The Cry of the Children

by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

‘The Cry of the Children,’ first published in Blackwood’s Magazine, for August, 1843, was called forth by Mr. Horne’s report as assistant Commissioner on the employment of children in mines and factories.

I

Do ye hear the children weeping, O my brothers,

Ere the sorrow comes with years?

They are leaning their young heads against their mothers,

And that cannot stop their tears.

The young lambs are bleating in the meadows,

The young birds are chirping in the nest,

The young fawns are playing with the shadows,

The young flowers are blowing toward the west -

But the young, young children, O my brothers,

They are weeping bitterly!

They are weeping in the playtime of the others,

In the country of the free.

II

Do you question the young children in the sorrow

Why their tears are falling so?

The old man may weep for his to-morrow

Which is lost in Long Ago;

The old tree is leafless in the forest,

The old year is ending in the frost,

The old wound, if stricken, is the sorest,

The old hope is hardest to be lost:

But the young, young children, O my brothers,

Do you ask them why they stand

Weeping sore before the bosoms of their mothers,

In our happy Fatherland?

IV

‘True,’ say the children, ‘it may happen

That we die before our time:

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!

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 in

The shroud by the kirk-chime.

It is good when it happens,’ say the children,

‘That we die before our time.’

VII

‘For all day the wheels are droning, turning;

Their wind comes in our faces,

Till our hearts turn, our heads with pulses burning,

And the walls turn in their places:

Turns the sky in the high window, blank and reeling,

Turns the long light that drops adown the wall,

Turn the black flies that crawl along the ceiling:

All are turning, all the day, and we with all.

And all day the iron wheels are droning,

And sometimes we could pray,

"O ye wheels" (breaking out in a mad moaning),

"Stop! be silent for to-day!"’

VIII

Ay, be silent! Let them hear each other breathing

For a moment, mouth to mouth!

Let them touch each other’s hands, in fresh wreathing

Of their tender humans 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!

Still, all day, the iron wheels go onward,

Grinding life down from its mark;

And the children’s souls, which God is calling sunward,

Spin on blindly in the dark.

X

Two words, indeed, of praying we remember,

And at midnight’s hour of harm.

"Our Father," looking upward in the chamber.

We say softly for a charm.

We know no other words except "Our Father,"

And we think that, in some pause of angels’ song,

God may pluck them with the silence sweet to gather,

And hold both within his right hand which is strong.

"Our Father!" If he heard us, He would surely

(For they call Him good and mild)

Answer, smiling down the steep world very purely,

"Come and rest with me, my child."

XII

And well may the children weep before you!

They are weary ere they run;

They have never seen the sunshine, nor the glory

Which is brighter than the sun.

They know the grief of man, without its wisdom;

They sink in man’s despair, without its calm;

Are slaves, without the liberty in Christdom,

Are martyrs, by the pang without the palm:

Are worn as if with age, yet unretrievingly

The harvest of its memories cannot reap, -

Are orphans of the earthly love and heavenly.

Let them weep! let them weep!

XIII

They look up with their pale and sunken faces,

And their look is dread to see,

For they mind you of their angels in high places,

With eyes turned on Deity.

‘How long,’ they say, ‘how long, O cruel nation,

Will you stand, to move the world, on a child’s heart,

Stifle down with a mailed heel its palpitation,

And tread onward to your throne amid the mart?

Our blood splashes upward, O goldheaper,

And your purple shows your path!

But the child’s sob in the silence curses deeper

Than the strong man in his wrath.’