Chapter 3: Factories and Studios: Nineteenth-Century Poetry
Child labour and factory conditions were recurring themes in the work of several nineteenth-century women poets who range, as Isobel Armstrong states, ‘from militant radicals to conservative women of High Church principle’. 86 In this chapter, two poems which address these topics, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s ‘The Cry of the Children’, and Thomas Hood’s ‘The Song of the Shirt’, will be compared and contrasted in terms of form, content and self-fashioning. The present writer’s poems will respond to this discussion, and to the ensuing discourse, surrounding gender ideologies in two nineteenth-century ‘art-versus-life’ poems: Christina Rossetti’s ‘In An Artist’s Studio’, and Tennyson’s ‘The Lady of Shalott’.
In the context of my own poetry, certain works explore my ambivalent stance on child labour and factory conditions, whilst others offer my understanding of the formalist features of ‘The Cry of the Children’ and ‘The Song of the Shirt’. The first sonnet sequence, scored for multiple voices, equivocates.
Cotton Mill Sonnets
No school, no mill, no mill, no money. Darwen children’s chant c.1870
She didn’t seem to think that times were hard, our Grandma Needham. Told it like it was
at Musgrave’s mill in Bolton. Wasn’t mard.
‘We went to school three times a week because
we couldn’t work ten hours the other three -
unless we showed our school attendance sheet -
or else a seven hour day (as long as we
were schooled for three) but then, we were dead-beat.
We couldn’t wait to go full-time, half-time-
ers work was dull and dreary. Scavenging
for cotton waste that’s soaked in oil and slime.
No skills, no thrills, no chance of damaging
thisen’ (the over-looker had to stop
the shuttles shifting while we cleared the shop).
But sometimes, for a dare, we’d stick our hand
too far inside a roving card machine,
risk scarring from the metal barbs, or land-
up losing finger tips – you’ve ‘appen seen.
A little piecer’s life was fun; we’d run
to mend the never-ending broken threads
that swirled, and twirled and twisted when they spun.
We sometimes slipped, bur rolled right over, fled
from under gliding jennies, just in case
those monsters gripped us. Mutilation, death
(or worse) could ‘appen, working at that pace,
but not to us. We just got out of breath
and barefoot dodged them drips of boiling oil
from red-hot spindles splashing on the noil.
If only we could work in tenting; dare
to kiss the shuttle, dare refill the weft
and warp - machinery still running - where
a second wasted meant no fingers left.
And then go home at night with hair all white
from flying cotton floating round all day,
and reek of lanolin. We’d stink all right,
and think we’d had right gradely sport and play.
But never mind, we still got half- a- crown
a week - a lot for eight year olds - four bob
if never stuck for bobbins (breaking down
of ev’ry single thread) Eee! What a job
for little piecers, some got glidin’ eye
from skennin’. Still, we had to laugh – on’t sly!’
‘Half-timers take no harm, be sure to know.
They’re better clothed and better fed as well
as better read’ as Hargreaves said. ‘To go
to school with regularity will tell,
in time, to compensate for lesser hours,
their concentration levels will improve.
Besides, their income’s quite essential, our
investigations always seem to prove’.
John Bleakley, Blackburn Road, campaigned against:
‘… Draconian penal laws against the poor,
the starving derelict of Bolton, sense-
less part-time education is no cure.’
The Full-Time Education Act (Nineteen-
eighteen) meant full-time school until fourteen.
The Darwen children’s chant, researched at the Bolton Archive, along with technical terms and testimonies, illustrates the inter-dependence of school and mill. Proposal and counter-proposal shuttle back and forth throughout the four sonnets comprising the whole. ‘She didn’t seem to think that times were hard’ does not mean they were not. Combining present-day vernacular (‘told it like it was’) with past-times Lancashire
dialect (‘mard’ i.e. ‘spoiled’) bridges present and past, and introduces the grandmother’s ‘matter-of-fact’ narrative voice. The first sonnet closes with a hankering for the ‘thrills’ curtailed by the 1878 Factory Act. The couplet’s plosive /p/ end rhymes aurally enact curtailment ‘… had to stop … cleared the shop’.
