravity of the children. By taking on the form of a child speaker, EBB wins the emotions of readers but at a cost. Death, sorrow, and hunger are apart of every life and one indeed feels terrible about the toll of such mature material on a young child’s soul. However, emotional responses can only reach so far, especially with a governmental issue. Barrett Browning chose to speak in her adult tone in “The Cry of the Children” so that an actual voice would be heard, a voice that carried weight. As sad as it may seem, the emotional child speakers of the two draft poems would be seen as ordinary, just another poem to appeal to the soul. “The Cry of the Children” is a manifesto, spoken confidently and by EBB herself, allowing her influence and place in society to elevate the issue to such heights that it could no longer be ignored.

RockMe Softly

Transcript of poem drafts: EBB-OPardonDearLady-Draft-ReltoCryofChildren