The Cry of the Children

The Cry of the Children Summary and Analysis of Stanzas 9-11


The speaker urges the listeners to tell the children that they should pray. That way God, who seems to bless everybody else, can also bless these suffering children. But the children, the speaker says, are skeptical. They don't think God will hear their prayers over the noise of the machines. After all, even people don't seem to hear the children, because they ignore the sound of their crying. When strangers come to their door, the children hear nothing, because of the machines. God, surrounded by angels' songs, probably won't hear their prayers.

The children explain that they only remember the words "Our Father," which they sometimes say to themselves in moments of distress. The children know that, since God is supposed to be good, he would respond to the words "Our Father" and soothe them—if only he could hear them speak. However, the children say, God is silent in response to their prayers, and everyone insists that the bosses who work them so hard are made in God's image. In heaven, they expect to find clouds that look just like the wheels of industrial machines. They try to believe in God, but they are blinded by their own tears. The speaker asks her listeners if they notice the contradiction between the children's misery and their own religious preachings, since God's existence is proven through his love—to which the children don't have any access.


On its surface, the conflict this poem describes is dramatic but simple: the children face off against cruel industrialists who work them into death or despair. But there's another conflict, happening alongside this one, adding layers of complexity to the poem. The conflict between the children and their abusive bosses is actually a kind of story-within-a-story, surrounded by the more immediate conflict between the speaker and the listeners. The speaker's goal is to engage the sympathy of these listeners, making them feel distressed enough by the children's situation that they jump into action to help them. The poem addresses bystanders, appealing not to the villains who directly cause the children's misery but to those who watch without acting. Browning has to walk a fine line between sounding accusatory and sympathetic, because, by addressing listeners in the second person, the poem implies that the poem's readers are in fact inactive bystanders. Therefore, to keep them reading and engaged, the speaker can't be too hostile. At the same time, if Browning hopes to actually change people's behavior, the speaker must address the readers somewhat sharply or harshly.

There are a few ways, visible in this section of the poem, that Browning manages to walk this line. One way is through the image of the wheel. The wheel is a symbol of the cruelty of child labor, but on a literal level, the wheel is also noisy. Therefore, it becomes the obstacle preventing bystanders from helping the children: they are not ignoring their cries, but are merely unable to hear the cries. By using the wheel to remove agency from the bystander in this situation, Browning hints that listeners can be more attentive to children's struggles—but she steers clear of accusing them of deliberately ignoring the children. Later, rather than accuse these listeners of sanctimony, Browning suggests that they mean well in their religious preaching, but gently chides them that this preaching is unhelpful for children who feel deprived of religious salvation. And throughout, the speaker addresses the readers as "brothers," suggesting that they are fundamentally similar and making the reader less likely to feel resentful or talked down to.

It is interesting that Browning chooses this particular framing—that is, the speaker/listener relationship—with which to discuss the children's plight. After all, she might have brought greater immediacy to the poem by taking on the perspective of a child, letting one of these subjects narrate. Instead, the speaker reports in the third-person, describing what the children say and do and acting as a conduit between them and the listener. Perhaps one reason for this choice of point of view is that it emphasizes the children's powerlessness. The poem emphasizes the way that the children's work literally silences them, making them impossible to hear over the whir of machinery. By portraying a world in which only the speaker can communicate on the children's behalf, Browning lets the children's perspective come across without undermining the fact of their voicelessness.