Yet, excitement escalates within the second sonnet, ‘swirled, twirled, twisted’, building to the ultimate ‘mutilation, death (or worse)’. Sonnet 3 appears to look forward to further excitement experienced from full-time work. However, the grandmother’s narrative ends on an obliquely critical note. The octave’s ‘Gradely sport and play’, reprising Thomas Shadwell’s seventeenth-century pastoral poem, ‘Nymphs and Shepherds’, is undermined by ‘Some got glidin’ eye’ in the sestet. The voice of vested-interest is superseded by one of moral outrage in the final sonnet.
The politics of prosody inherent to Victorian poetry, i.e. the ways in which prosodic features such as metre and rhyme scheme might indicate a poet’s political convictions,
are addressed by several scholars including Armstrong and Caroline Levine. Their application is an interesting, albeit potentially problematic, approach. The rather mechanistic division of political models may inflict authorial intent upon, rather than reflect, the creative processes of nineteenth-century poets. Thus, there is a danger of falling into the ‘Intentional Fallacy’ trap. Scholars base their assessments on three models, defined by Levine. The first is the ‘reflective’ model, in which
Poetic meter points us to the temporal patterns of social
life mirroring or enacting a historically specific shaping of
experiential time … a way of of reading metrical forms for
their mirroring of lived temporalities.87
The ‘expressive model’ takes prosody as a purposeful expression of political positions and convictions, with ballads of the 1850’s insisting on ‘law’, rather than ‘anarchy’. The ‘Marxist model’ is one in which ‘prosodic patterns appear as vain, but compelling attempts to cover the terrifying impossibility of achieving real social solutions’.
Accordingly, opting for the sonnet form’s regular metre and rhyme scheme could have been an avoidance of the reality of Levine’s ‘lived temporalities’ and an attempt to ‘cover over the terrifying impossibility of achieving real social resolutions’. The poet might seem anarchic, in that her grandmother’s risk-taking occupies the greater part of the whole. This does not mean that she is perceived as beneficiary, rather than victim, of the Part-time Education Act (1844). Her ‘experiential time’ may well have differed from that of her contemporaries. Her dialecticism, though, would not have differed.
Geoffrey Leech includes dialecticism in ‘poetic licence’, i.e. ‘the poet’s right to ignore rules and conventions generally observed by users of the language’.
DIALECTICISM, or the borrowing of features of socially or regionally defined
dialects, is a minor form of licence not generally available to the writer of
functional prose, who is expected to write in the generally accepted and
understood dialect known as ‘Standard English’. But it is, of course, quite
commonly used by storytellers and humorists. For the poet, dialecticism
may serve a number of purposes.88
This poet, then, has taken the ‘minor form of licence’ for the purpose of including her grandmother’s reminiscences in a ‘socially or regionally defined dialect’ in an attempt to depict life as seen through the experience of one particular person, from one particular section of English-speaking society, at one particular time. Consider now her purposes for incorporating dialecticism from different sections of English-speaking society, in more recent times.
‘The Schooner Flight’, by Derek Walcott, based
on Piers the Plowman’s ‘somer season’, when
the ‘sonne’ was ‘soft’, shows sea like ‘milk’. He then
invokes an ‘idle’ August, lazy-faced,
where people stood like ‘stone’ and ‘nothing’ paced.
And ‘dark-haired’ evening’s ‘still ‘as silk by ten.
And islands stick like ‘leaves of burnt sienna’.
Soft evocations of a time displaced,
recalling ‘Empires’ slums’ as ‘paradise’.
No slo-mo now, Honduras ‘oman, eyes
is sore an’ red. No cryin’ now, yo know
it ‘hinder needle, tread’, stitch quick but nice
git fifteen cents for shirt. De promo price
is forty dollar. Sew – Sew – Sew.
In Business Class, the Moët’s just been served.
