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Child Labor in Poetry

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Literature has long since been the source of change in society. Artistic expression allows social criticisms to be performed, and this is best illustrated in the case of child labor in British labor history. William Blake and Elizabeth Browning were able to utilize poetry to critique the plight of child labor in industrial Britain. This is sample literature essay explores how literature and poetry can influence social change.

Child labor depicted in literature

Throughout the course of history, it has been the poets who have cried for change. In the mid to late 1800’s, one of the least expensive forms of labor to acquire was one of the most vulnerable. Children, as young as four and five, were put to work in factories and mills to bring down the cost for factory owners who would then turn and profit from the slave labor.

Although life for a poor child in London may have still been difficult, living as slave labor must have been worse; working in terrible conditions and living as chattel (Bradshaw, 72). Although they were not the only ones, it was the poets who spoke loudest. They questioned and prodded and criticized the politicians and people who allowed this to happen, they needed and cried out, capturing the essence of child labor in a beautiful and haunting manner.

Analyzing rhyme techniques found in both poems

Two poets, William Blake and Elizabeth Barrett Browning were two such people and responded with “The Chimney Sweeper” and “The Cry of the Children,” that were both well received and influenced society to create laws against child labor. While the themes of the travesty of child labor are similar in content, Blake and Barrett Browning approach the topic with unique rhyme choices, irony, diction, structure, and selection of voice.

William Blake's "The Chimney Sweeper: Songs of Innocence"

William Blake’s “The Chimney Sweeper: Songs of Innocence” uses a lyrical quality to convey the message of the young chimney sweep through an ABAB rhyme scheme, with a single anomaly that causes the reader to pause. In a majority of the poem, the end rhymes seem, at first, a little odd, because the mood of the poem does not match the rhyme, the first four stanzas are discussing the slave-like labor of the child chimney sweeps in a rather sing-song way.

At stanza 4, the rhyme scheme better matches the mood of the poem, with sweet dreams of angels and happiness. Here, it seems to almost edge on the pastoral when the children:

“Wash in the river and shine in the sun.”

However, the dream doesn’t last, and in the last stanza the slant rhyme of “dark” and “work” makes the reader stumble; for the first time, the rhyme seems to stagger. The change in the rhyme is like waking from an unsettling dream for the reader, the magic of dreams collapses and anxiety of being thrown back into the real world of work and darkness returns.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning's “The Cry of the Children”

Barrett Browning’s poem describes child labor using a rhyme scheme that follows a different end rhyme scheme that generates a slightly different attitude, the first sonnet is as follows: ABABCDCDADAD. The second stanza shifts slightly in the end rhyme, changing to: ABABCCCCDEDE.

The purpose of the change in the rhyme scheme is to manipulate the reader’s emotions without realizing that Barrett Browning is building the intensity of the poem and intensifying the way the reader feels (Donaldson, 53). The anxiety builds with this change in structure and in the final stanza; the scheme almost seems to jab at the reader in the ABABCDCDEFEF form, the final four lines are an accusation:

[‘]Our blood splashes upward, O gold-heaper,

And its purple shows your path!

But the child’s sob in the silence curses deeper

Than the strong man in his wrath.’

After her passionate story of children refusing to play because they have to work, these last lines deliver Barrett Browning’s disgust for the society that allows this to happen and her rhyme scheme here is modeled like an epithet.

Common plights in both child labor poems

Blake’s approach to the topic of child labor is to start his poem generally about “Dick, Joe, Ned or Jack” and their plight as chimney sweeps, a dangerous and dirty job for children to do. Then, when Blake selects one of the children, Tom, to focus on, the story focuses on the details of children who grew up in poverty and becomes more personalized. 

Tom, “who cried when his head,/ That curl’d like a lamb’s back. Was shav’d,” (6) becomes our main character (instead of the mysterious “I” narrator). Tom’s comparison to a lamb makes him seem even more pitiful and Blake is obviously trying to get the reader to feel sympathetic to the boy. However, in his approach, Blake simply presents the sadness to the reader.

Blake's message of compassion to the audience

He introduces Tom, he talks about his tears when his head was shaved, about his dream of Angels and of Heaven but Blake isn’t charging the reader to make a difference, he isn’t crying out for change. Instead, the author lets the reader internalize Tom and walk away, perhaps hoping that knowledge of boys like Tom will make the reader decide to show compassion and not hire a child chimney sweep. The listing of the children suggests to the reader that it could be any boy that this occupation is affecting; including their own sons.

Using child labor to make the audience feel guilty

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s response to the trauma children face as slave laborers has a different way of approaching the same topic. To gather the ammunition of guilt, the poem begins with a rhetorical question asking, “Do ye hear the children weeping [?]” (1) and then plunges into the peaceful imagery of baby animals indulging in the innocence of being young.

