This poem centers around the immorality of child labor, repeatedly stressing the urgency of the problem and the sheer misery it creates. The children subjected to it are described as exhausted and disconnected from one another, nature, and God. Worst of all, according to the poem, they are too hopeless and tired even to wish for change: laboring has so fundamentally destroyed them that they are incapable of conceiving of any other way of life. One of the main points the poem makes about child labor is that it is not only immoral, but unnatural. The poem emphasizes that the children in the poem are an unprecedented departure from nature's norms, in which young people, animals, and even plants enjoy carefree fun while older ones handle hardship. Because child labor is unnatural, the poem suggests, its victims are forced to handle adulthood's stressors but lack the tools or comforts to endure them.
One of the distressing things about the situation of the poem's child laborers is their inability to turn to religion for comfort. Because they are so accustomed to human cruelty, they have no reason to believe that a divine being would treat them well. Browning suggests that religious metaphors intended to make the idea of God accessible—for instance, referring to God as "father"—will backfire unless the human relationships to which the metaphors refer are healthy and benevolent. As a result, the speaker cautions peers against giving the suffering children religious instruction, arguing that preaching will be both unsuccessful and unhelpful until the children's conditions improve.
Browning focuses on two types of child labor in the poem: mining and factory work. She suggests that these industrial jobs are particularly cruel and damaging for children, using the image of a grating, loud, and unstoppable piece of machinery to illustrate the extent of the children's exhaustion. The problem, Browning implies, is not merely that children are working but that they are working in uncomfortable and unsafe conditions created by industrial manufacturing. Moreover, the poem describes contrasts between the industrial world and the natural world, in which young animals play freely, hinting that industrialization alienates children from their natural roles.
The Cry of the Children Questions and Answers
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