The purser lingers by a breakfast tray
and, almost to himself: ‘Have you observed
the sun awaken India, the way
the purple-shadowed ghats are crested gold,
and Madam, how the air is clean, like new,
and plantain leaves in em’rald greens unfold,
and morning glory’s drenched in pearls of dew,
and Madam, how the drowsy ocean slosh
the shore, and ripples ‘Aaahhh!’, and misty takes-
on crystal blue, and sparkling splashes wash
each up-turned pebble’s face as Usha breaks …
and fingers, eight years old, have sewn umpteen
embroidered saris gold, and blue and green?’
In Sonnet 1, the Petrarchan form with the Type 2 French sestet seemed appropriate for carrying the Creole. The writer was asked what Derek Walcott would think of this English woman’s using his poem ‘The Schooner Flight’ as a touchstone. She thought he might ask ‘Why make it a sonnet, has she not read Brathwaite’s seminal essay “English in the Caribbean: Notes on Nation Language and Poetry”?’ Brathwaite says: ‘English has given us is the pentameter … there have, of course been attempts to break it. And there were other dominant forms like, for example from Piers the Plowman the haunting prologue:
In a somer season when soft was the sonne
I shope me into shroudes, as I a shep were
which has recently inspired our own Derek Walcott with his first major nation language effort:
In idle August, while the sea was soft,
And leaves of brown islands stick to the rim …
I use the term [nation language] in contrast to dialect. Dialect is inferior English. Dialect
Is the language you use when you want to make fun of someone. Dialect is caricature.’89
In mitigation, the writer maintains that her poem was inspired by that of Walcott, as
his by Langland, and hopes Walcott would find the octave an accurate appraisal of his poem, and a suitable springboard to the sestet’s contrasting picture of the seamstress in the sweatshop. On the one hand, sweatshops may be perceived to be an indefensible exploitation of the have-nots, on the other, a life-line. This statement by no means condones inhumane working conditions, the condemnation of which is, hopefully, apparent in the opposing juxtapositions inherent to this pair of sonnets. Creole is not used as ‘caricature’ here. This poet is not the black woman in the Honduran sweatshop whose conditions she researched, but a white woman trying to put herself into the other’s shoes. She attempts to make reparation for this woman. The soft, languid imagery of her octave is undermined by the hot, dry, sore imagery in her sestet, where pre-Colonial sun-drenched leisure morphs into the woman’s ‘sore red eyes’.
The Shakespearean sonnet form seemed apt for Sonnet 2. The purser is Indian, and Indian-English is often more precise than English as spoken by native English speakers nowadays. The poem explores the paradox of wealthy airline passengers drinking champagne as a new day dawns over an India in which children are finishing a night shift. The douzain is wistful. Repetition of ‘Madam’ highlights the contrast between the purser’s lowly status and his elevated language, whereas ‘Madam’ might well be an English woman with less-than-Standard English. Accumulated conjunctions, ‘and’s’, emphasize India’s many natural resources, described by the purser in jewel-like terms applied, in turn, to embroidered saris in the isolated couplet. The poet simply paints two pictures. She may, perhaps, have lapsed into ‘slip-shod Sibyl’ mode to parody the artifice of the tourist brochure against the sweatshop reality.
What follows, contends that in interrogating a seamstress’s plight in ‘The Song of the Shirt’, Thomas Hood presented his over-worked, under-paid poet self.90 Consider the content and formal features in these extracts.
The Song of the Shirt
With fingers weary and worn,
With eyelids heavy and red,
A woman sat in unwomanly rags,
Plying her needle and thread –
Stitch – stitch – stitch!
In poverty, hunger, and dirt,
And still with a voice of dolorous pitch
She sang the “Song of the Shirt!” 8
“Oh! Men with sisters dear!
Oh! Men with mothers and wives!
It is not linen you’re wearing out,
But human creatures’ lives!
Stitch – stitch – stitch!
In poverty, hunger, and dirt,
Sewing at once with a double thread,
A shroud as well as a shirt. 32
“But why do I talk of death!