The second stanza begins with a rhetorical question as well, asking the reader why he or she hasn’t questioned the children’s sorrow to find out what was wrong. It seems to be pleading the reader:

“Do you ask them why they stand/ Weeping sore before the bosoms of their mothers,/ In our happy Fatherland?” (23-25)

Barrett Browning seems to be imploring the reader to find out what terrible atrocity is occurring that would make the youth of their society mourn like they have lived a thousand sorrows. This is the very purpose of a rhetorical question in writing, like a lawyer, Barrett Browning is questioning the jury:

“Do you hear the children weeping?” Are you going to ask them why they are crying?”

By introducing the rhetorical questions so early on in the poem, her accusatory tone is apparent and she is unapologetic. In the last stanza, Barrett Browning is determined to leave the reader questioning his or her role in child labor:

‘How long,’ they [the children] 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?[‘] (152-156)

This question is rhetorical, but Barrett Browning fashions it to come from the mouths of the angels; which acts as a crushing response to the doubters who may object- not only does the rhetorical question make them realize they are wrong, the fact that the question comes from the angels means they are acting against the beliefs of God.

Structure and form used in both child labor poems

Parallel structure and repetition add to the persuasive tone that Barrett Browning has cultivated, whereas Blake uses a homily. In “The Cry of the Children,” the word “young” is repeated six times in the first stanza to drive the point that youth is something to protect, the baby animals are safe and secure.

In stanza two, the word “old” is repeated five times, perhaps to show the loss of innocence of the children who are not being protected by the society that should strive to keep them young. Without stating it, Barrett Browning may be suggesting that we have failed as humans if even the animals can keep their young more safely than humankind can.

In stanza 7, the parallel structure makes the reader feel like people have lost control. Instead of a controlled sounding rhyme, the words create an image of the non-stop moving expected of the children as they work in the mill and mines and factories. All the “droning,” “turning,” “burning,” “reeling,” “breaking,” and “moaning,” suggest the feeling of movement and the connotation of the words is that of destruction, which Barrett Browning is telling the reader, is their fault.

British poets and social change

In a chronological context, it is very important to note that William Blake’s poetry preceded Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s by forty to fifty years; thus, he was writing to a very different world than she. Blake was writing to a society that may not have seen child labor in the same light as the society that Barrett Browning was responding to.

If Blake has approached his poetry with a didactic, accusatory tone like Barrett Browning, he may not have been published in the 1790’s. The society he lived in may not have been ready for such a big change, the reader knows for a fact that they weren’t because child labor laws weren’t passed until the 1860’s.

Barrett Browning was born during the industrial revolution and society she lived in was ready to examine the ugliness of it and charge the people with taking the actions in the way that they could, accept the responsibility for their actions, and tell manufacturers that child labor was no longer acceptable.

Without William Blake and the cadre of poets who supported the same ideas, Barrett Browning and her contemporaries may not have been able to express themselves with the ferocity in which they did and possibly laws restricting child labor would not be as extensive or effective.

"London" as a precursor to Blake's outcry over child labor

William Blake’s poem “London” may not specifically deal with the concept of child labor, but it does present poverty, education, war, and other ills society was facing that lead to child labor. The poem is relatively short but covers the images the narrator sees as he walks down the despairing London streets. Every person seems to be marked by something, whether it is weakness or woe, and he sees (or imagines) the people who are on the streets around him. Here he mentions a host of dismal figures including:

  • A chimney sweeper
  • A soldier
  • Prostitutes
  • New-born children in the streets

The people in the poem don’t really seem to belong to anyone; they are detached and floating along through life. The soldier becomes blood on the walls and the infants of the "youthful Harlots” (14) wail in the midnight air. The line where Blake says “Every black’ning Church appalls,” (10) shows distaste of the church or the actions that the church has taken, or has not taken, in these individual’s lives.

Blake's "The Chimney Sweeper" exposes the reality of child labor

Blake restrains his passions and conveys his attitude through pity. His homily is simple but the details are disturbing.

Tom dreamt “That thousands of sweepers, […] Were all of them lock’d up in coffins of black” (11-12).

While this is part of a dream, it may be that Tom is dreaming of all the children who have died from the variety of dangers that accompanied a job like a chimney sweep. Very little of this poem is happy, but at this point, the reader understands that hope is not a commodity that Tom can spare. He is living a life that thousands have died in, he is dreaming of a better life, but in the end, he can only be a child in his dreams.

Showing the problem of child labor without making judgments

Blake does not choose to take a didactic tone or a judgmental one, but he is still adamantly opposing child labor. The individuals who may prefer his poem may be appealed to by making the audiences weep rather than by making them feel guilty. One example of this is in the very first stanza of “The Chimney Sweeper” where the narrator says that his father sold him into the workforce before he could “cry ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep!” (3).

Even though the poem shifts to Tom in the next stanza, the narrator draws upon the maternal or paternal feelings of the reader, who have probably experienced a young child who could not pronounce words correctly.

