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The Victorian Age was a period of stark contrasts between, on the one hand, extreme poverty, misery, exploitation, and social unrest, and on the other, the prosperity of the middle and upper classes. Victorians themselves were often characterized by the double moral standards they followed. They were pretending to be following the moral values, but were on the other side, involved in corruption (Buelens 54). When government investigations into child labour revealed the rampant exploitation of children, Browning responded with her poem The Cry of the Children (Browning 6). By an extensive use in symbols, the author portrays a direct indictment of social misery: In a sense of aggressive fury and frustration, she exposes the brutal exploitation of child labour in English coal mines and factories in which children were suffering because of harsh conditions (Greenblatt 1078). The poem's aim is to get the attention of people no longer to keep silent but to bear witness to all the sufferings.
The image, with which the poem opens, is one of pure sadness. Browning introduces the reader to children, who seem not to be happy: "They are leaning their young heads against their mothers, / and that cannot stop their tears" (TCC 3-4).  Though the cause of the children's weeping is not given, it can be assumed that what they have to deal with must be terrible. Browning illustrates that what causes these children to cry is so terrible that even their mothers cannot comfort them. The first hint on child labour is, however, given in the following lines. By contrasting the children to other young offspring, Browning represents the youngsters to be innocent and to play around on wide-open spaces (Lamana 5/6). They do not live their lives how they should - That they were to be out at play in the fields, chasing their shadows, is emphasized by "The young fawns are playing with the shadows" (TCC 7). Children should be happy and enjoy their youth but unfortunately they cannot. Instead, they are "weeping bitterly!" (TCC 10)! The author continues this contrast in the next stanza:
One may understand why elderly people weep when they have had a life full of experiences and look back on memories, wishing they had some more time to live their lives over again in a different way. One may also understand that it is in the nature of a tree to lose its leaves as it gets older. But it is behind one's comprehension to understand why innocent, uncorrupted youngsters are weeping so bitterly, while they, in contrast to the old man, are still young (notice the repetition of the word young) and have a lot to discover. Hence, Browning points the finger of blame in the right direction when she confronts the English government with the children's conditions, because no one seems to be cared enough to ask why these children are in sorrow (TCC 13-14). In pleading with her 'brothers', Browning literally wants to shake the English government up and make them realize how badly they are exploiting the children.
A second image of indictment is read in the fourth stanza. Although the children still have to work long before leaving this world, they acknowledge that "it may happen/ that they die before their time" (TCC 36-37). They know that death is near for them if they continue working in bad conditions. They know this because it happened to little Alice:
Not surprisingly, the image of death is drawn rather positive. It is obvious that although this little girl named Alice is dead, she is happier. She is no longer troubled because of these ordeals. Experiencing this, the children explicitly say they would be happier if they would die. It is disturbing to read how small children desire their death but even more disturbing to read how they at the same time, do not pin much hope on it because the "grave-rest is very far to seek" (TCC 32), as the child still has a long time to work before it gets to rest. The children in the poem also go on to describe Alice's grave: "Little Alice died last year, her grave is shapen/ Like a snowball, in the rime (TCC 39-40). This part of the stanza illustrates how children witnessed other children like themselves die before their eyes. The description of the grave even illustrates that when children pass away; their bodies are not taken away for proper burial. Instead, these are being left behind and from time, as the skin gets hard, it gets covered by dust and dirt, looking like a snowball.
The children pray for help but nothing is done. They conclude that if the people they meet everyday do not respond to their weeping, why God, who is so even further away, would be anymore likely to do so. This image also occurs in the next following stanza. The children explain how when they pray they know no other words except "Our Father" (TCC 117). One might argue that the children are, despite their condition, very religious and keep praying to God all the time in the hope that one day, God will make an end to all the misery. Actually, the fact that they only know two words emphasizes that these children were excluded from education and were sent to coal mines instead. They would have faith in God, "but grief has made [them] unbelieving" (TCC 130). Browning notes that this fact is also rendered by her friend R.H. Horne who wrote the commission's report during the investigation (Browning 10). In the second last stanza, the author again makes effective use of contrasting images to display the children's health conditions, severely damaged by the labour and the long hours of work in the mines and factories of those industrial times:
Although they are only children, their experiences, as bleak and rough as they are, have taught them the grief of man but not its wisdom, as it is with age that one becomes more practical and proficient. The children feel defeated and are well aware that they will not get out of their situation if death does not liberate them. Slaves kept their faith strong in times of weakness. The children are slaves as well, but do not have the confidence in God. Their constant weeping is being ignored, which is hardly the sort of thing one would expect from a loving God. In the closing stanza, Browning makes a final plea to end child labour because "The coal-mine is the scene of a multitude of the most terrifying calamities, and these come directly from the selfishness of the bourgeoisie" (Bloy 13/17).
As introduced at the beginning of this essay, Victorians themselves were often characterized by the double moral standards they followed. By writing this poem, Elizabeth Barrett Browning opens people's eyes to the real life surrounding them. Cleverly, she lends a voice to the youngsters and let them speak up their mind loud and clear. The contrast marked by the young children having a lifetime to go and the harshness of the experiences they utter, may not lose its effect. The children's cry not to turn a deaf ear on their demands but to bear witness to all their sufferings echoes throughout the whole poem. As the core image of the poem, the mine is described as a dark, ruthless place where children are robbed of a proper childhood and look into the jaws of death.