That phantom of grisly bone
I hardly fear his terrible shape
It seems so like my own –
It seems so like my own 37
“Work – work – work! 49
From weary chime to chime,
Work – work – work!
As prisoners work for crime!
Band, and gusset and seam,
Seam, and gusset, and band,
Till the heart is sick, and the brain benumbed,
As well as the weary hand.
“Work – work – work!
In the dull, December light,
And work – work –work!
While the weather is warm, and bright; -
While underneath the eaves
The brooding swallows cling,
As if to show me their sunny backs
And twit me with the spring. 64
“Oh! But to breathe the breath
Of the cowslip and primrose sweet –
With the sky above my head,
And the grass beneath my feet!
For only one short hour
To feel as I used to feel,
Before I knew the woes of want
And the walk that costs a meal. 72
With fingers weary and worn,
With eyelids heavy and red,
A woman sat in unwomanly rags,
Plying her needle and thread –
Stitch – stitch – stitch!
In poverty, hunger and dirt,
And still with a voice of dolorous pitch, -
Would that its tone would reach the rich! –
She sang ‘The song of the Shirt!’91 88
It is possible to read this as an illustrative, ‘filmic’ poem, one which Robert Butterworth identifies as ‘cinematic’.92 The camera focuses, close-up on ‘fingers weary and worn’, pans upwards to ‘eyelids heavy and red’, before showing the seamstress’s full view in the longer line in ‘unwomanly rags’. ‘Unwomanly’ is a protest-adjective against an increasingly consumerist male society which defeminizes and dehumanizes the female. Moreover, it is also possible to read Hood’s poem meta-poetically, drawing attention to itself from the outset. The complex formal features established in the first
octave are sustained. Iambic, anapaestic and dactylic trimeters and tetrameters are
interspersed with monometers, to establish the work-song rhythm, flagged-up in the poem’s title, and reiterated in the final line. Hood directly describes its ‘pitch’ as ‘dolorous’. Anaphora and alliteration in ‘With fingers weary and worn, / With eyelids heavy and red’ mimic both the seamstress’s repetitious work and her dolorous song. This combination suggests both ‘reflective’ and ‘Marxist’ models of political prosody. Monosyllabic end-rhymes, ‘red/thread’, and internal rhymes, ‘heavy red’ are heavy sounding, compounding the ‘dolorous’ pitch. ‘Eyelids heavy and red’ may apply equally to the poet’s state. ‘From chime to weary chime’, suggests his wearily working his way from rhyme to rhyme. The extra line ‘Would that its tone could reach the rich’ could fulfil two functions, firstly, as a comment on the integral nature of form, content and tone. Secondly, Simonsen’s argument has credence, he says the extra line is not only a plea that ‘the seamstress’s song finds a specific audience, but with Thomas Hood’s own desperate wish for a paying audience to secure his livelihood’. Simonsen points out that seamstress and poet are etymologically linked: ‘text’ and ‘textile’ conjoin ‘seamstress and poet as makers of the same product … joined by a single thread’. 93
The present writer argues that in interrogating the topic of child-labour in ‘The Cry of the Children’, Elizabeth Barrett Browning presented herself as a ‘legislator’.94 Examine these extracts in terms of form and content.95
The Cry of the Children
Do ye hear the children weeping, O my brothers,
Ere the sorrow comes with years?
They are leaning their young heads against their mothers, -
And that cannot stop their tears.
The young lambs are bleating in the meadows;
The young birds are chirping in the nest;
The young fawns are playing with the shadows;
The young flowers are blowing toward the west –
But the young, young children, O my brothers,
They are weeping bitterly!-
They are weeping in the playtime of the others,
In the country of the free. 12
They look up with their pale and sunken faces,
And their looks are sad to see,
For the man’s grief abhorrent, draws and presses
Down the cheeks of infancy –
‘Your old earth,’ they say is very dreary;’
‘Our young feet,’ they say, ‘are very weak!’ 30
‘True,’ say the children, ‘it may happen
That we die before our time!
