Elizabeth Barrett Browning: Social and Political Issues
Romantic and political influences
Letters between Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her father Edward Moulton Barrett, 1816-28
Letter from Elizabeth Barrett Browning as a teenager or young woman to her father, referring to the family’s political activity and the Whig party.View images from this item (13)
Copyright: © The Provost and Fellows of Eton College
Key political and social themesThis commitment to writing about social and political concerns developed early in Barrett Browning’s career. Her first published poems, which appeared in journals in 1821-24, were written about the ongoing Greek War of Independence (1821-32) and particularly celebrated Byron’s part in the campaign – a very bold start for a young poet. Her long poem published in 1826, An Essay on Mind, also emphasised in part the idea of the poet being able to bring about political change, whilst her volumes of the 1830s – Prometheus Bound, and Miscellaneous Poems (1833) and The Seraphim, and Other Poems (1838) – saw her starting to explore other socio-political issues, including the nature of tyranny and freedom, contemporary theological debates, and problems to do with power in sexual relationships, marriage, and the family. It was with her next volume, however, Poems published in 1844, that Barrett Browning really proved her position as a formidable commentator on socio-political issues.
‘The Cry of the Children’One of the most famous poems of this collection, both in Barrett Browning’s own day and afterwards, is ‘The Cry of the Children’. This poem is a strong attack on industrialisation and was written at a time of increasing concern about the conditions faced by workers in factories and mines – the long hours, the gruelling nature of the work, the lack of basic safety, the poor food, and the expanding slum areas in which the workers lived. Barrett Browning had read about these conditions in a parliamentary report entitled Report of the Royal Commission on the Employment of Children and Very Young People in Mines and Factories, written in part by her friend Richard Hengist Horne. She was so shocked at what she read that she consequently sought to tackle the issues in her own writing and ‘The Cry of the Children’ was the result.
Report on child labour, 1842
Distressing illustrations of children’s working conditions from a revised edition of the Report of the Royal Commission on the Employment of Children and Very Young People in Mines and Factories, 1842.View images from this item (12)
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 drops adown the wall,Turn the black flies that crawl along the ceiling,All are turning, all the day, and we with all. (ll. 77-84)
Here Barrett Browning effectively emphasises how the industrial system reduces children to elements in a machine. Yet her condemnation extends much further in the rest of the poem to include Britain more generally – the final stanza is particularly damning of the country turning a blind eye to what is happening – and even, shockingly, to God himself, who she imagines sitting in Heaven, unconcerned and ‘speechless as stone’ (l. 126). Barrett Browning was never afraid to draw attention to what she saw as the problems of state politics or the manipulation of religion to ‘justify’ intolerance or oppression.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning's 'The Cry of the Children' as first published in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine
The Cry of the Children’ by Elizabeth Barrett Browning as it was first published in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, 1843.View images from this item (3)
‘The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point’In 1850, Elizabeth Barrett Browning published a new edition of Poems, which included some additional poems she had written. One of these is her startling attack on American slavery, ‘The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point’, which she placed next to ‘The Cry of the Children’. This poem is a dramatic monologue spoken by a black female slave, who is torn away from her lover and raped by a group of white slave owners. She subsequently gives birth to a male child but then murders him because he is ‘far too white…too white for me’. The poem therefore emphasises both the brutality of the slave system and the brutality of the sexual exploitation of women, and suggests that these push the woman too into violence. Moreover, as with ‘The Cry of the Children’, Barrett Browning explicitly condemns both established religion and the nation itself for their seeming collusion in – even promotion of – such a system.
Manuscript draft of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's 'The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point'
Manuscript draft of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's 'The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point', 1846.View images from this item (4)
Copyright: © The Provost and Fellows of Eton College
American abolitionist literature magazine
Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote ‘The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point’ for American abolitionist magazine The Liberty Bell.View images from this item (9)
The marginalised and oppressedBarrett Browning continued to write forthrightly about social and political issues until the end of her career. After her marriage, when living in Florence, she took up the cause of Italy’s struggle for unification (the Risorgimento) in Casa Guidi Windows (1851) and Poems Before Congress (1860). In the major poem of her career, Aurora Leigh (1856), she offered a powerful defence of the right of women to have proper education, meaningful work, and physical and psychological freedom (see the article on Elizabeth Barrett Browning and the Woman Question for more on this). And in other shorter poems she tackled more specific issues, as in ‘A Song for the Ragged Schools of London’ (1854) which she wrote to help raise funds for a school for the poor which her sister Arabella supported. These might, at first glance, seem disparate and unconnected subjects, but they are all part of that key concern with speaking up for the marginalised and oppressed that Barrett Browning repeatedly returned to across the course of her career and which made her one of the period’s most interesting and challenging poets.
'A Plea for the Ragged Schools of London' by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Extract from ‘A Song for the Ragged Schools of London’ written and published by Elizabeth Barrett Browning to raise funds for the cause, 1854.View images from this item (6)
 Elizabeth Barrett Browning: Selected Poems, ed. by Marjorie Stone and Beverly Taylor (Ontario: Broadview Press, 2009), p.49.
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