This shows youth, an innocence, and vulnerability, this boy has been sweeping the chimneys of the community while other children his age were playing with blocks. Blake may not speak in the same fiery tones as Barrett Browning, but he appeals to the compassion and empathy of the reader. Both convey their messages with different devices but with the name sad note.

The church faulted for not preventing child labor

It is the Church and the religious society that has created the chimney sweeping boys, the children who are born of prostitutes, who are cast out into the street or sold for money into labor. This clash between religion and poetry is a common occurrence in literature. While Blake isn’t blaming anyone specifically, he is suggesting the blame, as he did in “The Chimney Sweeper.”

He presents these sad and desperate people are the causes of their own despair, trapped in their own “mind-forg’d manacles” (8). He isn’t suggesting a solution to any of this, nor is he passing judgment, but when the reader reads “London,” we immediately understand that this is not the grand London that the world might imagine, but the macabre underbelly that plagues every large city.

Blake's plea to the poem's audience

Blake’s lack of irony adds to the sincerity of his plea for the children affected by child labor. The dream of the children, in which they become cherub-like entities, is earnest; the poet wants the reader to drawn into the innocence of the boys he presents in the poem. By avoiding sarcasm, the reader responds in the way Blake meant, the sadness is apparent and the request is to give the children back their innocence and protect them from the harsh realities of the world.

Mechanical devices in Browning's "The Cry of the Children"

Selected words are capitalized in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem, a device that is usually for emphasis, but in the first stanza of “The Cry of the Children,” the capitalization makes some words like “Long Ago” and “Fatherland” into proper nouns. What is interesting about “Long Ago” is that the presence and capitalization of these words arouses the feeling that this is a fairy tale that has gone terribly wrong, and has, indeed, become a nightmare for these children. “Long Ago” and the capitalization can even be seen as ironic:

“The old man may weep for his to-morrow / Which is lost in Long Ago”

But the children who are suffering today are living each and every day in their sorrow. The irony continues in the last line of this stanza when Barrett Browning calls their society “our happy Fatherland,” which is ironic is two parts. The first being the word “happy,” since obviously, the only people who are happy are the ones who are reaping the benefits of child labor and not the children themselves.

The connotation behind the word is a scathing commentary from Barrett Browning about the heartlessness of society’s decision to use children as slave labor. The second irony is “Fatherland,” since most fathers would seek happiness and care for his children, and this is no such father. Barrett Browning employs the use of the antanaclasis with this “Father,” who hasn’t asked his children why they are crying and the “Fatherland,” of the government and people in power, who ignore the tears of the children whom they are charged to protect.

Child labor's impact on society

While poetry is written for many different reasons, these poems were written to influence society into understanding the gravity of the problem. For most people, they were able to buy products without reminders of the small hands that worked the mill. These people could go their whole life without realizing that their dress or shoes meant that a child had lost a great deal of his or her childhood.

When poems like Barrett Barrett Browning’s and Blake’s appeared in magazines and newspapers, it was probably a surprise to some people to make the connection. Or if it wasn’t a surprise, it certainly worked on creating a gnawing guilt of the real cost of their products or services.

Conclusion

Both poems seek to nudge the ethos of the reader, to get the feelings of sympathy and sadness as a response to the theme of the tragedy of child labor, yet they approach with differing devices to get their point across to the different readers who approached them. Their voices are different; Blake’s sweet and sad, Barrett Browning’s purposeful and charging, but both work well.

The hope, and perhaps both Blake and Barrett Browning had, was that when a well-off person went to buy new clothes, they couldn’t look at the fabric without reliving the imagery of little Tom Darcy with his hair like a white lamb or poor Alice buried in the cold, hard earth. Different images may have worked on different people, but it worked, and the poetry of Barrett Browning and Blake were a part of the force of change to rid their societies of child labor.

Like what you read? Check out this post on Seamus Heaney's Elegy.

Works Cited

Bradshaw, David J. The voice of toil: nineteenth-century British writings about work. Ohio Univ Ctr for Intl Studies, 2000.

Donaldson, Sandra. "Victorian Responses to Child Labor."Victorian Poetry 18.1 (1980): 51-60. Web. 30 Apr 2013.

 
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Ultius, Inc. "Child Labor in Poetry." Ultius | Custom Writing and Editing Services. Ultius Blog, 16 Apr. 2014. https://www.ultius.com/ultius-blog/entry/child-labor-in-poetry.html

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Ultius, Inc. "Child Labor in Poetry." Ultius | Custom Writing and Editing Services. April 16, 2014. https://www.ultius.com/ultius-blog/entry/child-labor-in-poetry.html.

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Ultius, Inc. "Child Labor in Poetry." Ultius | Custom Writing and Editing Services. April 16, 2014. https://www.ultius.com/ultius-blog/entry/child-labor-in-poetry.html.

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