Little Alice died last year – the 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 her grave, in sun and shower,
With your ear down, little Alice never cries!-
Could we see her face, be sure we would 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.’ 52
Go out, children, from the mine and from the city –
Sing out, children, as the little thrushes do –
Pluck you handfuls of the meadow-cowslips pretty -
Laugh aloud, to feel your fingers let them through! But they answer, ‘Are your cowslips of the meadows
Like our weeds anear the mine ?
Leave us quiet in the dark of the coal-shadows,
From your pleasures fair and fine! 64
‘For, all day, the wheels are droning, turning –
Their wind comes in our faces, -
Till our hearts turn, - our head, with pulses burning,
And the walls turn in their places -
Turns the sky in the high window blank and reeling –
Turns the long light that droppeth down the wall -
Turn the black flies that crawl along the ceiling -
All are turning, all the day, and we with all! –
And all day, the iron wheels are droning;
And sometimes we could pray,
‘O ye wheels,’ (breaking out in a mad moaning)
‘Stop! Be silent for to-day!’’ 88
‘Our Father!’ If He heard us, he would surely 121
(For they call Him good and mild)
Answer, smiling down the steep world very purely,
‘Come and rest with me, my child.’
‘But, no!’ say the children, weeping faster, 125
‘He is speechless as a stone;
And they tell us, of His image is the master
Who commands us to work on …
They look up, with their pale and sunken faces, 149
And their look is dread to see,
For they think you see their angels in their places,
With eyes meant for Deity; -
‘How long,’ they say, ‘how long, O cruel nation,
Will you stand, to move the world, or a child’s heart, -
Stifle down with a mailed heel its palpitation,
And tread onward to your throne amid the mart?
Our blood splashes upward, O our tyrants,
And your purple shows your path;
But the child’s sob curseth deeper in the silence
Than the strong man in his wrath. 160
There are denominators common to ‘The Song of the Shirt’ and ‘The Cry of the Children’. Both poems protest against a male, industrialist, consumerist society’s treatment of its most vulnerable members. Both poets are spokespersons for, and ventriloquists of, the oppressed. They each address masculine society directly: ‘Do ye hear the children weeping, O my brothers’, and ‘O men with sisters dear!’ They also present a ’cognitive dissonance’ similar to the present poet’s paradoxical presentation of sweatshops. Barrett Browning, as Brendan Riley says, ‘intentionally focuses on an apparent paradox that, while Britain purports to be moral and free, the actual lives of those who should be most protected and liberated, the children, are absolutely deplorable.’ 96
Browning is the more didactic poet, stating overtly ‘They are weeping in the playtime of the others, / In the country of the free’. Hood’s paradox appears more obliquely in the phantom of death metaphor with which the seamstress identifies.
“But why do I talk of death! / That phantom of grisly bone, I hardly fear his terrible shape, / It seems so like my own”. A phantom does not, like a corpse, contain bone. Browning takes death-identification further, her children welcome it. ‘And merry go her moments, lulled and stilled by the kirk chime! / “It is good, when it happens,” say the children / “That we die before our time.” Browning, like Hood, ‘chimes’. The word appears, as in the Hood, in an extended stanza, for emphasis.
Images are common to both poems. Browning reprises Hood’s ‘heavy and red’ metaphor in the children’s ‘heavy eyelids drooping, / The reddest flower would look as pale as snow’. The children and adult’s unrelenting work is juxtaposed, (as in this writer’s ‘Sweatshop Sonnets’), with the freedom of nature. ‘Swallows twit’ the seamstress’s longing to smell ‘the cowslip and primrose sweet … the grass beneath her feet.’ When Browning’s children are urged to ‘sing like thrushes do’, and ‘pluck meadow cowslips pretty’, their only need for ‘meadows’ is to ‘sleep.’
Whilst there are similarities in content and imagery, the poems differ in terms of form. Whereas Hood’s formal features are self-conscious, Browning’s may appear to be almost accidental in comparison. The poet explained the rationale for her metre in her letter to the Greek scholar, H. S. Boyd.
