Since the children wish they could escape through death, they are trying to experience death while they are alive. Rather than risk broken hearts, they are wrapping their own hearts in cerement, a cloth used to wrap corpses for burial. The speaker urges the children to leave their work in mines and cities and to sing, pick flowers, and laugh. But instead, the children ask the speaker if the flowers are anything like the weeds they know from their workplace in the mines. They ask the speaker to let them remain in the dark mines, explaining that they are too tired to enjoy the outdoors, unless they will be sleeping there. They spend all day stooping, so that their knees ache, and their eyes are so tired that even a bright flower would look colorless. They spend all day underground in mines or working machinery in factories.
They endure day after day of machines whirring, creating a breeze that makes the children feel dizzy. The walls and even the sky seem to spin, as well as the flies on the ceiling. The children wish that they could command the machinery to be quiet for just one day. The speaker, in response, commands the machinery to be quiet. The speaker wants the children to be able to hear one another breathe and to touch one another. After all, they should know that metal industrial tools aren't the only things God has created. The speaker hopes the children will be able to prove that they are independent from the industrial machinery they operate. Yet the machinery never stops, and the children are unable to free themselves or explore beyond it.
Here, the speaker explores more of the specific hardships faced by child laborers. Once again, Browning evokes two contrasting worlds. One is the industrial world of the mine and the factory. The other is the pastoral world, previously hinted at through references to lambs and fawns, where the speaker urges the children to pick cowslips. By presenting nature itself as the opposite of industry and child labor, the poem once again situates child labor as not merely unfortunate, but unnatural. Moreover, Browning draws a connection between childhood, innocence, and pastoralism, as opposed to adulthood, sorrow, and industry.
Perhaps the most unnatural thing of all, the speaker hints, is not the fact that children are suffering—it is the fact that they are no longer able to wish for anything else. Browning uses the aural image of a whirring wheel, part of an industrial machine, to illustrate this. She (taking on the voice of the children themselves) explains that the children are too exhausted even to want to play or enjoy the natural world. Instead, they crave silence and even death, because they are so constantly exposed to the noise of machinery. In the poem's seventh stanza, Browning breaks slightly from the established rhyme scheme. Now, every second line of the stanza ends with "-ing," creating a repetitive, tiring, and relentless series of slant rhymes: "turning," "burning," "reeling," "ceiling," "droning," "moaning." This repetition mimics the endless repetition of the machinery itself, giving readers a sense of just why the children might choose silence and rest over more exciting, traditionally childlike amusements.
Moreover, here, the poem's indictment of child labor moves from the social and personal realm into the spiritual. Because these children no longer even have the capacity to desire any other way of life, Browning suggests, their labor has essentially robbed them of personhood. "Let them prove their inward souls against the notion / That they live in you, or under you, O wheels !" the speaker implores, suggesting that though the children have souls, these souls are essentially invisible, subsumed by the power of the industrial world. Browning goes so far as to hint that industrialism and child labor are a violation not only of nature but of God, describing the way the children's souls remain in darkness even as God tries to bring them into the light. In other words, the children are in a kind of hell—not because they have done anything wrong, but because adults have forcibly cut them off from the divine.