The poem opens with a question, quickly establishing the relationship between the speaker and the listeners. Through this question, Browning establishes the existence of the weeping children, but also displays the tension between her speaker and the people whom the speaker addresses: the question is clearly an appeal, in which the speaker attempts to make her listeners perceive reality the same way she does. Hoping to make others change their behavior and help the children, the speaker must first ask them to recognize the children's plight simply by hearing their cries.
"Leave us quiet in the dark of the coal-shadows,
From your pleasures fair and fine!"
One of Browning's persuasive techniques in the poem is to explain to adult listeners that child laborers need help, in part because they are too downtrodden to be able to liberate themselves. Indeed, she argues, the children are unable to even wish for improvements in their situation, precisely because their work is so tiring and difficult that it drains them of the energy to desire any other way of life. This quote illustrates that, while the children consciously know that life outside of their mines and factories can be "fair and fine," they also believe it to be so inaccessible that it is undesirable—they refer to these improved conditions as "your pleasures," the possessive "your" suggesting that they think of these pleasures as fundamentally unobtainable.
"'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?"
Here, the speaker quotes the children, allowing them in the final lines of the poem to speak at length and in a newly dramatic and even melodramatic voice. Rather than relegating the children to the status of victims, as the poem has generally done thus far, they here are briefly portrayed as martyrs, borrowing from the register of myth and epic. They are therefore both granted dignity, of which they are usually deprived because of their social status, and imbued with righteousness and gravitas in a final attempt to appeal to insufficiently sympathetic readers.
The Cry of the Children Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Cry of the Children is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.