Monday, September 19, 1843
My own Dear Friend,
You enjoy my ‘Cry of the Children’ better than I had anticipated – just because
I never anticipated your being able to read it to the end, and was over-delicate
about placing it in your hands on that account. My dearest Mr. Boyd, you are
right in your complaint against the rhythm. The first stanza came into my head
like a hurricane, and I was obliged to make the other stanzas like it – that is the
whole of the mystery of the iniquity…
Affectionately and gratefully yours,
Elizabeth B. Barrett 97
This letter was written prior to her marriage to Robert Browning, when the poet was at the height of her popularity. Nonetheless, her letter to Boyd seems to be an apology for both the length and metrical scheme of ‘The Cry’. The poem exceeds Hood’s by 72 lines.
‘The Cry’ consists of 13 stanzas arranged in douzains rhyming abab cdcd efef. Line lengths and rhythms are irregular, with alternate lines of seven syllables in most stanzas. The poet explains her opening stanza by saying that it came into her mind like a ‘hurricane’, but how far can this be seen to account for rhythmic irregularity? Her ‘stop start versification’, as Herbert Tucker defines it, might be said to mimic the ‘clatter of steam-driven machinery’ and, as such, would fit Levine’s reflective model of prosodic politics.98 There is one notable exception. The extended fourth stanza, with its condemnation, is unlikely to be accidental. Winchilsea’s inverse stress patterning centralizing the woman/woman-poet dichotomy has been discussed, and here, Browning’s central stanza contains the core message, ‘Stop!’ facilitated by a relentless rhythmic rush to the imperative.
Browning presents herself as legislator here. This stanza is the pivotal point from a switch from a plea (as in Hood’s poem throughout) to a command. Stop the machines, stop an increasingly commercial society, and stop to think of its effect on its most vulnerable members. The stanza is dizzying and disorientating. The children and machinery become an amalgam in which everything is spinning. The climactic crescendo of movement is achieved by a combination of anaphora, repetition and assonance.
“For all day, the wheels are droning, turning –
Their wind comes in our faces, -
Till our hearts turn, - our heads, with pulses burning,
And the walls turn in their places
Turns the sky in the high window blank and reeling –
Turns the long light that droppeth down the wall, -
Turn the black flies that crawl along the ceiling, …
Browning’s status as a wealthy, popular poet meant that ‘The Cry’ helped to bring about child labour reforms by contributing to rousing support for Lord Shaftesbury’s ‘Ten Hour Bill’.99 Whereas Browning was in a position to issue imperatives, Hood, in near penury, could merely offer a plea. Engels deemed his influence on public opinion to have ‘merely wrung some ineffectual tears from the bourgeoisie’.100 Both poems, though, caught public attention, and continue to receive international critical acclaim.
The final creative task in this part of the chapter attempts to convey an understanding of the formal features inherent to ‘The Cry’, ‘The Song’, the ‘Cotton Mill’ and the ‘Sweatshop Sonnets’ This essay poem draws-together the academic and creative components of part one of this chapter, and as such, is ‘text’ and ‘textile’.
‘A Song, a Cry and some Sonnets.
The Song’, ‘The Cry’, from Hood and E.B.B.
are social protests (1843).
Spokespersons for the vulnerable, oppressed,
both poets aim their work (direct address)
towards the men, the brothers, magnates blind
to fingers weary, worn, and humankind
with pale and weary faces, children who
are old before their time, as if they knew
that death, (where little Alice never cries)
is kind. Her smile is growing in her eyes.
The harshest condemnation rhymes with chime,
It’s good [that Alice] dies before her time.
Hood also uses chime to plead the cause
of poets sick of pen and ink, because,
as Peter Simonsen reminds us, text
and textile (also by extension, tex-
ture), share a common etymology,
effecting, really, synecology.
Both poets place their subjects’ grave unrest
beside the natural world of freedom, rest.
The children see the meadows, cannot leap,
their only care for meadows would be sleep.
