Rhyme and Reform

Victorian Working-Class Poets Elizabeth Barrett Brownings "The Cry of the Children"

IV: Rock Me Softly, Let Me Rest in Peace: Outlooks of Oppressed Victorian Children

A year before The Cry of the Children’s first publication in 1843, Elizabeth Barrett Browning (EBB) penned a brief poem, Rock Me Softly – Softly Mother. Now an obscure Victorian artifact collecting dust, aspects of Rock Me Softly drifted into Cry of the Children. Prior to finishing Cry of the Children, EBB’s creative processes likely started flowing during composition of Rock Me Softly, a poem that employs imagery of a young starving child repetitively imploring its mother for attention.

Observe these lines from Rock Me Softly:

Let me head lie on your shoulder Though you tell me I am older
I have grown too like a baby – I am thin & I am weak
Rock me mother from the hunger

Throughout the text the child longs to be rocked softly, explaining that instead of aging like a normal child, the child ages like a baby, growing thin and weak. Why might the normal process of aging be reversed for the child?

 

Look closely at stanza IV of Cry of the Children.


IV

“True,” say the children, “it may happen
That we die before our time:
Little Alice died last year, her grave is shapen
Like a snowball, in the rime.
We looked into the pit prepared to take her:
Was no room for any work in the close clay!
From the sleep wherein she lieth none will wake her,
Crying, ‘Get up, little Alice! it is day.’
If you listen by that grave, in sun and shower,
With your ear down, little Alice never cries;
Could we see her face, be sure we should not know her,
For the smile has time for growing in her eyes:
And merry go her moments, lulled and stilled in
The shroud by the kirk-chime.
“It is good when it happens,” say the children,
“That we die before our time.”


Can you think of ways Rock Me Softly might have affected the writing of this stanza? In stanza IV EBB describes a young girl, “Little Alice,” who died last year. The children reflect upon Alice’s situation, viewing her death as enviable to their current life. This view is painfully clear in the last two lines of the stanza, where the children remark:

“It is good when it happens,” say the children, ‘
“That we die before our time.”

Again, notice a reversal of perspective from how healthy children should view the future. Instead of life, these children hope for death in their future. Why might the children within both of these poems have a distorted vision of hope for the future?

“Rock Me Softly,” manuscript courtesy of Armstrong Browning Library

 

Post created by Ben Pennington

ABL

erik_swanson • July 13, 2018


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