The poem opens with a quotation from the Greek tragedy Medea, after which the speaker asks a group of people (addressing them as "brothers") whether they, too, can hear children crying. As they weep uncontrollably, they lean on their mothers. Meanwhile, baby birds, lambs, fawns, and even flowers are enjoying carefree childhoods in nature. In contrast, and even though they supposedly live in a free land, human children are sad and miserable. The speaker then asks her listeners if they've ever wondered why children are crying. After all, older people are expected to cry: they might miss their youths, and even natural entities like old trees missing their leaves or old wounds that have been hurting for a long time have something to mourn. But children aren't expected to suffer, especially in a country that is supposedly happy.
The speaker says that it's hard even to look at these children, whose youthful faces are impacted by a much older-looking grief. The children's faces seem to communicate that the earth is harsh, and that the children are in pain. Furthermore, the children's youth worsens their burden, because they have so much life left to live and are already so tired. On the other hand, the speaker imagines the children arguing, many of them do die before they reach old age. A little girl named Alice died last year, and her grave was shaped like a snowball—looking at it, the other children saw that there was no room for work in the grave, and that nobody would be able to wake Alice. The children report that, if you listen closely at Alice's grave, you will notice that she doesn't cry. Moreover, the children doubt they'd recognize her face, because she's probably able to smile for the first time. Indeed, the children say, it's a good thing if they die before they are grown.
This poem revolves around contrasts, juxtapositions, and ironies to make child labor seem not merely immoral but unthinkable—a perversion of the natural order. Barrett Browning divides the world into two broad categories: old and young. She portrays youth as a time of carefree innocence, echoing its portrayal by earlier Romantic poets like William Blake. Her portrait of innocent childhood extends far beyond humans society, involving descriptions of happy lambs and flowers and making this state of being seem natural and eternal. Age, on the other hand, is described as a state of natural sadness and pain. In Browning's portrayal, pain is an inherent effect of age, rooted in the loss of youthful pleasures and the exhaustion caused by dealing with troubles over a sustained period. Again, she gathers examples from such diverse areas, from human society to nature to abstract concepts like hope, that the link between age and sadness seems fundamental, extending across categories. However, while establishing these firm binaries, Barrett simultaneously blurs the lines between them. The crying children of the poem's title upset the firmly established associations between youth and happiness, on the one hand, and age and pain on the other. By so firmly establishing a set of associations and then ironically violating them, she creates an ironic, even shocking, effect. Furthermore, she hints, the pain of youth is worse than the pain of age precisely because it is unnatural. Suffering children must cope with watching other children or young animals at play, and they also must deal with their pain for many years on end, without the relief of death.
By stanza four, rather than just describing a dead child—in itself an affecting and upsetting scene—Browning uses an ironic contrast to make the death seem all the more unnatural. She describes children happily and enviously regarding their dead peer, suggesting that they are able to access happy and carefree moods only when in proximity to death. Thus, even when she portrays a happy child, Browning does so in an ironic and unexpected way. Their happiness, because it is in itself an expression of desperation and even suicidality, is paradoxically worse and more distressing than their sorrow.
The poem's rhyme scheme and meter also employ contrast, echoing the juxtaposed categories that Browning evokes. The poem's rhymes alternate, each stanza using an ABABCDCDEFEF rhyme scheme: the regular hops from one rhyming sound to the next and back again create the impression of opposites sitting uneasily side-by-side, just as youth and sorrow sit uneasily side-by-side here. Meanwhile, the poem as a whole is written in trochees—segments consisting of two syllables with the stress on the first of those two syllables. The first line of each stanza contains six trochees for a total of twelve syllables—in other words, they're written in trochaic hexameter. But the second line of each stanza is only half as long, coming in at around seven syllables, in a modified trochaic trimeter. These long and short lines alternate throughout each stanza, even though the meter quickly becomes irregular—the contrasting long and short lines pretty much stay constant. Thus, like the alternating rhymes, these alternating line lengths call to mind the uncomfortable contrast between childhood and sorrow.
The poem devotes a great deal of space to simply portraying the misery of these children, and making the case that their sorrow is unnatural and unacceptable. But this is only half of its work: the other half involves implicating the reader, making them feel that they must intervene on behalf of the children. The speaker addresses the listener in the second person, including them in the narrative and subtly establishing a relationship between the sorrowful children and the passive reader. Not only does the speaker chide the reader, asking them "Do you question the young children in the sorrow...?" but they also suggest that the entire country is guilty of allowing child labor to flourish. By repeatedly using phrases like "the country of the free" and "our happy Fatherland," Browning ironically juxtaposes the nation's ideals with the children's reality—and hints that its citizens are purposely turning a blind eye on suffering, choosing to believe in a cliche rather than look at the truth.