The seamstress longs for only one short hour,
(repeated) longs for only one short hour
to breathe the breath of cowslip … primrose sweet,
and feel the feel of grass beneath [her] feet.
The seamstress hears the brooding swallows sing
and thinks they sing to twit [her] with the spring.
Birds chirp, whilst children weep, weep bitterly,
imprisoned in the country of the free.
Hood’s paradox is somewhat less overt.
His living corpse, though, truly disconcerts;
a phantom isn’t made of gristle, bone,
a shape resembling the seamstress’ own.
My Grandma’s narrative does not condone
the Part -Time Education Act. Atones,
perhaps, with had such gradely sport and play -
nymphs and shepherds come away, come away --
refers to nature’s holiday, looks back,
I think, reprises Hood and Browning’s tack.
The ‘Sweatshop sonnets’ also juxtapose
the humans’ toil with nature at repose.
Like Hood, I’m not that seamstress, yet I put
myself inside her shoes, and if my foot
is white and her’s is black, it matters not.
We’re sisters making stuff, akin somewhat,
we’re linked by text and texture, single thread.
Adapting Hood’s words needle, thread to tread,
Contrasting her with those who stood like stone,
And dark haired evening still as silk, my own
words merge with Langland’s Walcott’s, Nichols’ voice.
Creole controls the rhyme scheme of my choice;
Petrarchan sonnet, French sestet (Type 5),
Honduran woman, French Creole derived.
In Sonnet 2, I contrast nature’s gold
and green and blue, with fingers eight years old
already sewing umpteen saris blue
and gold and green, the selfsame jeweled hues.
The difference between ‘The Cry’ and ‘Song’
is form (with Browning’s 154 lines long)
Her ‘Cry’ has lines with diff’rent rhythms, length.
The ‘stop-start’ format imitates the strength
and power and motion of machines against
the drowned-out cries of children. Then that Stop!
Don’t let these children work until they drop.
Imperative to let them hear their mouths,
to touch each others’ hands or feel their youth.
Would that its tone could reach the rich, a plea
the most that Hood could do. But E.B.B.
had clout, and wealth and popularity
quite unlike Hood, who lived in penury.
‘The Cry’ reached Shaftesbury’s ears. He changed the law,
restricted children’s working hours. Before
Hood wrote ‘The Song’, he wasn’t widely read
but afterwards, his fame became widespread.
When Engels said Hood’s poem merely wrung
some ineffectual tears, he got it wrong.
Cora Kaplan defines Browning’s politics in the 1840’s.
She espoused a fervid Christian democratic nationalism which depended on the
spiritual reform of nations and individuals and shrank from the sort of social
revolution favored by the left. This version also includes her feminism. 101
This is evident in ‘The Cry of the Children’ up to a point. ‘Spiritual reform of nations and individuals’ would suggest that adherence to Christian doctrine is a prerequisite for spiritual reform. Browning’s child labourers ‘know no other words except “Our Father”’. This implies that they have not been taught how to pray, and by extension, that early Victorian society as a whole has turned its back on Christianity. However, it is possible that Browning’s direct appeal to male industrialist society to hear the children’s cries extends to the ‘great chain of being’, God himself. It is God who is ‘silent as a stone’. This does not seem to indicate the poet’s eschewing left wing feminism entirely in the 1840’s. However, these politics surface more overtly in Aurora Leigh, written thirteen years later.
Browning’s nine book verse novel Aurora Leigh might be said to be an epic promulgation of Winchilsea’s ironic ‘Introduction’: ‘Alas! a woman that attempts the pen’. The poet employs the masculine form of blank verse, and her poet-speaker subverts gender ideology by becoming a professional poet. Aurora’s education comprised a ‘score of books on womanhood’ provided by a maiden aunt who ‘had lived /a sort of caged-bird life’.102 The kernel of Aurora Leigh is the defence of women’s rights to become professional poets. The following extract advocates the female poet’s
prerequisite for not merely ‘passion’, but ‘technique’.